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'Baby Shark' devoured your brain. Can it get to your wallet?

The viral earworm, with just 18 words of lyrics, is looking to exploit its hit status and build a business around it, with the goal of transforming its smiling ocean predator into a children's brand on the scale of Elmo

By Ben Sisario
Published: Nov 23, 2019

'Baby Shark' devoured your brain. Can it get to your wallet?A rehearsal of “Baby Shark Live!,” at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, S.C., on Sept. 24, 2019. The new concert tour is an attempt to wring real money out of a video with 3.9 billion streams.
Image: Travis Dove/The New York Times

By the time the confetti cannons burst, the toddlers were shouting in ecstasy, their eyes fixed on the superstars onstage. Ten costumed performers were delivering the climax of “Baby Shark Live!” — a 75-minute adaptation of a 2-minute music video, and an edge case in translating viral popularity into an enduringly profitable real-world franchise.

The global premiere took place on a Thursday night in October at South Carolina’s Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, and the crowd was split between very young children and their adult caregivers. Siauna Yeargin of nearby Greenville was there with her daughter, Mireya. “When I wash her hair, she wants me to sing ‘Baby Shark,’” Yeargin said. “I had her first birthday party — ‘Baby Shark.’ Second birthday party — ‘Baby Shark.’”

Four years after the song’s release, by a South Korean media company called SmartStudy, the “Baby Shark” conquest of the planet may well have seemed complete. With just 18 words of lyrics, the song — a zippy story of a shark family out on a hunt — has been streamed on YouTube 3.9 billion times. During the World Series, entire baseball stadiums acted out the video’s shark-bite hand jive. In Dubai, water fountains dance to its beat. Its title alone has become shorthand for an earworm propelled through social media to become 21st-century digital folk culture.

Yet SmartStudy seemed unprepared at first to exploit its hit meme — and is still trying to build a business around it, with the goal of transforming its smiling ocean predator into a children’s brand on the scale of Elmo. To get Baby Shark into every shopping aisle it can, the company has struck licensing deals with Kellogg’s (for limited-edition boxes of “Berry-Fin-Tastic” cereal) and the makers of bedsheets, bath toys, coloring books, clothing, finger puppets and Halloween costumes. A Nickelodeon TV show and a feature film are also in the works.

The newest test of the property’s commercial viability is “Baby Shark Live!” If ticket sales hold strong, it will stay on the road for at least three years. Featuring about 20 songs, three of which are versions of “Baby Shark,” the show has a lot riding on it.

SmartStudy’s push into ancillary businesses may be its only way to wring big profits from its hit, given the minimal standard royalty rates paid by YouTube. And the deeper cultural origins of the song — a popular camp singalong for decades, the material is widely considered to be in the public domain — means the company lacks an airtight hold on the intellectual property behind it.

Then there is the question that must be asked of all viral memes. Will anybody still remember “Baby Shark” — and care enough to buy a $50 concert ticket — once the next online distraction comes along?

VIP upsells and flashy stagecraft

To put “Baby Shark” onstage, SmartStudy looked to Mick Jagger.

Five months ago, as the Korean studio sought a U.S. partner to put on a traveling show, it struck a deal with Stephen Shaw and Jonathan Linden, two concert-industry veterans who learned the business working with rock giants like the Rolling Stones and Genesis. During their negotiations, Shaw recalled, one concern was paramount for SmartStudy: “They wanted a tour out as soon as possible.”

Shaw and Linden’s three-year-old company, Round Room, specializes in producing children’s entertainment, a corner of the touring business long dominated by adaptations of TV franchises. When they first dipped into the children’s sector about a decade ago, it was to fill out blank spots on their annual touring calendar. At the time, they were working for Michael Cohl, the Canadian impresario who helped usher in the era of the rock megatour with the Stones and U2.

The typical children’s show, by contrast, was a sleepier affair, with low production values and modest profit potential. “Back then, the kids-and-family business was a bit quiet,” said Linden, a lawyer who speaks with a mixture of deadpan corporate speak and showbiz pragmatism. “Some of the shows were a little long in the tooth.”

Their strategy with Round Room — whose other shows include “PJ Masks Live!,” based on a Disney Junior animated series — is to bring some of the high-tech dazzle of a stadium rock show to the preschool set. That means a faster-paced show, VIP upsells and some flashier stagecraft. For “Baby Shark Live!,” an LED backdrop displays continuously shifting scenery and animation, using visual elements borrowed from SmartStudy’s studio to recreate the underwater environment of the viral video.

To hold the attention of such young audiences, Round Room designed “Baby Shark Live!” as a simple and quick-moving spectacle — a toddler’s version of a jukebox musical.

The two-act show draws from the catalog of Pinkfong — SmartStudy’s preschool brand — including takes on nursery-school chestnuts like “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Down in the Jungle” and “Bingo.” A booming EDM remix of “Baby Shark” closes the second act.

SmartStudy approved nearly every aspect of the show in protection of its golden-goose franchise. The players behind the three main characters — Baby Shark, a fox named Pinkfong and a hedgehog named Hogi — are cloaked head to toe in fuzzy mascot costumes, and mime their lines to taped vocal performances by singers that SmartStudy deemed most suited to the brand.

The show was carefully scripted to resemble a pop concert, with the cast performing a crescendo of one athletic dance number after another. Even the stage banter was modeled after a rock concert’s, as Shaw explained before the Spartanburg show, sitting with Linden in a small backstage office dominated by the presence of a yellow Baby Shark costume lying on the floor.

“‘Do you have a best friend, kids? What’s your best friend’s name?’” Shaw said, quoting from the show. “That’s Freddie Mercury. That’s Mick Jagger. That back and forth with the audience, where you create this environment, where you are all one collective — that’s universal.”

Cohl, a former chairman of Live Nation who has also put on Broadway shows like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” described this as a fundamental lesson of show business. “What they’re doing now is the same, only different,” he said of the “Baby Shark” tour. “You have an audience, and you have to give them value and entertain them. A story’s a story’s a story.”

‘That’s the same way that it works for Beyoncé’

One aspect of the concert business that Round Room wants to replicate with children’s shows is the mechanics of tour routing — the complex choreography of sending one show after another on the road in the most efficient manner possible. Each night, the LED screen for “Baby Shark Live!” is dismantled and, along with the show’s lighting rigs, props and costumes, trucked out overnight.

“That’s the same way that it works for Beyoncé or U2,” Linden said. “You take apart the wall and move it to the next show.”

The company’s touring calendar is also planned with precision to allow a single crew of about 12 people go from show to show, for months on end. Recently, as “Baby Shark Live!” ended its fall run, the crew made its way back to Spartanburg to launch the winter leg of “PJ Masks Live!” just six days later. After that, in February, comes the next Round Room show, “Blippi Live!” — based on a goofy YouTube character with a series of popular educational videos — followed by the return of “Baby Shark Live!,” which is booked for nearly 100 shows in the spring.

Trimming those costs can help Round Room compete in what has become a crowded market of brand-driven children’s shows. Over the next few months, that will include tours based on long-running TV and toy properties like “Paw Patrol,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Trolls.”

Shows like these have started to draw more investment. Last year, Cirque du Soleil’s parent company acquired VStar Entertainment, which produces the “Paw Patrol” and “Trolls” tours. And in August, Hasbro, the toy giant, agreed to pay $4 billion for Entertainment One, a film, TV and music conglomerate that has “Peppa Pig” and “PJ Masks” and owns a majority stake in Round Room.

Ryan Borba, the managing editor of Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the touring industry, said the competition had led to higher production standards. “You can’t just put on a Ninja Turtle mask anymore and hope to sell tickets,” he said.

Yet while prices for pop concerts have continued to skyrocket, the economics of most children’s shows are more earthbound. “PJ Masks Live!” has played about 300 shows in the last two years, selling $22 million in tickets, Round Room said. That is about the same ticket gross as Lana Del Rey had in just 32 shows for her headlining tour last year, according to Pollstar.

In other words, it takes many more performances, over a much longer period — and at a lower ticket price — for a children’s show to collect as much money as even a moderately successful pop tour. Del Rey’s tour, with an average ticket price of about $74, was only the 82nd highest grossing in North America last year.

Keeping a show on the road for two years is expensive, but smart touring can significantly reduce expenses. To maximize ticket sales, Shaw said, they are considering adding a second cast and crew for “Baby Shark Live!,” which would allow multiple versions of the show to crisscross the world at once — the kind of bonus more commonly associated with the touring productions of Broadway shows.

“The beautiful thing about kids’ theatrical,” Shaw said, “is that you can have multiple units touring at the same time.”

There’s only one Mick Jagger, but it doesn’t much matter which human is occupying Baby Shark’s costume each night. There is no star threatening to take time off to make a record, or be in a movie, or go on vacation.

“Baby Shark is not writing a book next semester,” Linden said.

“He’s not having heart surgery,” Shaw added.

Why, precisely, is the song so addictive?

SmartStudy, which opened its doors in 2010, is in many ways a characteristic company of the social-media age, trying to build up its Pinkfong brand through apps and YouTube videos.

Its rise has coincided with the explosion of K-pop — the most prolific and tightly controlled corner of the global music industry. Less a genre than a production ecosystem, K-pop is a world dominated by producers and talent managers, where songs are carefully engineered for maximum catchiness and virality.

With a zapping electronic beat and a kinetic energy that builds to a climax, “Baby Shark” resembles a K-pop dance hit far more than the mellow, static numbers that make up most children’s fare.

As each line of the song introduces the members of a shark nuclear family — Baby, Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa — the beat grows bigger and the track adds more layers of instrumentation. Then producers add some tension by speeding it up and raising its key by one semitone, before the whole thing abruptly stops — at just the point where we want to hear it again. If “Baby Shark” were a little longer, it might not be so addictive.

Heesun Byeon, SmartStudy’s content director, said in an email that the company avoided “typical nursery rhyme style” and, since the barriers of genre matter little to small children, that its producers borrowed sounds from hip-hop, EDM and disco. Harking to the golden age of American bubble-gum, they also craft their hooks from lots of doo-doos, yoi-yois and boom bodi boom-booms.

“We try to design sounds that can instantly capture the attention of our audience,” Byeon said.

The company uploaded “Baby Shark” to its Pinkfong channel on YouTube in 2015, then replaced it the next year with the current video, which features two children acting out dance moves. After first going viral in Asia, the video caught on in the English-speaking world in 2018, helped by attention from celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and James Corden. It was only that fall that “Baby Shark” truly opened for business on a global scale, as SmartStudy began signing its raft of consumer product licenses in the United States and Britain.

Marina Lee is the head of consumer products for Pinkfong USA, a SmartStudy subsidiary, and through the rollout of “Baby Shark Live!” has acted as a gimlet-eyed brand monitor. “If you look at typical kids’ properties, they start maybe as TV shows, then they have toys, then maybe live shows. Music comes in later,” she said. “But we were very different from that. We started from music and digital content, and built a program around it. In that aspect, Baby Shark has been a bit of a pop star, not just an animated character.”

“Baby Shark” has seemingly reached the summit of virality. Its main clip is now the fifth-most popular video in YouTube’s history. Counting the dozens of other “Baby Shark”-adjacent songs on the Pinkfong channel — “Ghost Baby Shark,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Shark,” “Sharky Pokey,” etc. — and versions in other languages, the full franchise has neared 8 billion streams.

But the value of those videos is limited. SmartStudy stands to collect only about $8 million so far from its various “Baby Shark” titles, according to Jordan Bromley, a music industry lawyer who has published estimates of streaming royalty rates. Those numbers put SmartStudy in a position familiar to many current pop stars: Its fame depends on a streaming hit, but to bring in the big money it must look elsewhere.

“What this company is doing is akin to what an artist does with a hit song,” Bromley said. “An artist will go out on tour and do a merch line, maybe a TV show, maybe an endorsement. Those are all verticals based on the success of the song.”

SmartStudy reported $35 million in revenue in 2018, a 47% jump from the year before. It does not break out the performance of its individual properties, and the company declined to answer questions about the financial success of “Baby Shark.”

Officially sanctioned Baby Shark fishing tackle

Complicating its strategy, SmartStudy does not have complete control over the exploitation of “Baby Shark.” In part that is because the market abhors a vacuum — especially if it involves cute animal T-shirts.

In Spartanburg, the majority of the assembled crowd — both children and adults — arrived in some form of “Baby Shark”-related apparel. There were T-shirts in every variation of familial nomenclature (Nana Shark, Uncle Shark, Brother Shark), and enough girls clad in pink “Baby Shark” dresses to populate an Easter parade.

As the crowd began to settle in, Shaw, who began his career manning the merch table at Rolling Stones tours in the early 2000s, ran to meet Lee. “Have you ever seen so many counterfeit T-shirts in your life?” he asked. Lee winced.

SmartStudy may have simply waited too long to catch the viral demand. One mother, Caitlin Bowlin — whose daughter, Lorelai, was wearing a “Baby Shark” dress that Bowlin said she had ordered from China — said that when she went shopping for “Baby Shark” swag, there simply was not much of it to be found.

“When ‘Baby Shark’ came out, it was so hard to find things,” Bowlin said. “You go out to Walmart and find all the other major cartoon characters — ‘Paw Patrol,’ ‘Scooby-Doo’ — and they’re everywhere. But ‘Baby Shark,’ it’s so limited.”

Another question is who truly controls the intellectual property behind “Baby Shark.” SmartStudy owns its videos and recordings, and it has applied for trademarks on branded items ranging from clothes, toys and Christmas ornaments to fishing tackle. Yet the raw material behind the hit is most likely in the public domain — which has provided an opening for competitors to sell their own products. Companies with no SmartStudy affiliation have applied for trademarks for Baby Shark snack cakes, aquarium kits, mushrooms and coffee grounds.

A parent scanning Amazon might notice little difference between the books “Baby Shark and the Balloons,” “Bedtime for Baby Shark” and “I Love You, Baby Shark.” But the first is an officially sanctioned title from HarperCollins, while the second and third are from a rival publisher, Scholastic, that has no deal with SmartStudy. Scholastic said its five unlicensed titles have sold more than 1 million copies.

‘They’re toddlers. They’ll say it loudly.’

The source of this confusion is “Baby Shark’s” origins, in a modern version of oral folk tradition. Long before “Baby Shark” was a meme, it was a zipper song — a tune, like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” that allows verses and variations to be tacked on, one after another after another.

For decades, “Baby Shark” was a favorite at summer camps across the United States and Canada. As recalled by many camp professionals, the song usually began with its now-familiar family roll call but — in possible inspiration from the 1975 film “Jaws” — inevitably turned into a jokey horror show about a shark attack, as campers added stock or improvised lines about being torn limb from limb.

The song has had occasional brushes with fame — in 2008, a techno version became a viral hit in Europe — but nothing like the success that came after SmartStudy cut its version. The company has described its song as being based on a “traditional nursery rhyme.”

That description rankles Jonathan Wright, a children’s performer near Binghamton, New York, who goes by the stage name Johnny Only. According to Wright, he came across “Baby Shark” “about a dozen years ago” at the local Jewish Community Center. Finding the original too gruesome for the toddlers he usually sang for, Wright created his own G-rated version, editing out the blood and guts and giving the song a short, streamlined narrative that focused on the shark family. His homemade video, posted to YouTube in 2011, features a brisk pop melody and beat, with doo-doos sung like Beach Boys harmonies.

Then, about two years ago, Wright said in an interview, he was alerted to the Pinkfong version. He said he was stunned at how similar it sounded to his own. “I did feel a bit violated,” Wright said. “They didn’t even change the key. The rhythm is identical, and other elements were very similar, the way they brought in the harmonies and brought in the Daddy Shark voice.”

He sued SmartStudy in South Korea, arguing that while the roots of “Baby Shark” are public domain, he holds a copyright to a distinct derivative version, which was infringed by the Pinkfong track.

Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor at Duke University who specializes in music copyright and the public domain, is skeptical that Wright has a case. The crux of his claim is that SmartStudy copied him in turning a gory and amorphous old singalong into a toddler-friendly pop song; the lyrics and melodies of Wright’s and SmartStudy’s songs are not identical. Under U.S. law, Jenkins said, the mere idea of making the adaptation is not copyrightable.

“He doesn’t own the idea of sanitizing something,” she said. “He owns the way that he sanitized it, and what he added to it, and Pinkfong did not copy any of that.”

Wright’s case has been slowly making its way through the South Korean courts. His lawyer, K.S. Chong, said they were considering bringing another suit in the United States.

Wright said that he wanted recognition for his work but now rarely performed his version of the song. The children in his audience, he said, “will now tell me that I’m doing it wrong.”

“And they’re toddlers,” he added. “They’ll say it loudly.”

The song has also begun to disappear from the repertoire of some camps, driven away by overexposure or distaste. “Camp songs are sacred and not to be sung mainstream, and that’s what makes them special,” said Alyson Bennett Gondek, the director of Camp Woodmont in Cloudland, Georgia. “Therefore we don’t sing it anymore.”

A concert built on a single song

After the concert ended in Spartanburg, stagehands set up a small backdrop on the stage for the VIP offering: For $50 per person, ticket holders lined up for a quick smartphone snapshot with the costumed Baby Shark and Pinkfong characters. The line was 120 people deep, with some little ones struggling to stay awake as the clock neared 8 p.m.

Shaw and Linden readily acknowledge that there is no guarantee for the lasting appeal of “Baby Shark.” But they compare it to the risks they faced in the rock business: With nearly every tour (minus U2 or the Stones, maybe), they were always taking a chance on a new band, a new album, a new trend in pop culture.

Linden noted that after they had signed on with SmartStudy to produce “Baby Shark Live!,” they faced some incredulity in the business at the prospect of building an entire show around a single song, and one of such minimal content. Not anymore.

“We’ve had some friends who said, ‘You’re building a show based around a song?’” Linden said. “Then later they call back, interested in tickets.”

©2019 New York Times News Service