Sweet Child O’ Mine’s Billion Views is a Lesson in YouTube’s Globalization
Guns N Roses are YouTube gold — and popular in emerging markets
What were you doing on Christmas Eve 2009? It’s likely you were spending time with your family, or preparing a turkey for the big day. You may have been excitedly waiting for Santa to arrive down the chimney.
One employee of VEVO, a joint venture between music labels founded in 2008 to take advantage of a growing video sharing platform called YouTube, was doing something different. They were pressing upload on this video, which this week has just crossed one billion lifetime views:
Bassist Duff McKagan has previously said the song — Sweet Child O’ Mine — was not well-loved by the band. Composed in a matter of minutes, Guns N Roses didn’t have high hopes for its success. “It was kinda like a joke because we thought, ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothing, it’ll be filler on the record’,” he said.
Of course, they were wrong: it was Guns N Roses’s only Billboard number one, and has — in a little less than a decade — managed to top a billion views.
It’s the first video from the 1980s to reach a billion views — giving the band a second accolade, after November Rain became the first from the 1990s to reach the mark in July 2018.
In the big picture, a billion views isn’t that impressive. Hundreds of videos have passed the billion-view mark, many of them music videos — largely the result of people using the platform as a DJ for background music at parties. (At the last count, YouTube streaming of Sweet Child O’ Mine outstripped Spotify streaming by a factor of three to one.)
The trajectory of music videos on YouTube is such that rather than the 3,582 days it took Sweet Child O’ Mine to hit a billion views, the fastest-viewed video to hit a billion views was Adele’s Hello, which took 87 days. But Sweet Child O’ Mine was released in 1988, before many of its viewers were born. It can’t take advantage of the momentum of being a new release, catapulting it to the top of view charts. It’s a workhorse, quietly building up momentum on its path to a billion views.
For a sense of how big the video is, Me at the zoo, the video of YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim investigating the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo, has a paltry 77 million views at the time of writing. Sweet Child O’ Mine is bigger than the thing that set up YouTube itself.
Sweet Child O’ Mine has come to define Guns N Roses’s music career, and on YouTube it’s no different. According to data gathered for this story from Paladin, a metrics platform that tracks YouTube channels’ growth, Sweet Child O’ Mine accounts for around a quarter of all the 4.5 billion views of Guns N Roses YouTube channel, which hosts 45 videos.
The majority of the video’s views in the early days were likely from a domestic United States audience — according to Paladin, the top source of viewers for the Guns N Roses YouTube channel is the U.S., and its average viewer is a 25-to-34-year-old man. But scroll through the comments celebrating the video achieving the landmark, and you’ll see a common language: Brazilian Portuguese.
Quite why Guns N Roses are so popular in Brazil is a difficult one to discern. But while the casual English language listener will still load up YouTube to hear the guitar licks of the song regularly, it seems that much of the heavy lifting to get Sweet Child O’ Mine to a billion views is coming from elsewhere.
The Guns N Roses YouTube ecosystem skews heavily towards South America. Some of the channels that turn up when you search for the band’s name are a litany of Brazilian cover bands or fan-run accounts.
And it’s no coincidence that these countries are home to some of the most popular YouTubers in the world — including one we profiled earlier this week.
The story of Guns N Roses’s billion view race is the story of a perennially popular rock song, yes. But it’s also the story of YouTube more generally, and the diversification of its audience.
Fourteen years on from the site’s launch, it has reached a point of semi-saturation in its English-language home. But in emerging economies — the BRICS countries (China excepted) — YouTube still has space to grow. India is a massive area of growth; Russia has massive creators doing amazing things on the platform. And Brazil just played its part in making Axl Rose one of YouTube’s biggest names.