In 2006, an advertising executive named Greg May sat down, like a few dreamers before him, to write a new happy birthday song. Warner Bros. holds a fishy copyright to the standard "Happy Birthday To You," a fact that has prompted contenders from Stephen Colbert to NOFX to propose less legally consequential alternatives.
But May wasn't joking, like Colbert, or in a seminal pop-punk band, like NOFX. He was serious. "I wanted to be disruptive," May told BuzzFeed News, "to compete with the original one." May went big. His song features twice as many Happy Birthdays as "Happy Birthday To You." It also includes two Feliz Cumpleaños-s, and, as a tribute to May's dog Cinnamon, barked felicitations from a dog.
These are the lyrics to the song May wrote, titled "Happy Birthday":
♫♫ Happy Birthday, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Happy Happy Birthday ♫♫
♫♫ Happy Birthday, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Happy Birthday. ♫♫
♫♫ Happy B-day, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Happy Happy B-day ♫♫
♫♫ Happy B-day, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Oh yeah. ♫♫
♫♫ Feliz cumpleaños, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ My dog says woof woof to you [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ My dog says arooooou! ♫♫
♫♫ MARIA, Birthday, Birthday [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Happy B-Day, Happy B-Day, [NAME] ♫♫
♫♫ Feliz cumpleaños, [NAME] yeah ♫♫
Nine years later, May presides over a veritable internet happy birthday empire: a YouTube channel featuring thousands of videos, 27,000 subscribers, and 5.2 million combined views; a comprehensive website, 1HappyBirthday.com, that has been search engine optimized within an inch of its life and receives 35 million visitors a month (and a sister site in Spanish); and Facebook pages in English and Spanish with over 100,000 combined likes.
If you have a usual name, or an unusual name, it's likely that within two clicks you can find a minute-long version of May's song individually recorded with your name, belted with consummate enthusiasm by a professional. (Indeed, a simple Google search of "[Name] + Happy Birthday" usually yields a 1HappyBirthday link as its first result.) If your name was Zoheb, for example, your video would look and sound like this:
The numbers are staggering: 22,000 names, each one individually recorded in the minute-long song. That's 330 hours of individually recorded happy birthday songs, or over two weeks of celebrating good times. On the 1HappyBirthday YouTube channel, each song is available with several different backgrounds; May started out rendering 20 backgrounds for each song, but has now dropped down to three to five because it was simply too time-consuming. Conservatively, that's at least 70 hours, or more than three entire months of happy birthdays.
When May first wrote the song he decided to have it recorded professionally, because, as he put it, "I'm a horrible singer." He commissioned original electronic music and sound effects, and had 400 common names recorded by a voice studio in Los Angeles. At the time, he had in mind "a business opportunity with the possibility of a Pepsi or a Coke as a global sponsor." When that sponsor wasn't immediately forthcoming, May simply kept sending new batches of names to the studio, and the scope of his project ballooned.
So did the costs. Though May wouldn't disclose exactly how much he's spent on his project, basic math shows it's a considerable amount. Each song is $6 to record. That means May has spent, at the very least, $132,000 of his own money on recording. He also spent $15,000 for a year's subscription to XMPie, variable data scripting software that works with After Effects to create alternate backgrounds for each video before publishing them to YouTube. That puts the total at $150,000, without factoring in server costs and the staggering amount of time it's taken to upload the thousands of videos to YouTube.
That number also doesn't take into account Skype bills. May now learns of many of his new names through user requests — he got 2,200 last year — and he frequently doesn't know how to pronounce them (May sends phonetic specifications to the recording studio). A typical morning might include calls to India, Mexico, and Pakistan.
"I'm wondering when the NSA is going to knock on the door," May joked.
Though the site doesn't break even (May makes some money off of ads and a donation box on the site), May, who worked as a banker on Wall Street before a 20-year career in advertising, is serene about the money he's spent. "Life has been good to me," he told BuzzFeed News. Indeed, May said that his primary motivation is no longer financial.
"I saw the song as a way to reach into the life of everyone on Earth. That is a strange and powerful feeling... Now I receive notes and messages thanking me from all corners of the world and it makes me want to extend the reach of the song to even more people."
May has no idea how long it will take him before he's satisfied that he has uploaded enough names. "Every time I think I'm about to finish I discover something new or new people ask." He added 5,000 new names in the last year alone.
So the question remains: What kind of guy spends nearly a decade funding the world's most comprehensive database of individually recorded alternative Happy Birthday songs? Well, for one, May is married. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Eva, who "is supportive but views it as a hobby that keeps me busy so she can do what she wants."
And, surprisingly, he's not particularly into his own birthday, just seeing other people celebrating them. Still, when the cake comes out on May's special day, he does have one stipulation:
"We sing my version."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at email@example.com.
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