You may have never heard the name Greg May, but he’s probably heard yours. It’s possible that May has heard more names than any other person alive at this point. That’s because nine years ago, May set out to revolutionize the birthday song industry—an industry that has been dominated by one song for the last 100 years—by writing an original piece and then recording a personalized version for as many names as he could. At this point, that includes more than 22,000 personalized birthday songs—and they were all recorded individually.
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May gets thousands of requests each year. He often speaks to the person over Skype to get the proper pronunciation, and then he sends it to a studio in West Hollywood where a professional singer comes in and records 50 to 100 versions each week. He used to constantly upload videos to his YouTube page for 1HappyBirthday—over 300,000 of them—but has slowed down after YouTube temporarily suspended his account because it thought he was a bot.
It would be hard to find someone in America by now who May hasn’t recorded a birthday song for (including Bort and the meta “Happy Birthday Happy Birthday”) but despite not making any money on this expensive project, he hasn’t slowed down. May is expanding to more parts of the globe to track down as many more names as possible.
The A.V. Club: Are you more interested in the project itself, getting as many people to have a personalized birthday song, than making money?
Greg May: Well, I’d like the site to be popular, and it may or may not be popular long-term. The only question is whether people come back a second time. A lot of people play things the first year for the novelty, but do they repeat it? Does it become something that some percentage of people view as part of their birthday tradition? I have my fingers crossed on that, but I realize there are some people that hate it the first time and they’re never gonna play it again. On the other hand, I have people that have been using it for seven or eight years.
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AVC: One of the most fascinating aspects of this project is that the singer sings each song over and over with a new name rather than use digital editing. What made you decide to not just use editing to get the names in there?
GM: I put a lot of thought into that before I did it. It turns out that if you do digital editing, you have to either modify the song so that the tune that you want every time is the same, or you have to accept that it’s going to sound a little bit awkward. In the song that I wrote, it would sound weird to use the same recording every time. You have to at least have someone sing through the names every time so you could do the digital replacement and it just didn’t sound good. So I decided, based on what I thought the cost was, and my really low estimate of how many names I would be doing, it would be better to sing it and have it sound natural and have it sound good so that people would like it. I put a lot of thought and effort in every step into trying to anticipate and deliver a quality product, at least for what it is, to people that are out there getting something free but also using it with their friends and family.
AVC: At any point has this project, and being surrounded by a single song for so long, driven you to the brink of insanity?
GM: [Laughs.] No, and I’ve heard every song as well. I put together a list of names, a list of how the names should be pronounced, and I share that with a studio in West Hollywood. The singer and the producer there work together, and she sings them in a little sound booth, and then they come back to me and I listen to them to compare them to the pronunciation that I have. The pronunciations that I have come from requests, and I call an awful lot of people and say, “How do you pronounce your name?” Because people pronounce them in so many weird ways and they spell them in weird ways now. A lot of the names are from other countries and I’m not familiar them. I want to know the right cadence or what syllable is going to be accented. But I do listen to them. No, I’d have to say that I’m just very comfortable with the song now and I know what it’s going to say.
The singer also obviously knows the song. I used one singer for the first two years, then she moved on to another project and so another singer came in. I was watching her recording one day and she takes the lyrics to the song and she puts them on the wall of the sound studio. And I was like, “That’s crazy. You’ve sung this song thousands of times, why do you need the lyrics?” She said, “Yes, but I’m concentrating on pronouncing the names. By reading the lyrics, I can do that.”
Maybe she’s the one that would be going crazy from hearing it so much. It changes every time for her because there’s a pronunciation of the name that takes priority.
AVC: How many times per week or per day does this go on?
GM: She’s singing for an hour, minimum, each week. But you know, does that drive you crazy? I don’t know. Maybe 40 hours a week would, but two to five? It’s a job. It’s better than many other ones.
AVC: “Happy Birthday To You” has a famous history of copyright claims, and that has caused many TV shows to avoid singing it, as well as movies, radio shows, or even restaurants. If someone wanted to use your birthday song and not pay you any money, would that be fine with you?
GM: Oh yeah, I would be anxious for people to do that. I know it’s been used in a few radio commercials where people have contacted me and I’ve given them permission for it. The traditional “Happy Birthday” song, people are required to pay royalties if it’s used in a commercial setting, but if it’s used by an individual, I don’t think Warner Bros. have gone after anybody for that in a long time. It’s not quite the threat to the average person or the average birthday party that everyone perceives it to be. You’re not really violating any law. But that said, I was very aware when I started this that I wanted to be disruptive. I’ve taken on the most popular song in the world—maybe now it’s some Taylor Swift song—and I’m trying to make mine equally as popular. It’s a more complicated song and it’s one that people are not usually singing themselves. But I’m hoping that a lot of people will see this as useful. Maybe they’ll consider this as one that they’ll include in their array of things they do in their birthday celebration.
AVC: The site is getting big in India, right?
GM: Well, the site is sort of divided. I’m not sure what you’ve seen, but the website [1HappyBirthday.com] is where I focused. The videos were to make [the song] available in a different way for people to listen.
If you look at the numbers on YouTube, it’s pretty steady—about 30,000 people a day—and half of those are India. There’s a Spanish and an English site, and they’re comfortably above 100,000 a day.
AVC: Any unusual names that stick out to you?
GM: I’ve had requests for fraternities, colleges, Medicare. Those are the ones I sort of consider weird, when people do that. One of the ones that’s really amazing to me, and I don’t understand it, is “Xeest.” Which is a Middle Eastern name, but somewhere the cat video on YouTube was picked up, and it has almost 100,000 views.
Most of the videos have very small numbers. I have 300,000 videos and they all have 50 views, but that’s a big number. That’s the approach I’ve taken: I want to be able to reach all the people out there that normally wouldn’t have a video for their name, and certainly wouldn’t have a personalized song. And I want to give it to them.
AVC: If you have to pay $6 for each song to be recorded, and you get super unique requests at this point, would it be fair to say that you’re almost just donating six bucks to random people in the world in the form of a birthday song?
GM: No, not really. Because I’m expanding to other languages more and more—I’ve gotten a lot of requests from South Africa, recently. And all of a sudden they’re African names. The trick is to come up with the 100 or 200 most popular names first, so you’ll cover a large percentage of the people that will want them.
AVC: Let’s talk about the making of the actual song for a minute.
The lyrics are:
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 arooooo!
[Name], Birthday, Birthday [Name] / Happy B-Day, Happy B-Day, [Name]
Feliz cumpleaños, [Name] yeah.
The traditional happy birthday song is simple, but yours seems to be more of one that you play rather than sing.
GM: Yeah, it has the singable portion of it, although most people don’t get it. If you just took something similar to the traditional Happy Birthday song and you did that first 20 seconds, it would be okay. But everyone views it in its entirety so they talk about it being complicated or hard to sing, things like that.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the song “Captain Zoom,” but that’s a birthday song that originally was done by ABC in like the ’60s, and they personalized it, and that was sort of a crazy song. I did view it as something that was repetitive, something that would translate across languages, something that was easy to do, but also something that was humorous and funny. At least to me.
AVC: How long did it take you to write the song?
GM: The idea was around for a long time to do something and personalize it. I worked in advertising, and I tried to get creatives to help me with it. Writing didn’t take long; the thought process in order to write took a long time. I spent years to do something in two minutes.
AVC: Why did you decide to put “feliz cumpleaños” in the song?
GM: My background is that I worked in Spanish-language advertising. When I originally did this, a lot of my thought was that it was going to be aimed at the U.S. Spanish market as well as the Latin American market. That’s where it really caught its first traction, was in Latin America. It caught on much bigger, much faster. People around the world sort of look to English for certain things, certain words—“thank you,” “please,” “bye bye”—and “happy birthday” is sort of there for a lot of countries. People like to incorporate Hollywood into their lifestyle, and that’s sort of what this allowed them to do. I was looking at this as a modern bilingual song that people in the U.S. would appreciate but people in Latin America would as well.
What surprised me is that I got a lot of people in other countries—routinely I got about 200 countries per day visiting and downloading songs. Whether to leave “feliz cumpleaños” in there or substitute with some sort of local comment. Do I put the Hindi version of “Happy Birthday” into names that are Hindi? There are a certain number of people in the United States that might have a foreign name, but they’re Americans and they speak English. So I was decided that was my first priority, and I decided I just wouldn’t change the name. I would leave it the same way everywhere.
AVC: And what about your decision to add the part about the dog?
GM: In certain cultures, a dog is not acceptable, considered not clean, and I’ve been asked a number of times to take that out. But I decided early on that this is my song. You wouldn’t ask any other artist to change their songs. I’m trying to build some equity behind it.
AVC: Dogs say “woof woof,” as alluded to in the song, but a dog saying “aroooooo” is an interesting choice for the follow-up.
GM: [Laughs.] The sound designer drew that in. I wanted some humor in it, when that happened it just added a little bit to the humor. It made it kind of a little bit more with the production value. Whether or not it was appreciated, is a different question, but it certainly gave it more production value.
AVC: Do you see the end of the tunnel or do you not really think about how much longer you’re going to do this for?
GM: I don’t see the end of the tunnel, but one of the things I’ve done is tried to learn the technology myself through this. Technology is evolving at a fast pace and as a non-programmer, those costs are increasing substantially. I store the songs on the cloud and that’s not only a cost, it really requires some server management that I don’t really know how to do. In order to get someone that knows how to do it, you almost need a full-time person which brings on a large expense that’s bigger than one I can handle, personally.