When you think of YouTube you think of many things – funny cats, hugely popular internet stars and music videos. That last item is the thing we’re going to be talking about today. We all watch music videos on YouTube, it’s the go-to place for that golden oldie you’ve got stuck in your brain or that brand new Psy video everyone can’t stop talking about. But here’s the thing – are you actually watching the videos?
Sometimes you are – certainly on your first few viewings of a music video you’ll check out the sick dance moves and heavy-handed Beats product placement – but after that? Well after that you stick the song on, switch to another tab and get on with your life. At that point, YouTube isn’t a video website any more – because you’re not there for video, you’re there just for audio, – and it’s at that point that the uncomfortable question arises:
Is YouTube A Streaming Service?
This is an accusation that YouTube does not like, because it potentially opens it up to a whole mess of trouble. Google very much likes to think of YouTube as a video service and nothing much more than that. Its focus is on its users and their desires – so that’s all it worries about. This can mean that the worries of musicians are almost entirely ignored, or even made worse, as time goes on. Does that mean that YouTube is sneaky and evil? No, because that’s not how the world works. It’s not a matter (as it never is) of one company being giant and evil, instead everything is a bit grey.
If YouTube Is A Streaming Service, What Does That Mean For Artists?
Artists have long complained that streaming services like Spotify are bad for the music industry as bigger artists get large chunks of their earning taken by their record labels and smaller artists make literally pennies for thousands of streams.
— Geoff Barrow (@jetfury) April 13, 2015
However, while these music-specific streaming services have always traditionally been the target of resentment from artists, very little attention has been paid to YouTube – even though YouTube is considered by some to be the worst offender of them all. Thom Yorke of the legendary band Radiohead (yes you have heard of them, don’t try it) recently compared YouTube to the Nazis themselves.
The outspoken singer said that:
“A friend of mine told me about this app to skip commercials on YouTube… They put advertising before any content, making a lot of money and yet, artists are not paid or are paid small sums, and apparently this is fine for them…”
Here Thom is speaking about the issue of adblockers, something we’ve discussed ourselves right here on Unicorns. He goes on to sum up what he sees as the central problems with music on YouTube:
“They’re making money with the work of loads of artists who don’t get any benefit from it. People continue to say that this is an era where music is free, cinema is free. It’s not true. The creators of services make money — Google, YouTube. A huge amount of money by trawling, like in the sea — they take everything there is.”
Is Thom Yorke Right?
This depends on what you view YouTube as and how artists choose to use it. For many companies, YouTube is wholly about promotion and marketing. Yes, people can technically hear your music for free on YouTube, but maybe that will encourage them to like the song and buy it on iTunes – or maybe it will make them want to buy tour tickets or official merchandise. That’s a setup worth dancing about:
However, you could argue that while that approach works for the stars that are bigger-than-bigger, it means very little to a band that is small-time and which literally needs every penny it makes in order to live. For some reason, just putting all your work out there for free just isn’t that appealing. This is especially true when you consider that recording a song, let alone a song and a professional video, can be extremely expensive.
But you also can’t just not put your music on YouTube, because then you lose out on one of the very few avenues of free promotion open to an up-and-coming band. As one industry expert put it: “if you don’t utilise YouTube, you’re not putting your content in the biggest place for people discovering and consuming music. You’re losing the ability to increase your audience size.”
What Will Happen?
It is almost inevitable that YouTube will eventually amend the way it operates in order to take into account it’s hugely influential role in the music world. We can see that this has already begun to happen with the introduction of YouTube Music – however that feature has thus far been described as “breathtakingly pointless” so there’s still a long way to go before everyone is happy. Ultimately it may be said that it’s undeniable that YouTube is profiting from artists, while at the same time literally giving their content away free. The fact that the artist opts-in to this is irrelevant as, as we have discussed, not being on YouTube isn’t really an option in this day and age. But, as always, the issue is far from black and white. There are many artists (especially YouTubers) who have gained a great deal of success thanks to having their work freely available on YouTube – and of course, there’s always (at least some) ad money to be gained. So what do you think? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter – and in the comments below.