YouTube Plays Out of Key

Originally published on Marx Rand on June 11, 2015.

Since being embarrassed after some of the more litigious contracts it makes with independent artists using its platform were made public recently, YouTube is in damage-control mode. The media platform provider has  understandably taken a lot of heat as a result. Right now especially the video streaming service, which was purchased by Google nearly a decade ago for $1.65 billion, is in the process of trying to make nice with the artist community as it braces itself for the onslaught of Apple’s new music service release, Apple Music.

YouTube Has Music, But Isn’t About Music

It’s easy to see why YouTube is concerned about Apple Music. After all, the very same (music) community that in significant measure helped YouTube top $1 billion in revenue last year is just as likely, if not more so, to gravitate towards Apple’s serving of the pie as it is to hang out lapping up mainstream internet TV dinners.

For artists– and especially independent artists – YouTube could be quite a useful tool. At least, what the service is capable of offering should be something that sets YouTube apart from its competitors in the music arena, certainly.

But YouTube is still going to struggle to win in the artist arena for one reason: while YouTube has music, it isn’t about music. For YouTube, despite its cool analytics and humongous user base, is still not a music-centered service. This matters because, at the end of the day, artists are a focus, but not the focus.

With the online music landscape heating up, the services that are able to pay more attention to artists as a principle priority will be able to carve out a significant niche for themselves. In the face of such competition, no one else stands a chance. It’s that simple.

The Percentage Points

A big part of YouTube’s problem when it comes to appealing to independent artists is that it’s a victim of its own success. At the end of the day, YouTube has an overwhelming user-base of consumers (and not just of music, but of all sorts of media) that it needs to keep on satisfying – at last count, there were 23 million subscribers to all the various channels on the service. And that’s only the regular users.

Naturally, it makes sense for YouTube to see that its existing customers are well-catered for, but the reality is that such an approach falls far short of what’s acceptable when it comes to satisfying independent music makers and promoters. They can increasingly afford to be much more selective about what they desire and require from the digital distribution channels that they work with.

To compound YouTube’s difficulties with attracting the independents, YouTube still has in place the same tenuous clauses in the contract that upset the artists just recently. The fact that there are a large portion of artists who are currently unaware of this fact only makes the problem worse over the long run too, for the risk that another public embarrassment for YouTube looms large over the shiny brand image that parent Google has cultivated over the years.

There’s a more fundamental problem than any of this, however, and that’s the following: unlike the teenage makeup artists and tween clothing models that have made gazillions from leading their fans to new cosmetics brands eager to pay top dollar for all the eyeballs, the realistic revenue generated from YouTube for music artists is pretty much zilch when you do the math.

Information Is Beautiful, an analytics service based in the United Kingdom, recently published a breakdown of online revenues obtained by artists across a series of music platforms, namely Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, and—you guessed it—YouTube. The analytics provider concluded that the percentage of independents able to eek out a minimum wage living on YouTube revenue streams was just 0.07%. Here are the screenshots of the YouTube portion:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Here are the pathetic revenue stream earnings for the signed major label artists:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

And now, the revenue stream earnings for the independent artists:

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

Image courtesy of InformationIsBeautiful.com; with edits

That’s amazing – it’s a seventh of a basis point! In other words, it’s even lower than the cheapest commission charged on an online stock trading platform.

And remember, this is not 0.07% of all one billion dollars of YouTube users, or even 0.07% of all 20-something million YouTube subscribers we are talking about here; it is 0.07% of just all the unsigned artists who receive revenue from YouTube streams! It’s likely you can count that number on the fingers of your left hand while clicking over to the next song with your right.

The Discovery Dynamic

The overriding concern here is that the audience consuming the music of these independent artists is incredibly small. But before you leap to your feet and splutter out the old argument that this is because the music created by independents artists simply “isn’t good enough” or “needs to be curated,” step back and think about the fact that these independents are trying to compete on a platform which is essentially not constructed for them.

Though the dynamic of discovery is big on YouTube, it’s not specified to discovery of new independent artists at all (though it’s great for makeup and clothing brands, which adopts an entirely different sort of discovery process through media). As a result, artists end up competing with an amalgamation of other media – most of which is not music-related – and the poor comparative result they are left with ultimately diminishes any chance that there might have been left over of being properly appreciated or even recognized.

All of this adds up to one very simple reality: inasmuch as YouTube is trying to repair its relationships with artists (and independents among them), it is, at the end of the day, very far from being the be-all, end-all for independent artists that the platform is for other genres of media and entertainment. The fact that less than a tenth of a basis point of artists can eek out a minimum wage using the damn thing – while many other professionals in different walks of life make a lot more than that from five minutes of video stream – attests to this fact.

Thus, for all the potential scale and analytical sophistication that YouTube’s platform offers artists, it is still an ecosystem that is fundamentally unsuitable for them and for displaying what they create. And many of them know it now, too.

Independent Music Is Still  Wild West

The independent music market is very much a wild west, and the introduction of a new tool or a new feature isn’t going to win anyone over. To do that, you need to win the trust and confidence of the independent artists, the way Etsy did with hand-crafters, or even the way that Amazon has managed to do with its dominant share of literary readers and authors alike.

This process is not one in which you can achieve ubiquity by striking a deal with a major corporation which fundamentally only offers enhanced distribution such as a major record label. It’s one in which you need to go straight to the product source – in this case, the artists and their fans – and persuade each of them that what you are providing is somewhere they can interact on a creative level and where the music uncompromisingly always comes first. It should not and cannot be a place where their product looks and feels like an afterthought in the ravenous race to profitability.

The upshot – and the sad irony – of all this is that it’s yet another example of a situation in which one of the very same companies that is so adept at spinning creative mainstream entertainment out into the marketplace proves hopeless in creating a fresh and appealing approach to the rising independent music scene.

As Queen so eloquently put it, “another one gone, and another one gone … and another one bites the dust.”

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