Thursday, June 19, 2014

special comment: the youtube indie music streaming controversy

We should have seen this coming.

I mean, as soon as Billboard started factoring in YouTube streams into their charts, we should have known that at some point, an executive at Google was going to look up from the cocaine bucket and realize that all that music streaming going on at YouTube could be monetized even further to bring in even more revenue. They likely saw the success of Rdio, Spotify, and other streaming sites and figured, 'Well, we're the biggest aggregation platform for music across the board, so why don't we offer a streaming or downloading option directly? And hell, why don't we make it subscription-based, a monthly fee to watch videos ad-free? And why don't we sweeten the pot even further and offer a download link as well, let the listener pull the music right out?'

In theory, this is a solid idea - until you start looking at the details and the fine print. Until you start considering the implementation of such an idea. As such, I have a series of questions I'd like to ask Google and YouTube, questions that really need answers before you shove this system out and you get the massive public outcry in the vein of what happened with Content ID. That explosion of righteous fury was mostly limited to the video game industry and the YouTubers that consume that media - you're now tackling a much bigger monster, and from the media's current coverage of this debacle, you should be in damage control if you aren't already. 

So keeping in mind that I'm intrigued by this streaming option and even think it could work, I do have a few concerned questions:

1. Regarding the downloads, I'm assuming it's just an audio version of the video, correct? That would be the simplest to implement, given that you've done your absolute best to drive anyone downloading YouTube videos with third party plugins out of business. But if it's just an audio copy of the video, what about sound effects or dialogue that might show up in the music video? Take any number of songs that include spoken preludes or sound effects that might cover up the music - do you get a pure copy of the audio music file or just a copy from the video?

And on that note, how are you defining music eligible for this streaming service? Are we talking about spoken word digressions that might be tagged under music? Are we talking about music critics like myself who talk over music and tag their videos under the 'music' category? What about the arsenal of covers that are protected under agreements like the one I have with my network - are those videos simply barred from the streaming service? And what about unsigned artists who don't have a label to speak for them - are they barred from the streaming service because they might want to remain unsigned? 

Let's use three examples here, and let's go for some really big ones everyone knows. Let's start with Lil B, who releases the majority of his material independently. So do a lot of rappers, and many of them are unsigned or on very small labels - why would you bar them from a streaming service that might allow them to blow up, get big, and make you disturbing amounts of money? Or take Lindsey Stirling, one of the best examples of a YouTube success story and beloved by millions - so why would you bar her from the streaming service if she doesn't want to sign to a label? Or let's get even bigger - let's talk about Macklemore, an independent rapper on his own label who fought hard for his independence and notched three of the highest charting singles of last year - are you going to bar him from your streaming service on that next album?

And this takes us to 2. Why the hell would these artists want to sign up for this streaming service - indeed, are being forced to sign up, but we'll get to that - if the terms aren't fair? Because multiple sources have confirmed you're not giving independent labels the same terms you gave major labels like Universal or Columbia? And with a little thought, I understand why: you don't want to be offering lucrative contracts with your prized new streaming service to every douche with an acoustic guitar and them promise him equal presence on your streaming platform? And I mean, seriously, it's not like those indie labels are generating that much traffic for you, right?

Now we could argue about those figures forever, but let's focus on something more important: your brand. Both Google and YouTube have built their search engines and company philosophies upon being a level playing field, or at least as much as one as you can manage. YouTube is a field where anyone can get big - so when you offer contracts of weighted value to major and indie labels, that brand falls away. By the design of your payouts, you're creating tiers and independent artists and labels are getting shafted, to say nothing of the whole slew of unsigned creators you're neglecting through this barrier to entry. Yes, the market is oversaturated with mediocrity, but by placing emphasis on major labels, you're encouraging a different type of mediocrity: the sort of focus-tested, corporate-designed music that neglects artistry and experimentation. But that's music quality, it's subjective, and it's secondary to this discussion: the more important element is the tiered system, where an act must be affiliated with a major label to get paid the most. And you know, I seem to recall your objections to another tiered system that worked against a level playing field with regards to net neutrality - so don't you think it rings as more than a little hypocritical to promote a similar system in broad principle?

But then you made a mistake: a really, really big mistake, which takes us to our third question: why the hell did you threaten indie labels that you'd pull all their content, even on free, ad-supported YouTube, if they didn't sign your contract? Putting aside how this flies in the face of your own company philosophy and morality, you had to know this was going to get out, right? You had to know that there was going to be a firestorm of rage against this from indie labels, the music press, and business interests alike, because this looks like a shakedown, and not a well-executed one either. And the fact you stressed this was going to be a quick transition looks even worse, because it has the unspoken implication that someone is breathing down your neck - likely those major labels who cut great deals for their artists to get more exposure and who wouldn't give a damn if everyone else suffered. And with this threat, you not only give the major labels a superior deal, you also have the unspoken threat to strip away their competition if the indie labels revolt - which they have.  And this isn't even touching on the unsigned artists who don't have a label to negotiate for them and who might concerned about the sanctity of their content. And while they might not pull in huge traffic, acts like Macklemore and Lindsey Stirling and Lil B and the thousands of others pull in traffic and revenue, and they reflect a revenue model that's much more supportable and realistic than the one you're trying to shove down everyone's throats?

So at this point, you're in damage control - if you're not, you plainly should be - because this bad press looks horrible. You tried to placate people by saying that some of the indie content will be on VEVO, but with the attempted speed of this transition, the shakedown tactics, and the fact you're stubbornly refusing to release more information, your brand has taken a body blow. And putting aside that this taints your streaming service from the get-go, it also shakes the already shaky confidence content creators have in your platform, because you should know better than anyone that it doesn't take much for people to jump a sinking ship, especially in the age of the internet. In the end, the consumers don't win, the artists certainly don't win, you don't win in the long-term - the only people who win here are major record labels, who couldn't give a rat's ass about you outside of a lapdog. So is there a way out?

Thankfully, I think there is an answer, and even one that might salvage your streaming service idea - which, let me stress, I think is a pretty cool idea - and your brand. And that involves sticking up for the little guy, which you've always sought to do. First, you need a way out of those contracts you already signed - it's Google, you've got better lawyers than I'll ever have, and you probably wrote yourself an exit clause, even if it'll be messy. If it involves canning the established streaming service in favour of a new one down the road with a different name or set of conditions, it'll be a worthwhile loss in the end. Next, redraft your contract for the streaming service, and set a flat payout across the board for every musician looking to get on board with the streaming service, based on streams - payable to the musician, not the labels, because you can bet the artists are getting an extremely small percentage of this old deal. Pretty simple and fair, and one that will earn you boatloads of good press for keeping a level field. 

Now you will piss off major labels with this contract dodge - but that's why you don't deal with them and you set the terms. YouTube, Google, the record labels need you a hell of a lot more than you need them. The times have changed, the major hit music of the past few years have been defined and shaped by the internet, not by mainstream record executives, and with your power and ubiquity, you can dictate the terms of these conversations. You don't need to roll over and die whenever a major label walks into the office convinced that it's still the mid-90s and they deserve golden handkerchiefs and toilet paper. They're the dying institution, not you, and hopping on their ship is a quick way to irrelevance.

So Google, YouTube, whose side are you on?

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