YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some). YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination. But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.
Google is a rights frenemy. Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy. Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown. In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.
Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’. A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure). Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit. In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process. If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.
Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1). The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year. In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums. I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.
There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube. And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off. The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.
Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this. Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of. It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed. Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.
But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music. Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!