YouTube’s Biggest Threat To The Music Industry Isn’t What You Probably Think It Is

YouTube’s disruptive commercial impact on the music industry is well documented but the real threat to music is far more fundamental and can’t be ‘fixed,’ not even by the world’s best lawyers. This is because the most important impact YouTube is having on music is not commercial, it is cultural.  While the music industry is grappling with how to deal with the premium revenue that YouTube appears to be sucking away, a whole generation of (largely non-music) creators native to YouTube have quickly learned how to build highly profitable careers and businesses solely on YouTube.  And in doing so they have created an entirely new youth culture.  A culture for the sub-millennials, the early teens and pre-teens that are still lazily referred to broadly as Millennials or Digital Natives, but are in fact an entirely new and distinct from those consumers.  It is a generation that creative types such as Frukt and the Sound are calling Generation Edge.  The emerging behaviours of these consumers are dramatically different from their older Millennial peers and are the catalyst of an entirely new era of youth culture.  Crucially a culture in which music looks set to play much less central role than it has ever done so before for youth.

In Search Of A New Subculture

At the Future Music Forum, Frukt’s Jack Horner observed that most music genres, and indeed media as a whole, are becoming age agnostic, which means that it is really hard for Generation Edge to find music that they can own, that their mum and dad aren’t going to sing along to too. This is the price to be paid for media and brands having successfully convinced aging 30 and 40 somethings that they are still young at heart and in the pocket.  So with no music subculture to cling to Generation Edge has instead gravitated to YouTube stars.

For those not familiar with this wave of YouTubers, it is nothing short of an entire new culture in which the platform, medium, format and talent blends into a single entity. Where the term ‘YouTube’ refers to each and every one of those aspects.  The type of content created is as diverse as fashion vloggers, slow motion film makers, online gamers, pranksters and comedy.  The unifying factor is that these creators are young and have built personality brands and audiences that not only owe nothing whatsoever to traditional media, but that often far surpass that of traditional TV, film and music audiences.  YouTubers are becoming the key cultural reference point for Generation Edge.  7 out of 10 of the most recognised personalities among American teens are YouTubers.  A comparison of the number of YouTube subscribers and music artists with the same number gives us an indication of the scale of the popularity of these native YouTube creators for Generation Edge:

  • 9 million –  Zoella, Bethany Mota, Bruno Mars, David Guetta
  • 11 million – Sky Does Minecraft, Skrillex
  • 13 million – The Fine Bros, Justin Bieber
  • 16 million – Jenna Marbles, Katy Perry
  • 17 million – No YouTuber equivalent – Rihanna, Katy Perry, OneDirection
  • 24 million – HolaSoyGerman  – No music equivalent
  • 39 million – PewDiePie – No music equivalent

Equally significant – there isn’t a single music artist in the top 10 most subscribed artist channels.  While it is easy to counter with YouTube being just one consumption platform among many, for Generation Edge it is their main consumption platform.  Under 12s in the UK now spend 15 hours a week watching YouTube.  These YouTubers earn serious cash on YouTube (PewDiePie earns up to $1 million a month) and are also taking their brands ‘offline’ as evidenced by national tours by the likes of Miranda Sings and sell out theatre gigs by the likes of the Janoskians.  When PewDiePie went to Japan he was greeted with hoards of screaming teenage girls.

The Essence of Stardom and Fandom

For those not in the target demographic, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp exactly what the creative value is of many YouTubers.  But that generational inability to grasp the essence of YouTube talent is exactly the same dynamic that music always had when it was the spearhead for youth rebellion.  A kid trying to explain to his mum why Stampy Does Minecraft is worth watching hours on end is simply a 21st century rerun of kids trying to convince their parents of the musical worth of Elvis, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and so on.  That is the entire point of a youth culture – older generations aren’t meant to get it.

Everyone is familiar with concept of bands and singers having the x factor, the elusive magical something that an act can have that is often entirely unrelated to their musical talent.  How many technically perfect bands have there been that have just fallen flat because they lack that magical something?  The successful YouTubers have that exact same magic dust.  What they are showing us is that the x factor does not need to be wedded to a guitar or a keyboard.

The Voice Of Youth

The age of YouTubers’ audiences is crucial.  The fact they are pre-teen and adolescent means that they are in highly formative stages of their lives, looking for something that they can connect with and that they can ‘own’.  In previous generations this was a role successfully filled by pop and rock stars.  Now it is YouTubers.  The comment of one PewDiePie fan says it all: “When he looks down the camera I know he is talking to me.”  Through the eyes of pre and early teens the world is a confusing place that just doesn’t comprehend how they feel or who they are.  Successive generations of youth viewed song lyrics as an almost magical window into their own soul, an indication that someone out there actually understood them, that they were not alone.  Now as PewDiePie shows us it turns out that haunting melodies and tortured lyrics are in fact only the vehicle for that connection.  That shouty computer game commentaries can do the job pretty well too.

Star – Fan Relationships Are Changed For Good

We are at the early stages of the YouTuber phenomenon – it is really only in the last 2 years that the movement has really begun to gain substantive scale and recognisable form.  So it would be churlish to suggest that the current mix of talent and formats will necessarily be the same 2 or 3 years from now.  We also don’t know whether YouTubers will be able to transition their audiences as they age.  But what is clear is that the connection between star and fan has been reinvented by YouTube and that thus far music stars have not managed to grasp it.  Even Taylor Swift, someone who does actually get YouTube, only has 1.3 million subscribers to her non-Vevo channel.  Music is still always going to be the soundtrack to the bewildering, dazzling and breath-taking journey from childhood to adulthood. That much remains the same.  But the days of music stars automatically being the defining characters of youth are now gone.

29 thoughts on “YouTube’s Biggest Threat To The Music Industry Isn’t What You Probably Think It Is

  1. I’ll be sixty in February–so even after your explanation (and the South Park episode where Ike won’t play with his older brother anymore) I’m still kinda ‘not getting it’. But, as you say, people my age aren’t supposed to. Hooray for young people.

  2. good primer on the Youtube movement, using music culture as a nice way to explain what’s happening. My only comment with the piece is its already well beyond youtube – Vine, instagram, FB and snapchat are all part of the movement

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  5. I’m sorry, Mark, but I think you’re completely missing the point here. The concerns voiced are best addressed by asking “Why is the average TV show more popular (in terms of number of viewers) than the average song/album (in terms of sales)?”

    Let’s break down the differences between music and the kind of YouTube fare you are referring to:

    1. Music is non-exclusive – this is the no. 1 issue. Someone who wants to listen to a particular track on YouTube needs only to type the name (and possibly the artist) into the search bar. A lot of the time, there will be more than one source channel for the track (including the artist’s official channel – or not) and there is likely to be no compelling reason to go to the official channel. This is the classic Google problem and until the law is changed, or at least interpreted to mean that Google has a responsibility to keep unlicensed uploads off of YouTube, that is going to be a major factor.

    2. Music is not episodic – any particular music artist will likely be producing new content on an erratic schedule and once it’s out – it’s out. There is little reason for the artist’s fans to subscribe to a particular channel, because they aren’t particularly likely to miss out on new stuff. Leaving music aside, we might compare this to the difference between television and movies: if you want to stay current with a TV series, you have to keep tuning in. With movies, you’ll get enough of a heads-up to insert a cinema outing on your schedule.

    3. Music listening is mostly a passive experience – here, I use the word “passive” to mean as being done in the background whilst you’re doing something else. As such, it requires much less commitment than watching a video. A by-product of this is that most music listeners are much less invested in any particular artist or song, given that the point is to have something playing along. Furthermore, this means that the connection between the artist and the fan is going to be much less personal than with, say, a TV character – much less a YouTube host that addresses the viewers directly. Musicians connect with their fans as musicians – people that play music – rather than just plain people.

    The point is that we should not conflate two different modes of entertainment, just because they share the same platform – the difference is akin to that between TV and MTV (back when it was still music television). Ozzy Osbourne provides a great illustration – he did very well for years as a music artist, but only became a household name when he did The Osbournes. Was it good for his business? Quite likely. Was it absolutely necessary? Not really.

    Could the mechanisms that create YouTube stars be exploited by music artists? Sure. However, this is really getting into a different branch of the entertainment business. Taylor Swift doesn’t need to worry about her YouTube subscriber count, because it does not, ultimately, affect her core business much.

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  7. I find it ironic that these same individuals, many who decried and complained when they would receive takedown requests because they used someones music and figured…well I’m giving you free promotion…or took another stance of even starting their own labels…are now having the same issues on these platforms that music artists had…which is their works are being taken and reposted for someone else to get exposure or generate revenue from.

    This isn’t simply a cultural issue, but a technical issue, in that it is a refusal to help shift this erosion because they already have a system which works for them…which is the ever eroding marketplace of ads and ad platforms.

  8. As a parent of kids in the demographic you describe, it’s interesting to see your assumptions that watching the shouting video game commentary on these entertainment sites is somehow culturally akin to the effect music has upon the human being. Sure, Elvis and the Beatles or their modern counterparts aren’t Mozart, but there’s still something to be said for the power of music to affect healing and positive outcomes in neural connectivity, work productivity, and the like.

    Perhaps we should look at the real cultural shift, which is that the music consumer has learned through experience that he/she can usually have music for free online. This loss of perceived value creates big problems for those who earn their living from the commerce associated with music’s transmission and distribution.

    But when a generation is allowed to have something for free that really isn’t free, it causes a loosening of values that sweeps further than just the surface. What’s YouTube’s biggest Threat? It’s the erosion of values of our upcoming generation. When kids don’t respect, it goes deeper than just the Music industry.

  9. The argument could be solved with transparency. The fact is Youtube admits it needs to pay artists but never built the infrastructure to do it so they didn’t. Now, it appears they are outsourcing this but the fact remains they are not transparent about the money they make from advertising and what they are paying out.

  10. Faza – I think you’re missing the point of the piece entirely. I was not for a second suggesting that video consumption replaces music consumption as a media consumption type. Instead the point of this piece is the cultural impact. I’ve been a media analyst for 15 years now, working with TV, radio, news, games and book companies throughout that time alongside music. So I have a deep understanding of the difference between content formats. So I don’t need the media consumption 1.0 tutorial. But like I said, this is not about content formats it is about what Generation Edge use as their cultural reference points. This is part of a longer process. Already in the late 1990’s music was being competed for as a cultural reference point for youth by console games, extreme sports, clothing brands etc. Now YouTubers are picking up the baton and running with it. Of course music is going to play many of the same emotional roles it did but now many YouTubers do the same. I experience this first hand. My 11 old daughter is a singer songwriter, musician in a house full of recording equipment and instruments. She loves music, but she has a far closer bond with Zoella than she does any musician. The format of music consumption as a media is almost besides the point here. What matters is the cultural and emotional impact.

  11. Amanda – the culture of free is a really important issue and one that I explore in great depth in my book and have written about here for years. But this is something different. After all, all of the YouTuber content is (for now at least) free too.

    Yes music can have a meaningful and impactful role in our lives unlike most other media. But that doesn’t take away from the emotional link that YouTubers create with their audiences, however much less cultural (in a traditional sense) the content can be.

  12. We’re quickly reaching the point where everything will be tired and worn out for everyone. You can only stare at a screen so long before it becomes totally boring. I see a day coming when YouTube will be passé.

  13. Oh god, the Olds in this comment section are terrible. As is made clear in the piece, the *age* of the relevant demographic is core, here…it’s “what is there that I can be part of to the exclusion of my parents”?

  14. Just watched a bit of PewDiePie… Now that’s proper high educational next level shit going on there… Not at all some grown up American douche talking in a forced childish voice.. This is something for proper brain surgeons and city planners right there. It’s good to see we are getting more intelligent as human beings this side of the millenium and it sure only gets better.

  15. I think “Old Timers” have an opportunity to reach a wide market on YouTube if they, we, actually engage in it the way young people do. I believe a lack of time keeps that from happening to the fullest. The digital experience is new for the “Old timers” now, but once these current young people get older, it will not be new to them anymore, and I believe we’ll be exploring a new revelation in stardom. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Hopefully talent, creativity, and art, step back into the digital canvas more prominently.

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  17. Hi Mark – its a really interesting piece and something we’ve been thinking about long and hard and we hope to be launching a product soon to a) help bridge the gap between the two industries and b) the problem facing the music industry. i’d love to talk to you about it. im deliberately not going to leave the company name here so that you know this isnt an attempt at free advertising. what you should know is that before we launch we are undergoing an education piece with the music industry and the content creators themselves. I think you’ll find it interesting
    best
    Paul

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