Short form video is accelerating at a rapid pace, racking up 4.2 trillion views in the first half 2015. While challengers Facebook, Snapchat and others now account for just over half of that total, few platforms of scale yet provide content creators and owners comparable ability to build engaged audiences and income. For music the situation is even more pronounced – no other platform is even on the same lap of the race (and I include Vevo as an extension of YouTube). YouTube is the most popular online music destination by far (46% of consumers use it regularly) and its role for Digital Natives cannot be exaggerated – 65% of US under 25’s use YouTube for music regularly. But the share that regularly watch YouTube as a whole is even higher: 76%. The added complexity is that most artists and labels do not feel that YouTube is pulling its weight in revenue terms. Free music streamers – of which YouTube is the largest single component – comprise 92.5% of all music streaming users and just 32% of all streaming revenue. Yet a whole generation of non-music creators like PewDiePie, Smosh and the Janoskians have via YouTube built audiences and income that most artists could only dream of. So what’s the secret?
Talk Don’t Shout
One of the key factors is the way in which YouTubers use the platform, releasing 2, 3 or more videos every week. Contrast this with an artist releasing a music video maybe once every couple of months. YouTubers treat the platform as place to build relationships with their audiences and to engage them in regular interaction. The prevailing approach among artists, their managers and labels is to simply view YouTube as a place to promote. YouTubers use YouTube as an interactive digital platform for engaging in conversations. The music industry uses it as a broadcast channel, a soap box from which it can shout about its wares.
While clearly it doesn’t make sense for most artists to be creating 3 videos a week there has to be a compelling middle ground between that and one promo video every quarter. Nearly half of music’s super fans say that music for them is more than just the song, that they want to know the artist’s story. Music videos, the highly stylized form that they are, are hardly a vehicle for telling the artist’s story. In fact there are few mediums less suited for the task. But there is so much around the video that can be harnessed. Imagine how much extra content could be created by adding half a day to the video shoot to film extras such as goofy outtakes, the band talking about the song, a making of, behind the scene reportage etc.
Think Of It Like DVD Extras That People Actually Want To Watch
And the costs should be modest. YouTube is DIY. Part of the authenticity most YouTubers deliver is by not being over produced. So only a fraction of the crew used for the music video shoot would be needed. The resulting video extras could then be planned into a release schedule on the artists’ YouTube channel, building up weekly to the main music video and then maintaining interest thereafter. This is just one illustration of how it is entirely feasible to create lots of added value content with relatively little additional burden on the artist. Yes, this might feel like creating the extras for the bonus disc on a DVD, and in some ways it is. But there is a crucial difference. DVD bonus discs are a means of charging more for a release and usually go unwatched. Among young YouTube viewers this sort of content is often of comparable – though different – value to the song itself.
Prospering In The Attention Economy
In the sales era fans invested in their favourite artists by buying an album. That cash investment usually meant a fan would spend time listening to the album again and again. And that familiarity became the foundations of a long term relationship that would result in buying concert tickets and future albums. But now as sales dwindle (down by 29% in the last 5 years) music fans are investing in their favourite artists in time and attention rather than money. We now operate in an attention economy. YouTubers totally get this, artists and labels less so.
This is all so important to artists because YouTube is not suddenly going to start delivering dramatically better music stream rates, largely because labels and publishers haven’t had the courage to demand the requisite fair share it should pay. Rights owners’ fears are understandable: one senior label executive recounted a YouTube negotiator saying ‘Don’t push us. Right now you don’t like us much and we’re your friend. Imagine what we’d be like if we weren’t your friend.’ Sooner or later bullying tactics need standing up to. But that will not be a quick process, regardless of the steps currently being taken behind the scenes.
So in the meantime artists and labels need to figure out how to get more out of YouTube in a way that complements the other ways they make money digitally. Put simply that means making more non-music video content to generate more viewing hours and thus more ad revenue from YouTube. Heck, they might even generate some YouTube subscription revenue some time. But do it they must, else they’ll forever be leaving chunks of YouTube money on the table.
The irony of it all though is that the biggest reason of all for doing it isn’t even about the money. Treating YouTube as a fan engagement platform rather than a marketing tool is currently the most sure fire way artists have of creating engaged fan bases at scale in the digital marketplace.