This is the fourth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here and here
The music industry has a long history of underplaying the role of video, insisting on seeing it as merely a tactic for driving sales. In doing so it let two businesses that understood the wider value of music video become global superpowers. MTV and YouTube knew that music fans, especially younger ones, could connect with their favourite artists via video in way that they could not with audio alone. The labels were able to put MTV and YouTube down as an irritating mistake (albeit the exact same one made twice) because for a long while they were still selling units of music product, albeit in reducing numbers by the time YouTube arrived on the scene. Now though, as we accelerate into the consumption era all bets are off. Consumers want to pay for access to content – either with money (subscription) or with attention (ads). With revenue generated by streams rather than up front transactions, both access models demand increased engagement. This means that video must shift from marketing tactic to revenue bearing product. Slowly but surely labels are waking up to this new reality and Sony Music’s deal with YouTube star Kurt Hugo Schneider hints at what the future may hold.
Sony’s Schneider Deal Is A Nod To The Future Music Economy
Sony’s partnership with Schneider will see the creation of a 10 episode series of shows featuring Sony artists performing their songs with him. Crucially the shows will be distributed via Schneider’s YouTube channel which has 6 million subscribers and 40 million monthly views. 5 years ago, even trying to build the business case for such a project around a frontline Sony artist would have been nigh-on impossible with production costs failing to justify likely TV licensing revenue. But with YouTube Sony can both spend less on production and cut out the TV network middleman, going direct to the audience. Whilst a big part of the internal business case justification at Sony will likely centre around the ‘exposure’ Sony’s artists will get, there will be no small number of Sony execs who know that the real value of this is the video series itself, both in terms of audience engagement and revenue.
As I explained in my previous YouTube posts, the platform is emerging as the single most important content destination for Millennials and their younger siblings Generation Edge (i.e. those born since 2000). Right now traditional music artists are at a marked disadvantage to native YouTube creators: they put out 1 music video maybe once every 3 months while a YouTuber will put out that many videos a week. A middle ground exists between those two extremes, one that can provide the vital ingredients for helping music artists get more viewing time and help transition music video from low income marketing tool into a meaningful revenue generating product in its own right.
Universal’s KSI Deal Only Scratches The Surface
Universal Music have taken a more traditional approach to tapping YouTube, picking a successful YouTuber and turning him into a pop star. The YouTuber in question is British gamer KSI who numbers 2 billion YouTube views, 11 million subscribers and $4.5 million in annual YouTube earnings, making him the fifth highest YouTuber globally. So far his cross over pop/Grime singles have had modest success though Island will be hoping his latest collaboration with JME, ‘Keep Up’ will make bigger sales waves. But even if it does that will be missing so much of KSI’s potential. By his own admission KSI is a YouTuber first and a rapper second. Island should be exploring all the ways they can make that distinction blur into insignificance. Partnering with YouTubers like KSI is an invaluable first step, but the real opportunity for Universal is to explore how KSI can take them on a journey into the YouTube industry not for them to take KSI on a journey into the music industry.
Online Video Momentum Is Acclerating, And Some
The direction of travel of the video market is hard to discount. Short form video is growing at an unprecedented rate: there were 5.9 trillion short from video views in in the first three quarters of 2015 with growth more than doubling from Q4 2014. (See the MIDiA report ‘Short Form Video Growth’ for more). Meanwhile the glut in online display ad inventory driven by content farms like Outbrain and Taboola is making video advertising an increasingly sought after commodity. Will video revenue ever be enough to offset lost music sales revenue at an industry level? Perhaps not, but it certainly can at an artist level. Not too many artists can boast KSI’s $4.5 million annual income.
The Business Case For YouTube’s Music Economy Role Needs To Be More Rounded
We need to take a realistic view of YouTube’s current role in the music ecosystem. It can no longer be justified as a loss leader for driving sales and ‘exposure’. The number one activity that consumers do after they discover a new artist on YouTube is….watch them on YouTube some more. 65% of under 25’s say they use YouTube this way. So more value needs to extracted from those users when they are on YouTube, rather than hoping for them to pop over to Spotify or iTunes to do something that creates bigger chunks of direct music industry revenue. Sure some of that is still going to happen but it will do so in dwindling numbers over the next 5 years, with music sales revenue declining by 39% by 2020.
The business case for YouTube has to be much more rounded and nuanced while the industry continues through its transition phase. Sales and access will coexist for many years, occasionally giving the impression of a schizophrenic nature. Adele encapsulates the twin-speed nature of the music industry as it transitions between eras. As impressive as Adele’s sales figures are they are an anomaly, a temporary high tide while the music sales waters continue to irretrievably recede. Plotted against the longer music sales trend it is clear that ‘21’ followed exactly the same path – a dramatic stand out success that was a blip on the downward curve. Adele is also unique in having such strong audience reach among older consumers that still buy music and younger ones that stream. So while she’s been busy breaking sales records she has also excelled on streaming, racking up half a billion views of her ‘Hello’ video.
For Better Or For Worse, YouTube Is Generation Edge’s Punk
Music fans exist in multimedia, on demand environments where video, social engagement are the norm and authentic connections with stars are the gold dust that they seek out. YouTube is the punk movement of Generation Edge. It is an antidote to the over-produced, generic, middle of the road, overtly commercialism of traditional media. YouTube creators may still be finding their creative voices but the fact Sid Vicious couldn’t really play bass was part of the entire point of the Sex Pistols. It was a big fat two fingers up at the establishment. Sure, most YouTubers are hardly rebels without a cause but they are outside the traditional media establishment and therein lies the real power of video that the music most learn how to participate in without ending up looking like a dancing dad.