Making YouTube Pay: YouTubers Versus Bands

This is the second in a series of YouTube generation posts. See the first one here.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Generation Edge – the under 16 millennials – and how they are driving an entire new subculture of YouTube stars that throw the traditional fandom rulebook out of the window. One of the intriguing paradoxes (or at least apparent paradoxes) is how a generation of native YouTube stars can create both vast audiences and revenue while for music artists YouTube is simply a place to build awareness and probably lose net revenue due to YouTube streams cannibalizing paid streams. So how can the model both be broken (for music) and yet buoyant for native YouTuber creators?

pewdiepie2 PewDiePie And Taylor Swift

Compare and contrast the biggest earner in music with the biggest earner on YouTube.   Taylor Swift netted $39.7 million in 2014, compared to $7.4 million for PewDiePie. Seems like a slam-dunk for music right? Except when you start digging a little all is not quiet what it seems. Swift’s numbers are gross revenue so include the revenue earned by everyone else (record labels, promoters, ticket agencies, venues etc.). Let’s say she earns a third of that income which would equate to $12 million (and before anyone suggests it should be higher given her relationship with her label Big Machine ¾ of her revenue came from live in 2014). So suddenly the difference doesn’t look quite so big. Then consider that PewDiePie’s $7.4 million refers just to his YouTube ad revenue and doesn’t take into account his live appearances income or his merch revenue. And, perhaps most importantly, the cost of earning that income was negligible. PewDiePie’s audience is right there on YouTube and his videos are home made. The cost of production, distribution and marketing are close to non-existent. The exact opposite is true of breaking a release like Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. It’s no secret that most big labels lose money on lots of their bigger front line releases, relying upon a few massive successes and the steady income from back catalogue to pay the bills.

10 Billion Views And Counting

PewDiePie just passed 10 billion views three weeks ago and has 39.9 million subscribers – that’s one for every (gross) dollar that Taylor Swift earned in 2014. Anyway you look at it, those numbers are big. Game Of Thrones, which can lay claim to being one of the mainstream media success stories of the moment, has clocked up around 700 million total views globally over the course of 5 series. And while traditional media apologists will argue that you cannot compare a PewDiePie view with a GoT view try telling a PewDiePie subscriber that their viewing is somehow less worthwhile because it is more than weekly and doesn’t come from a traditional TV set.

Taylor Swift of course also has a pretty hefty YouTube / Vevo presence too, with 16.5 million subscribers and 6.3 billion views. But while she has 20 videos available PewDiePie has nearly 2,500. And therein lies one of the key differences. PewDiePie lives on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. His focus is making content regularly for his audience and engaging directly with them. YouTubers typically make multiple videos every week and often multiply that across multiple different channels. Try squeezing that in around touring, recording, writing sessions, media work etc. Swift, unlike many big pop artists, also knows how to do the native YouTube thing too and has had her own, non-Vevo, YouTube channel since 2006, posting 136 videos there to date. But in stark contrast to her Vevo channel Swift has just 1.4 million YouTube channel subscribers. So even one of the most YouTube-centric of pop artists that also happens to be one of the biggest pop acts on the planet right now simply doesn’t have the time, positioning nor content to compete with a shouty gamer from Sweden.

YouTube Is Generation Edge’s Destination Of Choice

So where does all this leave artists and YouTube. Unless bands want to ditch the guitars and start doing Minecraft commentary videos, becoming a full-on native YouTube creator simply isn’t feasible for most artists. But there absolutely is middle ground between the dominant focus on seeing YouTube simply as a marketing channel for music videos, and the native creator route. Part of the solution is seeing YouTube for what it actually is. It is not a video platform, or a marketing platform, it is one of the most important destinations for Millennials of all ages, especially Generation Edge. It is at once a social network, a TV network, a fun place to hang out, a discovery destination, a place where they can simply be themselves and feel connected. YouTube is all of that and more. In fact the breadth and depth of content means that it is everything to all people.

The Value Of An Authentic Voice

Treating YouTube simply as a marketing channel not only underplays its potential but it also completely misses what it means to your target audience. PewDiePie, Zoella, Stampy, Michelle Phan are all so successful because they speak directly with their YouTube audiences in an authentic voice that communicates that it is the here and now that matters. That it is about the moment not simply an attempt to try to get the viewer to go somewhere else to do something else. Authenticity is a priceless commodity and native YouTube creators have it in spades. That is the currency of the YouTube generation.

Taylor Swift, Streaming And The Changing Tide

Taylor Swift made big waves over the weekend with her open letter to Apple protesting it should pay for its 3 month free trial.  Her voice was just one more following protests from across the indie community of which Swift and her label are both members. But it turned out that her voice was the loudest and Apple’s Eddy Cue swiftly announced a u-turn on Apple’s free trial pay outs. This is just one more twist in the much bigger streaming story but it does highlight some interesting dynamics, not least of which is how Swift’s worldview differs from many of her contemporaries.

Taylor Swift’s Sales Outlook Is Surprisingly Old School

As paradoxical as it may sound for such a digitally savvy artist as Taylor Swift, she is in fact from the old school when it comes to recorded music.  Swift started her career so early – she signed her first label deal when she was just 14 years old – that she is effectively further into her recording career than most successful 30 something artists.  So she is an album era artist who, with her label Big Machine, managed to build a long-standing successful music sales career.  Streaming, with all of its substitutive impact on sales, does not fit well with the Swift / Big Machine model.   In many respects Swift’s recorded music worldview has more in common with artists of Coldplay’s generation than it does hers.  The contrast with successful contemporary mainstream pop artists is stark. The take of Ed Sheeran (who is just one year younger than Swift) on the role of recorded music is “I’m in the music industry to play live. That’s why I make records” while Calvin Harris (currently romantically linked with Swift) is famously a co-owner of streaming platform TIDAL.  Both of those artists have been supremely successful on Spotify and neither has a decade of platinum selling albums behind them.  For them, streaming is simply how it is and they are learning how to make that work.

Streaming Is Fundamentally Substitutive

None of this is to belittle the hugely disruptive impact of going from a sales model which guaranteed up front revenue to an access model where revenue is fractionalised over many years.  In the sales era a purchased album generated $10 of gross revenue whether it was listened to once or a thousand times.  In a streaming service an album that is listened to once generates $0.10 and only reaches $10 when listened to a hundred times.  If you are a superstar artist you can probably swallow the near term pain because a) your streaming volumes are in the billions so the pennies add up and b) you make the majority of your money from playing live.  If you are a smaller artist the outlook is bleaker for getting through the transition period i.e. until streaming services are big enough to ensure a high tide rises all boats.

Live Is Where The $$ Are For Superstars

Interestingly for Swift, for all her sales success, live is also where she makes her money.  She ranks as the highest earning artist on Billboard’s top earners list with $39 million but $30 million of that came from live.  She explains in her post that “[I] can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows” and that she is raising her voice for “the new artist or band that has just released their first single”.  This may well be the case but she is also very much doing this for her label Big Machine Records (which doesn’t get to benefit in any truly meaningful way from Swift’s live revenue).   Swift’s rise to prominence and continued success is intrinsically linked to that of her label Big Machine Records and it is fully understandable why she has been so perfectly aligned with Big Machine’s stance on streaming.  But it is a position nonetheless.

Apple Doesn’t Need Any Commercial Bail Outs To Launch Apple Music

None of this though detracts from the core issue at stake here, namely Apple not paying for a 3 month free trial.  Apple is in the business of selling music in order to sell hardware.  Apple’s primary concern is not what % of iTunes sales become substituted by free trials (near term) and subscriptions (long term) but instead how it helps them gain and retain device buyers. Swift, Big Machine and the rest have very good reason for being very cautious with Apple’s streaming strategy.  Apple is the leading source of digital music sales and accounted for approximately $2.8 billion of music sales revenue in 2014, or 40% of all digital music revenue.  If Spotify messes up a free trial the labels risk slowing the rate of new streaming revenue growth.  If Apple messes it up the money that keeps the lights on is at risk.

Apple doesn’t need any financial assistance in launching Apple Music (it does after all have $178 billion in cash reserves) but it does need careful attention from labels and artists alike to ensure it gets the strategy right. Whatever the outcome though the streaming transition is an inevitability and Taylor Swift is no more able to hold it back than King Canute was able to hold back the tide.

The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

Jay-Z’s ambitions for TIDAL has triggered a lot of discussion about how streaming models can evolve.  One focus has been exclusives with a number of references to TIDAL ‘doing a Netflix’ by commissioning exclusives.  Netflix can attribute much of its growth over the last couple of years to its flagship ‘Netflix Originals’ such as ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’.  It is an appealing model but the Netflix Originals approach cannot so easily be transferred to music.

There are three main types of exclusives:

1.    Service Window: album is released exclusively to a single music service for a fixed period of time e.g. only on TIDAL for 1 month

2.    Tier Window: album is released across one type of music service tier before others e.g. only on paid subscription tiers for 3 months

3.    Service Exclusive: music service acquires exclusive rights to an album so that it will never appear anywhere else unless the service decides to let it

The first two will become increasingly common components of the streaming landscape over the next couple of years.  Daniel Ek and Spotify fought a brave rear guard action against Taylor Swift and Big Machine to ensure the Tier Window model did not carve out a beachhead with ‘1989’ but it is an inevitability.  If free tiers are to have a long term role alongside paid tiers they have to be more clearly differentiated.

TIDAL and Apple look set to become the heavyweight players in the Service Window, duking it out for the biggest releases.  TIDAL will argue it pays out more to rights holders (75% compared to 70%) while Apple will argue that it can directly drive download sales (which is where everyone still makes their real sales revenue).  Apple will have to play that card carefully though as it stands just as much chance of accelerating download cannibalization as it does driving new sales.

When Is A Label A Label?

The really interesting, and potentially most disruptive, exclusive is the Service Exclusive.  This model would start blurring the distinction between what constitutes a music service and what defines a record label.  If, for example, TIDAL was to buy out the rights of the next Beyonce album or sign a deal for the next two Calvin Harris albums TIDAL would effectively become the record label for those releases.

The irony is that this ‘ownership of the masters model’ by streaming services is emerging just as the next generation labels are distancing themselves from it.  A new breed of ‘labels’ such as Kobalt’s AWAL and Cooking Vinyl’s Essential Music are focussing on providing label services without taking ownership of the masters and in turn putting the label and artist relationship on a more equitable agency / client basis.  But there are far more impactful challenges to the Service Exclusive model for music than simply being out of step with where the label model is heading:

  • Scarcity: ‘House Of Cards’ is only available on Netflix (and some download to own stores such as iTunes). It is a scarce asset, which is not something that can be said about any piece of recorded music.  As TIDAL found with the near instantaneous Beyonce YouTube leak, music scarcity is ephemeral in the YouTube age.  As long as YouTube is allowed to hide behind its perverse interpretation of ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Safe Harbour’ there will be no music scarcity.  (Of course true scarcity is gone for good, but if that can be made to only mean P2P then the problem is manageable, as it is for TV content).
  • Consumer expectations: Consumers have learned to expect their video experiences to be fragmented across different platforms and services, to not find everything in one place.  For music consumers however the understanding is that catalogues are either near-complete or useless.  So if all music services suddenly started having high profile gaps then subscribers would be more likely to unsubscribe entirely than they would be to take up multiple subscriptions.  Ironically the net result could be a return to download sales at the expense of subscriptions.  Talk about going full circle….
  • Industry relationships: Netflix started out as a pure licensee, paying TV companies for their shows.  Now it competes with them directly when commissioning new shows.  It has become a frenemy for TV companies and is finding many of its relationships less favourable than before.  And this is in an industry that is built up the frenemy hybrid licensee-licensor model.  The music industry does not behave this way, so any service that took up the Service Exclusive model could reasonably expect itself to find itself developing tense relations with labels.  Which could manifest in those labels giving competitor services preferential treatment for their own exclusives.  Labels have long feared the disintermediation threat posed by the web.  It is unlikely to materialize any time soon but they are not exactly going to encourage retail partners to kick-start the process.
  • Appetite for risk: Buying up the rights to the latest release of an established superstar is the easy part, and we already have some precedents though neither were exactly run away successes (Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with Samsung and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ with Apple).  But being a label, at least a good one, isn’t simply about signing proven quantities, it is about taking risks on new emerging talent.  And that doesn’t simply mean having a DIY platform on a streaming service – though that can act as a great talent identification tool.  If streaming services want to start playing at the label game they need to also start nurturing and marketing talent.
  • Limited horizons: Stream is still only a small fraction of recorded music revenue.  There are few non-Nordic artists that rely on streaming for the majority of their sales income.  That will change but not for a few years yet.  So a release that only exists on streaming, let along a single streaming service, is only going to deliver on a fraction of its potential.  TIDAL and Apple especially could easily choose to loss-lead and pay over the odds for Service Exclusives to ensure artists aren’t left out of pocket.  But that only fixes part of the problem.  An artist locked into one single streaming service will see his or her brand diminish.  ‘House Of Cards’ may be one of Kevin Spacey’s most assured performances yet only a few tens of millions of people globally have ever seen it.  If it had been on network TV the audience would have been hundreds of millions.  With touring becoming the main way many artists make money the album is the marketing vehicle and if that album is locked behind the pay wall of one single music service the marketing potential is neutered.

Streaming music services will find themselves locked in total war over the coming years and while Apple’s cash reserves will likely make that warfare appear asymmetrical at times, exclusives of some kind or another will be utilised by most of the services.  Just don’t expect them to deliver them Netflix-like success because that’s not going to happen.

Windowing, Shake It Off

The removal of all of Taylor Swift’s albums from Spotify and other streaming services is sending minor shockwaves through the music industry. Swift’s label Big Machine has long adhered to a streaming windowing strategy and there is pretty compelling evidence that the approach has paid dividends. Swift’s ‘1989’ is not only on track to be the only million selling US album this year it is also set to have the highest ever first week album sales for a female artist, again in the US. No mean feat considering how much album sales have tanked. While it is impossible to prove the exact degree of causality, it would be fatuous to claim that windowing had done anything less than not hurt those sales. Windowing is an issue that refuses to go away but is a natural effect of the transition phase we are in.

Some artists and labels were just as fearful of iTunes in the 2000’s as they are now of Spotify. Heck, it took the Beatles seven whole years to finally license their catalogue. Right now there is still a very sizeable music sales marketplace. 79% of all recorded music revenue in 2013 came from sales. So it is understandable that some labels want to protect that Golden Goose as long as they can. And it is little compensation for labels that declining music sales are made up by increased live revenues. In even the most label friendly 360 deals music sales are still the core revenue stream.

However the shift to consumption models is an inevitable process. In the short term expect copy cat actions. Labels and artists will see the run away success of ‘1989’ and conclude that windowing played a key role. This may hurt Spotify just as it was beginning to feel good about proving its model. But the long view shows us that licensed streaming music will be ubiquitous five years from now, music sales will not. Even if Taylor Swift is still at the top of her game in 2019 she won’t be selling any 1 million albums anymore.

Spotify though can’t wait five years for Swift to shake off her streaming inhibitions. It can however help itself by accepting that its free tier should be on a different release window from its paid tier. If it doesn’t it makes windowing a binary equation which in turn makes it easier for an entire blanket ban to be conceived.

Of course the biggest irony in all this is that the free streaming services face no such blocks. All of Swift’s videos are still on YouTube and you can find her music all over Soundcloud, let alone Grooveshark. As MIDiA revealed last week, YouTube is one of the largest threats to music revenue. But because the music industry still views it as a marketing channel rather than a consumption channel it is measured by different standards. Thus 10 million YouTube views is a promotional success, whereas 10 million Spotify streams is x thousand lost sales. This hypocritical inconsistency has to end. Spotify premium customers are some of the most valuable music fans there are, most YouTube users are not.

taylor swift youtube

And both YouTube and Soundcloud also fail to crack down on blatant misuse of their platforms. As the screen grab above shows, YouTube makes it easier than easy to access the full ‘1989’ album, which in this instance is fully monetized and has 400,000 views. Meanwhile Soundcloud also has the full album, this time conveniently presented as individual tracks. And even if / when UMG catches up with these infringing files, not only will more pop up, YouTube also has this, a full ‘1989’ playlist, full of non-infringing, Vevo videos.   The simple fact is that too much is given away for free on YouTube. If Big Machine and Taylor Swift are really worried about cannibalizing album sales, they should take a long hard look at their YouTube strategy before pulling their content from Spotify.

UPDATE: UMG caught up with the 400,000 views full album YouTube video of ‘1989’ (that was quick) but the very same user has multiple other instances of the full ‘1989’ album which have hundreds of thousands of views and are still live.