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.

Why EDM is a Genre and Not Just a Marketing Term

A recent social media spat between Deadmau5 and Afrojack regarding creativity in EDM caught my eye. A quick summation of the debate was that Afrojack said you just needed your track to be ‘good’ to be a success and Deadmau5 retorted that all EDM music sounds the same.  There’s a lot more to this debate than might at first appear, and it gets to the heart of a lot of the problems with the current EDM craze.

For the record, I used to be a gigging dance music producer and DJ and had a few singles and remixes to my name.  My (incomplete) discogs entry is here, and my Soundcloud page is here (with new and old stuff).  When I was releasing music, dance was a far more underground genre that was just reaching its first decade as a movement.  It had already ossified into its main genre groupings and the excesses of superclubs, the super star DJ and brand partnerships were all beginning take effect.  But despite this it remained a sub culture that was clearly distinct from the mainstream. The recent emergence of dance music as a mainstream movement has transformed the picture entirely.  Driven by artists like David Guetta and the Swedish House Mafia dance has acquired pop sensibilities and in doing so has finally broken through in America.  Unlike in Europe where dance has two decades or so of cultural roots, it is effectively year zero for the flavour of dance music that is currently being marketed to the US.  Hence the adoption of the previously nerdy tag ‘EDM’.

While EDM was a useful rebranding exercise for dance it now risks doing more harm than good.  The type of artists and music that fit the EDM brand are at the commercial end of the spectrum, with music that owes as much to pop as it does dance. This risks polluting the broader dance scene, but there is a simple solution: recognize EDM for what it has in practice become, a genre in itself.  EDM is pop-dance, it is not a term for dance music as a whole.

This means no disrespect to the likes of David Guetta or the Swedish House Mafia – who incidentally all paid their dues as hard gigging DJs before breaking through – but the majority of music that they produce is not dance music, it is EDM.  Unfortunately too many dance producers have tried to jump on the EDM bandwagon, and consequently too much dance music is sounding just too similar.  With up to 15,000 dance releases every week, it is understandable why so many producers will do whatever they can to try shorten their odds of success and they know they won’t get many opportunities.  If the life cycle of the average band is akin to that of a butterfly, then for a dance producer is more like that of a Mayfly.   But the result is that far too much dance music averaging out to a safe, consistent and bland norm rather than creating an undulating tapestry of creative diversity. It is time for the wider dance music scene to reclaim its identity and instead of trying to chase the bright lights of EDM, get back to its roots and true identity.

Streaming Music Apps – Three’s Not A Crowd

You wait months for a streaming music app announcement and then three come along on the same day….buses come to mind.

Deezer App Studio

Deezer have just announced the launch of a Spotify-like app platform ‘App Studio’ for third party developers and will soon also launch an ‘App Centre’ for users to discover apps. It is a welcome development from Deezer and as I have said for some time, streaming services can play an invaluable role of providing the infrastructure and music content on which third parties can then develop innovative and differentiated user experiences.  Streaming itself is not a product, it is a delivery mechanism.  Streaming apps turn the streaming user proposition into a rich set of products and features.  Of course Spotify set the agenda here and Deezer’s announcement is almost a year to the day later than Spotify’s app announcement (read my take here on Spotify’s bid to turn music into the API).  This isn’t the first time that Deezer have followed Spotify’s lead and they need to be careful they do not develop a reputation for shadowing Spotify’s strategy.


Meanwhile on Spotify’s app platform comes the launch of David Guetta’s ‘PLAY GUETTA’ app. Back when Spotify launched artist apps back in June I said that they were a great start on the rod to relevance for streaming music services and music discovery but that there was a long distance to go (which was a polite way of saying that the first wave of apps weren’t very good).  The David Guetta app is a different kettle of fish altogether.  Whereas the first wave of apps had an air of unfulfilled promised ‘PLAY GUETTA’ is a rich, immersive and – crucially – massively social app.  As a testament to the importance of Spotify’s app ecosystem, ‘PLAY GUETTA’ is built using the Soundrop SDK, itself a Spotify app.  ‘PLAY GUETTA’ demonstrates three crucial elements of value that streaming apps can deliver:

  • Coalesce fan communities of likeminded fans: leveraging some of the core Soundrop functionality Guetta fans can help shape what music is played and recommended, even at a country level (see graphic).
  • Create immersive experiences: apps allow streaming services to focus on the business of acquiring customers while third party developers can develop cutting edge user experiences.
  • Open up the long tail: for an artist like Guetta who has an extensive back catalogue, artist apps create a fantastic opportunity for connecting fans with older material.  For the consumer, because they have unlimited music access, listening to older albums is a pure added value rather than added cost, but for the artist and the label it is extra revenue.

‘PLAY GUETTA’ shows the potential of what streaming music apps can achieve.


Rdio iOS and Android Apps

The third and final streaming app announcement of the day was the launch of refreshed iOS and Android clients for Rdio.   Though obviously a different type of app announcement than the previous two, Rdio deserves credit for forging their own way in the streaming space, focusing on building a differentiated user experience.  Rdio do also have their own API, but they have worked hard to create a user experience that is rich and immersive out of the box.

It is perhaps a little overblown to claim that the future of streaming music depends upon apps, but be in no doubt, apps will play a major role.  Expect this space to hot up in 2012.