Welcome To The Post-DIY Era

I recently took part in the True Music Forum in Madrid, an event organized by Boiler Room. I was on a panel that explored whether DIY is now coming of age with a host of high profile artists, most of them urban artists, bypassing or twisting the traditional label model and still achieving stand-out success. On the surface, these look like golden years for DIY, and in many ways they are, but much of what is happening at the top end of the scale has little to do with DIY. Streaming is transforming how artists view recorded music income and is making it possible for artists to pick and choose what label capabilities they want. But more often than not, it is a variation of the label model that succeeds rather than a replacement of it. This is the start of the post-DIY movement.

Madrid True Music Forum, March 8th-28

The First Wave Of DIY

Firstly, to be clear, DIY is alive and well, better than it has ever been in fact. With labels increasingly only signing artists once they have seen them build up following and ‘a story’, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to spend the formative stages of their careers ‘DIY’, releasing their own music, managing their social campaigns, making their own videos, booking their own tours etc. Added to that, the combination of streaming, direct-to-fan platforms and social apps have combined to make it possible to build niche audiences on a global scale. So it is now possible for a new tier of artists to exist, a tier of artists that may never dent the charts (for whatever they may be worth these days) but that can build solid, sustainable careers by engaging their fans directly. Stalwarts like Bandcamp and CD Baby have never had it so good, while a whole crop of new entrants, such as the much hyped BandLab is emerging to drive the market forward. And of course, Soundcloud, for all its financial challenges, provides artists with a platform to engage massive audiences globally without need for any middleman whatsoever.

DIY Versus Empowered Superstars

That is the DIY movement that will go down in history as one of the most culturally significant legacies of the Napster market shock. An organic, grass roots musicians’ revolution. Now though, we are seeing the emergence of a more commercially minded take on DIY, one that draws on the practices of its predecessor but that combines them with the big label model to take full advantage of the best of both worlds. This new breed of superstar DIY artist enjoys the benefit of fiercely held independence with world class distribution and marketing. They are taking the tools of DIY but not all of the ethos. The superstar DIY artist typically builds a strong brand and buzz (and often, but not always, a big live following) and then uses that as a platform to strike a deal with a major label (or a major label subsidiary company) to get the benefits of major label scale without giving up control (nor masters). This can take various forms, such as:

In each scenario the artist retains large amounts of control (or at least more than in a traditional label deal) but gets the support of world class, global infrastructure and marketing. The artists picks the services s/he wants, like an advertiser does with a full- service ad agency. The label services and standalone distributor models have been around for some time, but now they are being used by business savvy, super ambitious superstars in-the-making. And the artist gets to retain an aura of authenticity and independence.

For those artists that want to push the needle even further, streaming services are emerging as an additional weapon in the armoury. Chance the Rapper revealed that Apple paid him $500,000 to become the exclusive streaming partner for ‘Coloring Book’, following hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s Apple Music exclusive for ‘Blonde’. Apple is setting itself up as a modern day equivalent of the Medici – the medieval Italian family that was a driving force in the Renaissance through its patronage of artists such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some time or another, Spotify will follow Apple’s lead. The superstar artist fits this streaming-service-as-label model best because an artist with big potential is going to deliver much better ROI for streaming services that are eager to drive market share and differentiation via original content.

Hip Hop Is Setting The Innovation Bar

Urban music, and hip hop in particular, has become a hotbed of artist-led business innovation. Although hip hop has always had stronger commercial sensibilities than other genres, streaming has brought the business innovation to the fore, ranging from the original hip hop superstar businessman Jay Z and his Tidal service, through Frank Ocean’s Apple Music released ‘Blonde’ to Stormzy’s streaming record breaking streaming success.  And the innovation is happening at the grass roots of hip hop too. As the brilliant Kieran Yates noted on the Boiler Room DIY panel, many UK Grime artists are now signing publishing deals before label deals as a) this can often mean bigger advances in today’s indie music market, and b) there is a perception that this means giving up less control, which in turn empowers the artist to strike a better deal with a label, or label-owned company. This also opens up a world of opportunity for independent music marketing agencies etc who can become part of new, agile teams.

Streaming has been continually rewriting the rule book for many years now, but we are entering a period of even faster change, with many of the more fundamental effects being the indirect consequences, such as the rise of post-DIY. It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a ‘death of the label’ narrative. Because the labels (majors and indies) are being smart enough to be as flexible and agile as artists need them to be. Artists are changing and labels are changing just as fast to meet their new needs and terms of reference. Perhaps, the best way to capture the approach of the new era of post-DIY artist is to go back to Jay Z’s classic ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ lyric: I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!

 

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Zoe Keating’s Experience Shows Us Why YouTube’ Attitudes To Its Creators Must Change

It is easy to think of the internet as a mature medium, especially for those who were born into the internet era. However we are still at the earliest of stages. We are where radio was in the 1930’s and where TV was in the 1950’s: the first signs of the future markets are in place but the real maturation is yet to come. The greats of those early days, the Marconis and the RCAs, are now long gone but at the time they looked like they would rule forever. A similar long view should be taken to the internet. The dominant powers of the web (YouTube, Google search, Amazon, Facebook) may appear to have unassailable market leads but their time will come. Using more recent history, there was a time when AOL and MySpace looked irreplaceable. So why does all this matter to YouTube? The problem with absolute power is that it corrupts absolutely. YouTube, like those other dominant powers, has fallen victim to hubris. It is behaving like the unregulated de facto monopoly that it is. And in doing so it is taking its creators for granted. Right now that is bad for creators. Soon it may be bad for YouTube too. It Is Time For YouTube To Reassess It s Relationship With Content Creators Online video is truly coming of age. YouTube was one of the ice breakers and remains one the very biggest web destinations but the world is changing. YouTube has changed too of course, migrating skate boarding dogs, through music video to fostering a generation of YouTube stars like PewDiePie, Zoella and Smosh. But just as YouTube had to reinvent itself in the wake of the mid form revolution driven by Hulu et al so the time has come for another reinvention, but this one requires a change in business practices rather than product innovation. Most crucially YouTube needs to reassess its relationships with content creators and owners. When the first YouTube stars started to rise to prominence YouTube was almost positioned as a benefactor, giving the gift of a platform for these people to become stars. But now, a few years on, with millions of subscribers each, these stars are beginning to understand their real potential. In just the same way that a traditional TV star does not feel a debt of gratitude or a commitment to life long servitude to the TV channel that broke him or her, so YouTube stars are now beginning to reassess their options. The online video landscape though is dramatically less competitive than the TV landscape so options are limited. But where there is demand for change and no monopoly of supply of content, change will come. This is the context into which new video service Vessel has launched, offering YouTube stars cold hard cash payments and significantly bigger revenue shares, in return for giving just a few days of exclusivity. Be sure that few days window will change, but for now it is a low risk, high gain option for YouTube stars. Expect plenty more to follow Vessel’s lead. YouTube Is Abusing Its Position Of Absolute Power That should be where the story ends, well starts. But because the dominant internet companies are not subject to the same level of regulation as traditional companies they are able to abuse their power in order to try to maintain their strangle hold. YouTube found itself subject to extensive ire when it tried to foist a hugely restrictive contract on indie labels for its then forthcoming YouTube Music Key service. The indie sector was eventually able, via its licensing arm Merlin, to secure more favourable terms, but the same contract remains on the table for individual creators. Zoe Keating, an artist who sets the gold standard for DIY artists, has been a vocal advocate for YouTube channels as a revenue source. But now YouTube is trying to strong-arm her into signing what looks pretty much like that same original Music Key contract. Their demands include an effective Most Favoured Nation clause whereby anytime she uploads any music to the web she must upload it also to YouTube at exactly the same time. The contract also states a five year period and that failure to sign the contract will result in YouTube blocking both her channel and Keating’s ability (via Content ID) to get revenue from her own music uploaded without permission by others. The implications are:

  • Music must always be available free on YouTube first on the web
  • Artists must take a 5 year bet on streaming, even though there are massive doubts about its sustainability for artists

But it is the Content ID clause that is most nefarious. Content ID is not an added value service YouTube provides to content owners, it is the obligation of a responsible partner designed to help content creators protect their intellectual property. YouTube implemented Content ID in response to rights owners, labels in particular, who were unhappy about their content being uploaded by users without their permission. YouTube’s willingness to use Content ID as a contractual lever betrays a blatant disregard for copyright. Asymmetrical Conflict Zoe Keating is a rare talent and also a rare voice. She is willing to expose her entire digital music commercial life in a way very few artists are willing to. She is standing up to YouTube in a David and Goliath like manner but the deck is stacked against her because YouTube is able to abuse its de facto monopolistic position without any fear of regulatory intervention. If they get their way with independent music creators, expect them to take the exact same approach to other independent video creators in a bid to neuter the threat from disruptive new entrants like Vessel.  Rather than simply try to future proof itself against the emerging competition YouTube should focus on trying to be the best possible place for its creators to be to build prosperous careers. Instead it is trying to lock them in like prison inmates. Ultimately though this sort of action from YouTube reveals strategic hubris, arrogance and complacency. All of which are classic signs of an incumbent company teetering on the brink of disruption. As the Enron experience showed us, no company is too big to fail. And as my former colleague Michael Gartenberg used to say ‘cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people’.