The Labels Still Don’t Get YouTube And It’s Costing Them

This is the fifth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here,here and here

2015 was the year that streaming came of age across global markets (it had already got there in the Nordics and South Korea of course). In the UK and the US stream volumes grew by 85% and 93% respectively in 2015. These markets matter because they are the 1st and 4th largest recorded music markets and between them account for 40% of global revenue. But as strong as a validation of the music streaming model as those numbers might be, the real success story here isn’t Spotify, Deezer or Apple Music…it’s YouTube. In both the US and UK YouTube outgrew audio streaming services. With YouTube delivering so much less back per stream to rights holders than freemium audio services and the whole issue of safe harbour and un-monetized tracks (however good Content ID has gotten) it is little wonder that the record labels are having an identity crisis over YouTube. Indeed, as I wrote last year, the YouTube discovery journey has become the consumption destination. The advert has become the product. But there’s even more to it than this. Not only is YouTube outperforming the audio pure plays, music is being outperformed on YouTube by its growing body of native creators, the new generation of YouTubers.

youtube economy

YouTube started out as a place simply to watch (and upload) videos but has evolved into a sophisticated entertainment platform that supports a multitude of diverse use cases, both in terms of content and audience. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in channel subscriptions. In many respects ‘channel’ isn’t the most appropriate term as they are in effect talent feeds rather than channels in a traditional video / TV sense. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, they have become the lifeblood of native YouTube creators as diverse as Michelle Phan, PewDiePie, Zoella, SMOSH, stampylongnose and IISuperwomanII.

These are creators who often do everything from writing, filming, production through to front-of-camera. DIY superstars if you like. And they are fast becoming the lifeblood of YouTube. Of the 330 million subscriptions in the top 50 YouTube channels, YouTubers account for 34%. Compare and contrast with the measly 15% music artist and label channels have. And despite all the excitement around the increased subscribers Adele and Justin Bieber have racked up these last few months – they gained 8 million subscribers between them, making them the two fastest gainers across all of YouTube – music artists as a whole lost ground, accounting for just 31% of the top 50 gains during the last 90 days compared to 53% for YouTubers.

Music Is Losing Ground To Native YouTubers

Music does fare better in terms of views with 36% of the 41 billion top 50 views in the last 90 days. However it still plays second fiddle to YouTubers who account for 45%. But it is the direction of travel that reveals the most telling trend. Over the last 90 days 42% of the 50 top 50 growing channel views compared to 39% for music. In itself that may sound like a modest difference, but this is just the latest 90 day chapter in a much longer story. Music used to be the clear focal point of YouTube but that is changing. In terms of all time views music actually outpaces YouTubers with 42% compared to 41%. But at current rates that lead will be wiped out in the next 90 days. And here’s the paradox: music’s hold on YouTube is slipping even though YouTube is outperforming music services.

Part of driving force is out of the hands of the labels: video is eating the world, with more than 5 trillion short form views in 2015 alone. Music is always the first mover in digital content consumption, the trailblazer for other media. Once distribution, bandwidth and consumer sophistication all improve, video moves in.

Time To Stop Using YouTube Like School Kids Use Instragram

But record labels and artists can seize some control of their destiny, by taking a more sophisticated view of YouTube and exploring how to build strategies that work for YouTube in 2016 not for YouTube in 2010.  Right now record labels are using YouTube like school kids use Instagram, obsessing with vanity metrics such as views rather than thinking more deeply about how to build lasting relationships with YouTube audiences. A new generation of music artists is emerging that have created and nurtured audiences on YouTube, often with little or no help from labels. Artist like Dave Days, Tyler Ward, Boyce Avenue and Hannah Trigwell have built their fanbases on YouTube, often starting with covers but also crucially often non-music content such as parodies and vlogs. Raised in YouTube these artists are entirely native to the platform. They understand what audiences want because that’s where they come from.

If the big traditional artists and labels want to start making up some ground on the YouTuber revolution they could do worse than take a few hints from this new breed of YouTube artist.

YouTube And The Attention Economy

This is the third in the series of posts exploring how the music industry can better leverage the potential of the YouTube economy.  You can see the first post here and the second here.

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.