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’.


What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.