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.

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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.

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.