YouTube is the biggest digital music service in the world, but how can musicians and the music industry make the most of it? A panel session at Midem today discussed the challenges and opportunities of music videos online: finding an audience and making decent (or, at least better) money from them.

The panel comprised Geoff Taylor, boss of the BPI and Brit Awards; Brandon Martinez, CEO of multi-channel network INDMusic; Tom Pickett, VP of YouTube content at Google; and Jordan Berliant, partner at The Collective Music Group. It was moderated by Andrea Leonelli of Digital Music Trends.

Berliant kicked off. “There’s been huge change in what a video is and what it represents,” he said, noting that music videos used to be made by labels to promote something else – recorded music. “What has changed is the video isn’t a promotional thing: the video IS the thing… If you think about where people go for music, it’s not iTunes, it’s not Best Buy, it’s not FNAC. It’s Google. It serves content, much of it visual. The video IS the thing. It’s not something to promote something else.”

Martinez gave his view as a music-focused MCN, suggesting that many artists don’t think about YouTube more than putting up a new music video every couple of months. “It’s no longer an album cycle, it’s a 12-month content cycle,” he said. “For every piece of content you release, there should be 6-8 other pieces of content to support that.” For example, making-of videos for music videos. “All the ways of other content that you can create that probably doesn’t cost as much to make as the music video, or which you can shoot at the same time.”

He added that musicians should think about YouTube as “programming” akin to television. “Over time, you’ll see growth in terms of views, but also subscribers. People will be coming back because they want to see your content.”

The BPI has set up its own YouTube channel called Transmitter. Taylor talked about its plans to connect British artists with audiences on YouTube. “We really feel that there’s a bit of a gap in YouTube and on Vevo at the moment: they’re amazing platforms, but they’re quite channelised… We felt that there was something on an ongoing basis that was needed to give you that richer connection with the artists… An aggregator that promotes British music to the world. It’s something we’re taking our time with.”

Google has been taking a lot of flak at Midem this year for not being “music people”, and Pickett was put on the spot about this. “We are very much into music,” he said, suggesting that seven years ago “the music video was kinds dead at that point… and YouTube brought it back… We are all in on music.”

Berliant talked about challenges for musicians: “There are things we should be making money on, and aren’t”, and he said that rather than blame YouTube for that, the fault lies with the people who made bad deals in the past. He also warned that it’s vital to understand the audience watching music videos on YouTube before you can make money. “It’s not a place to make money right now, but it’s not primarily because of YouTube or Google in my mind, it’s because the people representing the content primarily don’t understand the marketplace.”

Martinez warned that it’s also “a long game… this is about in aggregate growing an audience that’s engaged with you and your content” – no quick wins. But Pickett stoutly defended YouTube’s record in making money for musicians, particularly those trying to get their music out to a global audience. “I think the ad-supported model is the model that’s going to give you that breadth. That’s not to say there aren’t going to be other kinds of business models on top of that,” he said.

“Within the ad-supported model, that puts you in a certain situation where you get the best breadth you can, you build your brand, and with that also comes many other forms of monetisation. We’ve paid out to the music industry over the last several years over a billion dollars. So there is money being generated in this ad-supported model.”

He also talked about the potential for paid music on YouTube – a longstanding rumour has YouTube launching a music subscription service in the early part of this year. “Paid subscription in music? We’ll have to see. The problem is we’re taking people who are used to zero, and trying to take them to a much higher level,” said Pickett.

Taylor said that videos are now “core business” for music companies, as is streaming. Although he compared YouTube unflatteringly with Spotify and Deezer, which have a combination of ad-supported and premium subscription tiers. “I think YouTube has lacked that, and that has been a problem for the industry. When I looked at the billions of streams there were in music videos, and the pounds and pence coming in to the industry from that, it was a very small number,” he said.

The conversation turned to mobile video viewing. Pickett noted that YouTube only introduced ads on mobile devices a year and a half ago, with its TrueView skippable-ad format rolling out across multiple devices. “We have been selling the TrueView ad format very well, and the monetisation rate that we see on mobile devices now is almost as good as on the PC,” he said.

Back to Taylor: “Labels have changed perspective radically over the recent years,” he said, suggesting that partnerships with multi-channel networks are increasingly common. He also noted that this year’s Brit Awards will be livestreamed. “We looked at our data on YouTube relating to the Brits. 90% of the views came from outside the UK. Huge audience in the US, huge audience in Brazil… We’re all learning here, the labels just as much as anybody. The suggestion that they just think about sales, I really think that has moved on.”

The panel were asked about livestreams, and how these make money. Berliant said one problem is that “if you have an artist, let’s say Linkin Park, which has a global constituency, somewhere in the world it’s going to be three in the morning… I feel like the model that may work best is some excitement from a live event, but make it archivable so that anybody who wants to be able to access it can access it on their timezone.”

A question from the audience focused on how Google cracks down on websites and software that help people rip YouTube videos into free MP3 downloads. “On the Google search side, we’re constantly trying to rank appropriately. Google search is a reflection of what’s out there on the web. Some sites go down, some come up so it’s a game of whack-a-mole.”

There was definite unrest in the crowd, with another attendee seizing the mic to criticise YouTube and Pickett for Google’s impact on the music industry. “They say this is the last Midem… please talk to us and tell us what you’re really gonna do about it,” he asked. Pickett said YouTube is working hard to “get rid of bad actors out there”. But Taylor said he had sympathy with the views from the audience.

We’ve been asking YouTube to deal with these stream-ripping applications for many years. YouTube is supposed to be an ad-funded streaming service, not a free download service… We can’t understand why it’s taken so long for Google and YouTube to do something about this.” And he compared this struggle to the BPI’s efforts to get Google to downrank pirate sites in search results.

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