Analysis

YouTube steps up row with indie labels by confirming imminent video blocks


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YouTube-LogoThe already-angry row between independent labels and YouTube flared up again yesterday, after the company’s head of content and business operations Robert Kyncl confirmed to the Financial Times that YouTube will block videos “in a matter of days” from labels that have not signed up to its upcoming premium music service.

The report initially suggested YouTube has signed up labels and distributors representing 90% of the industry, but the FT has since edited that figure to read 95%.

“While we wish that we had a 100 per cent success rate, we understand that is not likely an achievable goal and therefore it is our responsibility to our users and the industry to launch the enhanced music experience,” said Kyncl.

He also confirmed that YouTube will begin testing its new service internally within the next few days, before launching later in the summer.

But arguments raged online yesterday over what exactly YouTube is threatening, with some sources claiming it will only block indie holdouts from the new premium service or will block them from monetisation features on the free service without removing the videos.

However, others – including indie body WIN, it should be noted – say that the threats still involve blocking non-signups’ videos on the free service. “YouTube executives argue that they cannot offer music on the free service without it also being available on the paid service as this would disappoint its subscribers,” as Billboard puts it.

Meanwhile, you had the BBC suggesting that indie videos uploaded to YouTube via Vevo would still be available, while only “videos which are exclusively licensed by independent record labels, such as acoustic sets or live performances” will be taken down.

Clear as mud, then. Radiohead manager Brian Message was asked at Music Ally’s transparency event last night whether he thinks YouTube will follow through on the threats: “I quite hope that they do! It would be quite interesting to see what happens next!” – not as flippant as it reads in print, but more an admission that it’s only once blocking start happening that the industry will know exactly what YouTube is threatening.

This dispute is bad for everyone: for labels and artists, for fans, and particularly for YouTube, for whom accusations of bullying indie labels will be hard to brush off.

“They have suffered a simple but catastrophic error of judgement in misreading the market,” suggested WIN’s Alison Wenham yesterday. “As the dominant online video platform, YouTube/Google should negotiate fully and fairly with independents and not misuse its power,” said BPI boss Geoff Taylor – although as we noted before, this dispute also involves independents arguing that the major labels that have struck deals with YouTube already are also demonstrating misuse of power.

Still, we need more clarity: if Kyncl’s “matter of days” promise is correct, we’ll soon find out what YouTube is really doing. As things stand, this is one of the most dispiriting licensing disputes we can remember in digital music’s short, often-rancorous history.

Stuart Dredge

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