For a long time, the world of YouTube musicians – as in YouTubers who make music, rather than established musicians’ videos being added to Google’s service – has been most heavily associated with cover versions.
For music publishers, that’s meant that the emphasis of their interactions with the platform has been on getting paid for usage of songs in their catalogues, such as when the US National Music Publishers Association reached deals with multi-channel networks like Fullscreen in 2014.
Could these YouTuber cover artists also become a talent pool for original songwriting, though? There was a hint of it this week when Sony/ATV announced a worldwide publishing deal with Pentatonix, who first found fame on YouTube with their inventive a cappella covers of Daft Punk, Beyoncé, Lorde and other stars.
Those covers helped Pentatonix gather more than 9m subscribers to their YouTube channel, which has generated more than 1.1bn video views. But they’ve also sold 2m albums in the US, gone on increasingly-popular tours, and a Grammy award. But it’s their original material that attracted Sony/ATV.
“We were aware through their management that they were also songwriters, although their fame came from YouTube. But for me, it was when I saw the live show that I realised the incredible individual reaction that each of them got as they did their solo turns,” Sony/ATV’s US co-president Danny Strick told Music Ally.
“They each had their own fans inside the theatre, and you really got a sense of how their personalities stood out individually. Also, we saw equal love at the shows for the covers they do and the original songs that they have written.”
He points to the popularity of Pentatonix’s latest single Can’t Sleep Love, with an official video that’s been watched more than 5.8m times since its launch a month ago, plus several hundred thousand views apiece for each of the five band member’s solo versions, which were released last week.
“They have great voices and great arrangements, and a unique point of view in how they do their videos. They’re in their own lane right now,” said Strick. “The idea for us is to start to work with them individually and as a group as writers, and certainly as they get into the next project, see who they can work with the amazing array of producer and writer talent within Sony/ATV.”
There’s an interesting comparison between the worlds of publishing and YouTube – two worlds that have sometimes seemed far apart. Think about the importance of collaboration: teaming up for joint videos is how many YouTubers build their audiences, but matching different songwriters for collabs is also one of the traditional skills for music publishers.
“It’s still the core function for a publisher even in today’s modern world, to help the writers evolve to the best that they can be. And a lot of that is collaborations,” said Strick. “That’s been going on for music publishers since the beginning.”
Does this particular deal represent a more positive stage in the relationship between music publishers and YouTube, given past battles over royalties? “We do get royalties from our covers on YouTube, although it’s a constant challenge to make sure we’re getting what we should get,” said Strick.
He’s cautious about suggesting there’ll be a flood of YouTube-born songwriters following in Pentatonix’s footsteps, although he recognised that YouTube has been a fertile source for new performers, from the young Justin Bieber through to the fresh-faced YouTubers having hits on the iTunes chart.
“I don’t know if this [the Pentatonix deal] is a trend. In this case, they have had television exposure besides the YouTube exposure that really triggered the opportunity for them. Plus they had the record deal, so they’ve gotten the benefit of the major label system too,” said Strick.
“I’m not sure if it is the next grazing field to find new talent coming up. In unique situations, good things line up and it’s very possible, but I wouldn’t expect it to be a weekly thing. Certainly this whole YouTube cover thing has been the main focus in terms of YouTube for new artists. And when they do put up original material, the question is how do they get traction – how do they get more people than their families to notice it?”
Even so, Strick and Sony/ATV are confident that Pentatonix are well-placed to push on now with their original material, starting with their eponymous new album out today.
“When you see it live, you see how they are five individuals but they come together as a group, and that it works really well. You’ll start seeing their voices as writers over time in the same way,” he said.