The debates around YouTube, the value gap and takedowns are at risk of ossifying into two diametrically-opposed camps where nuance is being sacrificed and everyone will be all the poorer as a result.
That is the belief of a highly-placed source in the US music business, interviewed by Music Ally with the promise of anonymity, who is watching the arguments turn into two entrenched schools of thought and feels that it has been boiled down to a dangerous us/them battle.
“It’s not a choice between throwing out YouTube and doing nothing at all,” they say of the current lobbying by both sides in the US. “That has been a false choice all along. We can preserve the parts that work and improve the parts that don’t work.”
The fundamental problem, they feel, is the conflicting media messages being pumped out by each side that only serves to obfuscate the core issues. “There are dueling PR campaigns going on at the same time,” they say. “There is Google on the one hand, putting out its anti-piracy report and then there is this coalition of superstars who have placed their ad.”
That ad, of course, refers to the one taken out by artist manager Irving Azoff in which he reprinted the open letter he and a huge number of artists sent to YouTube.
“When Irving Azoff put together his idea of what he was going to do when he got involved with this issue, he unilaterally said he would handpick who gets to be on the ad and that it was going to be famous people,” our source explains.
“Irving Azoff did not seem to understand the PR problem and the fact that it messes up the narrative if it’s just a bunch of superstars. This is especially unfortunate as it is the people who are lower down on the pyramid who are potentially the most natively impacted by the shortcomings of YouTube right now.”
Any time artists get publicly involved in industry campaigns, a catch 22 situation results. The huge acts get the media attention but skew the narrative to being about the elite and already successful. If smaller acts are used as the PR hook, very little coverage ensues and the debate splutters out in indifference.
Most of the superstar-led PR around this issue has focused on remuneration and greater takedown powers than the DMCA currently allows for.
While this is important, the executive feels the finer details of the wider review of the Copyright Act are being brushed over or ignored. This covers orphan works but also small claims court actions taken by smaller creators who cannot afford to file and pursue a massive lawsuit if their copyrights have been violated.
For much of the artist-led activities here, the focus has been on legislative change – but the industry source believes this is possibly taking a sledgehammer to a nut.
“There are some things that can be done without getting into the legislative process,” they suggest.
“One is that it should be possible for artists, regardless of how famous or small they are, to exercise control over whether or not their works appears and where that work appears on a service. For some people, this is an argument about compensation in regards to the amount of money they are getting. For others, it is more of an argument about control and autonomy. For many, it is some hybrid of the two.”
YouTube should not shirk its responsibilities here, they feel, and it is important the company is being taken to task over its position on these matters. They say that YouTube is using Content ID as its get-out clause but is not willing to accept it has huge limitations – or to do anything to fix them.
“Anyone can apply for Content ID to be pulled into their system, but they don’t let you into that system unless you already have a certain threshold of views.There is no transparency. There is nothing to explain what that threshold is and they can arbitrarily say they are not going to let you in. You can try and get in via a third-party digital distributor or aggregator, but they often don’t allow you the full range of choices,” they say.
“Often we are finding that artists and labels have their stuff up on YouTube through these [third-party] deals and they have never been able to see the actual terms governing the contractual use of their music on the services.”
The source also suggests that the business model underpinning YouTube is such that many of the criticisms aimed at it will fall on deaf ears.
“YouTube is not incentivised to listen,” they say. “As soon as people have exercised more control over what is on the platform, then it becomes less of a full-catalogue service. That means they will lose some of their dominance in the space.”
The fact that YouTube works on an ad-share basis means that getting clear answers on what it pays out leads to misinformation on both sides of the ideological schism here. It also appears to reward the most watched videos on an exponential level that is almost like a tax break on success and this only serves to drive niches further into themselves.
“As far as we can tell, it seems to be dynamic based on view counts,” they argue of the payouts. “The more popular a video is, the more money they get for each play. That takes the existing ‘winner takes all’ dynamic and amplifies it, potentially exponentially.”
“That means the people who are raking in millions of views can think they are getting a significant amount of money; but for people further down the tail, because each play is worth less, the amount of money they are going to be potentially earning through the revenue share is a whole lot less.”
They add, “It also rewards the kind of music that is made for the repeat view on a mass audience scale. It is inherently less remunerative to people who are working in a genre like, for example, jazz. For entire genres, it is becoming more difficult to make meaningful income. That doesn’t mean that the platform isn’t potentially valuable as there are other things you can do with it, like pointing people to other kinds of revenue streams that are more remunerative.”
The feeling in the US currently is that nothing of any significance will happen there until at least the end of the year, by which time the Copyright Office will have completed its study and it is deemed unlikely any congressional action will happen until after that point.
Ultimately, while labels, publishers and industry bodies have been loudest in driving most of the agenda here, it is essential that all artist voices here are heard (regardless of their size). And as much as YouTube is being taken to task, so too must the old guard of the music industry be held to account.
“What musicians want from YouTube is not that different to what they want from labels, publishers or other digital services,” the source says. “They want accountability. They want transparency. They want a system that allows them to have a sustainable future for whatever time they are making creative works. That is totally compatible with free speech, with freedom of expression and with broad protections for fair use. It just takes a little bit more work and a little more collaboration.”
All parties’ voices need to be included here otherwise one imbalance will just be replaced with another imbalance.
“If we are not fixing it for the full breadth of the artistic community then we are not fixing it.”