Fresh from a series of media interviews to promote the launch of YouTube Music Premium – including a chat with Music Ally – YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen gave a keynote speech at the Cannes Lions conference today.
Interviewed by BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, Cohen returned to some familiar themes from his recent interviews and speeches, including his “diversity of distribution” catchphrase to describe YouTube’s pitch to the music industry: that it can be important competition for Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon.
“The creative community – the labels and the artists – need many distributors. If there’s a healthy ecosystem of distribution, it becomes safe for artists and labels. If it’s too consolidated, and only one or two players own distribution, that’s really problematic for the creative community,” he said.
As for those old tensions with the music industry: “I’m feeling that we have a new love affair. And I think the reason: first of all, YouTube is massive. 1.9 billion people. It is the greatest place where artists are discovered, where more music is consumed, and YouTube was simply a dealmaking organisation,” he said.
“We made a deal with the record companies, we got their licence, they went back to San Francisco and the next time you saw YouTube and YouTube people was when the licence was running out… When you’re not treating the record companies and the artists like customers and all you do is see them every three years, a lot of misunderstandings and paranoia can happen.”
Cohen reiterated his points from our earlier interview that labels are now excited about YouTube Music and YouTube Music Premium. “Everybody’s hopeful and excited. All I hear when I go to industry events is ‘how can I be helpful?’ ‘Count us in’. ‘It’s so nice to see you guys in the game’. And I really appreciate that they have the confidence in us working together.”
Cohen cited grime, Afrobeat and Beyoncé’s performance at the Coachella festival as inspirations. “It was just mind-boggling what she side, and it was on YouTube. There’s a lot of artist discovery, and a lot of cultural discovery. It’s all good.”
He added that “the product is right now. The focus and attention to the consumer and the landscape is right now. Everybody is aligned. It will be YouTube’s largest marketing campaign. They’re not going to spend the money on a marketing campaign if they did not love the product… and the product is really good… We heard the music industry, and my colleagues just built an amazing app, so I’m very proud of this moment.”
“This product is going to evolve,” he added. “It’s going to get better and better and better.”
He finished off with some thoughts on the music industry: are things going to be okay, wondered Annie Mac? “We’re better than okay. Fortunes are going to get made right now. A bunch of artists that, in the last two decades, had to sit with their parents and may have not been able to convince themselves or their parents to a creative life, went to college, are going to come back. So many artists are going to be able to make a living… It’s an incredible moment to be in the music business, and I’m so hopeful,” he said.
“But to me, the music industry doesn’t get fully activated until the impressario comes back. And the impressario is the unemployable… This industry si bouncing. And one of the critical things we need to think about is how do we elegantly bounce. As the business expands, are we just going to relive and have PSD about the two decades of decline, or are we going to figure out how to grow this business, bring more artists, find more Jay-Zs and Kurt Cobains and Aretha Franklins, and just make the overall health of the music business better?
I think between advertising – and by the way our new collaboration with the industry has given us the opportunity with Vevo to sell all of the world’s music videos in Google Preferred – so as we increase the health of advertising and grow subscription, this is a really great time.”
Before Cohen spoke, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki delivered her own speech, with the theme of openness. “We now have more than 1.9 billion logged-in monthly users, and we’re opening up the world to anyone who has an internet connection and a cellphone,” she said.
However, Wojcicki admitted that “openness also has some very real challenges” – referring to some of the negative (and even hateful) content that has found an outlet on YouTube, and sparked criticism – not to mention the odd suspended budget – from the advertising world.
“This year we saw a number of bad actors try to take advantage of our services,” said Wojcicki, reminding the audience of YouTube’s tightened policies on content and monetisation, and its promise to build a 10,000-strong (human) moderation team by the end of this year, to complement its algorithmic filters.
“There is not a playbook on how platforms at our size and our scale, there’s no playbook on how to have the right content and policies for the scale that we operate,” said Wojcicki. “The way I think about it is it’s very important that when we look back at this time in history, that we are on the right side of history. And I’m very committed, personally, to making sure that happens.”
She was talking about those ‘bad actors’ rather than music, but there are plenty of music companies hoping that YouTube Music – including its new subscription tier – can put the company on the right side of our industry’s history too, in the coming months and years.