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YouTube Versus Indie Musicians: A Primer

By 06.20.14
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YouTube/Wikimedia Foundation


You might have heard that YouTube will be removing artists like Adele from the entire site “in a matter of days.” You might even be angry about it! But there’s one problem: It’s not really clear that we’re actually talking about “YouTube” as we generally use the term. Here’s what’s going on.

So is YouTube just generally sick of Jack White running his mouth or something?

Probably, but what this is really about is YouTube’s upcoming music streaming service.

Doesn’t Google already have a music streaming service?

Yes, but apparently it thinks it needs two. Anyway, the service is supposedly launching later this summer. And most labels have signed up, but some are holding out for a better deal. So YouTube has started twisting arms, to the extent they can.

What’s the gripe of the labels that haven’t signed?

Well, it’s not actually the labels, but a trade group called the Worldwide Independent Network. They argue that Google isn’t offering them enough money to stream the labels they represent and want what the major labels are getting. They’ve called the contracts insulting and have argued that independent musicians they represent deserve a better rate. Part of the problem appears to be that YouTube just sent them a boilerplate contract that legally some labels can’t even sign in the first place due to the rights involved.

So basically, if they don’t sign the deal, all their videos get taken down?

That is allegedly what’s going on: Any “official content” from those indie labels will be pulled. For example, if there’s a live performance that’s been officially uploaded to YouTube, that’ll be taken down because otherwise, it’ll wind up in the ad-free music stream some consumer is supposedly paying for and then Google gets sued.

The reality, though, is that this is limited to official content from a label or artist with no deal in place. For example, Vevo isn’t losing any videos, and Vevo includes a lot of the artists, like Adele and the Arctic Monkeys, who are supposedly getting the boot off of YouTube. Furthermore, if a video is uploaded by a fan, like a live performance, that will still be available, most likely. It just won’t be monetized. It doesn’t look like small indie musicians without a label are at risk of having their videos removed either.

So we’re talking about an incredibly small selection of videos here. They shouldn’t be on the chopping block in the first place, mind you, but it’s not a sweeping removal of every video featuring the artists these labels have signed.

You’d think Google would just sort channels by a “stream/not-stream” function or something.

Supposedly, YouTube doesn’t want a subscriber to see a song they like, click on the “premium” features, and be told “Sorry, you can’t get what you paid for.” In reality, one suspects the threat of removing videos is empty posturing. The threat of removing the ContentID money from fan videos, though, is far more serious; there’s actual money involved there.

Who’s going to cave first?

YouTube. Taking ContentID away from providers who don’t play nice essentially tells the video producers they rely on that they need to find another streaming service. And considering that this service they’re offering is rather poorly considered, expect YouTube to sheepishly reinstate the videos and the Content ID system in fairly short order.

Still, it’s a good reminder: YouTube’s a business, and it’s got leverage. Something to remember, for both musicians and the rest of us.

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