YouTube’s launching a premium music ser- vice. It makes sense for the world’s biggest streaming site to try and ape the success of subscription offerings, but it’s unfortunate Google’s going to do so by strong-arming independent record labels like Domino and XL into taking shitty deals.
The problem affects musicians Crack loves, from FKA twigs, Julia Holter and How To Dress Well to household names like The xx and Arctic Monkeys.
Yet independent labels are being offered terms that put them on the back foot; sign up to a deal that’s less favourable than that offered to majors or your music will be blocked and you’ll lose the audience altogether.
Music Pass will show content advert free. YouTube could have chosen to play the songs from labels that didn’t sign-up without the new features, but allowing free streams of tracks while not offering them on the paid service would erode its value. And it still doesn’t feel the need to negotiate contracts the American Association of Independent Music describe as “highly unfavourable, and in many cases, unworkable”.
It threatens to undermine the already low royalty rates paid to musicians. One clause highlighted in analysis of a contract leaked under the headline ‘F*&K It: Here’s the Entire YouTube Contract for Indies…’ says there’s potential for larger labels to take lower rates in exchange for advances. Indies would then have to accept the lower per-stream rates without benefitting from the upfront payment.
Another clause forces them to include entire back catalogues of music and videos, removing the option to provide exclusivity to other platforms. And, if they don’t take part, blocked songs could appear in user-submitted content, leaving the company playing whack a track when copyrighted content’s posted by well-intentioned fans, while YouTube continues to make revenue on the unsanctioned posts.
The situation reminds me of an Oatmeal cartoon called The State of the Music Industry. It charts the evolution from record labels that sat between fans and musicians screaming “Halt! You must pay!” to different generations of online services that are taking over and democratising the gatekeeper role.
The How it is Now panel shows services like YouTube, Spotify and others moving into this position; YouTube was part of the solution, one of various different services which allowed musicians to take advantage of digital distribution.
Instead, effectively forcing companies to accept these terms and conditions is drag- ging the company backwards. YouTube’s using its market share to become a digital version of the same kind of monopolistic gatekeeper that dictates its terms to the market regardless of what fans and musicians want.
The company has a habit of using its dominance to draw exorbitant profits from copyrighted work, “parasitic” behaviour that led post-mask-reveal Scooby Doo villain Rupert Murdoch to brand it as a “content kleptomaniac”.
Maybe the Dirty Digger was right?
It continues to scan millions of books and list content online without permission, to the outcry of the publishing world. In the end Google won there too, after a prolonged lawsuit that redefined the concept of fair use.
It might seem hopeless, but the internet does a great job of providing options. We have the potential to vote with our wal- lets, with our clicks, to force Google to treat content creators fairly. And the court of public opinion does impact a company that’s trying to maintain its ‘cool’ while taking over the world, as long as we make a fuss.
The final panel in The Oatmeal’s cartoon is titled Where it Needs To Go From Here and shows the musician talking directly to the fan, evoking a kind of Bandcamp-style model. Hopefully we can push the industry further and further towards that point to support the music we love, not take a step backward.
- – - – - – - – - – -
Words: Christopher Goodfellow
Illustration: Lee Nutland