An Alternate History for Music, YouTube, & Everything Else

Take all the best qualities of the web and imagine for a moment that the boundaries of intellectual property ownership are respected and upheld–at least on the major, legal platforms.  Imagine, for instance, that YouTube still exists, but that one would not have typically used the platform to stream an unlicensed recording of a popular song by a popular artist.  Instead, in this alternate history, the artists’ individual websites developed as the only places where users could stream tracks, read lyrics, and even share tracks via social media.  Meanwhile, YouTube could still have evolved as a platform for original expression, including parodies and covers of popular songs, most of which would likely be left alone by the rights holders, just as they are now.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine YouTube having grown without its infringe-first/settle-later strategy, conveniently protected by flaws in the DMCA; but as long as I’m projecting a hypothetical, I ask readers to imagine what we might have gained or lost if the market had developed just a little differently in this regard.  YouTube was able to use the leverage of mass infringement in order to grow market share and turn the platform into a default destination for streaming music, but that’s not the only way this history had to unfold. If YouTube had never been able to—or had chosen not to—host millions of unlicensed, user-uploaded songs; and if the default user habit had instead been to first visit the artist website to do all the things they now use YouTube for, what would be lost for the fan?  I would argue nothing.  On the other hand, what would probably be gained is a more interesting, more diverse, and more entrepreneurial digital market for music makers and listeners alike.

Right now, if you visit a major star’s website, you probably won’t find full tracks to stream or share via Facebook, etc.  But if the artist site had an exclusive, if the millions of user-uploaded streams on YouTube alone were no longer part of the equation, I bet most artists would probably have begun to recognize the incentives to make streams available on their own sites.  Google could still sell advertising in this paradigm, except that the artists themselves (gasp) would have a stronger voice in negotiating terms because they would not be held hostage by the rock-and-hard-place deal in the YouTube model.

Even if we look at a fairly small band, like The Felice Brothers, who are popular local artists in the Hudson Valley where I live, this model could theoretically apply.  Their top ten tracks on YouTube have generated about 1.3 million total plays.  That’s not Taylor Swift or Adele territory, but if that traffic were driven exclusively to the band’s website, would it be worth it to the artists to provide streams, lyrics, and sharing embeds for social media?  Certainly it seems that capturing that traffic could not be worth less than the ancillary (or shared) value the band gets via the YouTube platform; and it could easily be worth considerably more simply because the fan would likely have a more in-depth engagement via the official website.

At the same time, Google could do its thing, like recommend other artists based on your liking The Felice Brothers, and it can even monetize that piece of the transaction without actually having to “own” the experience that rightly belongs to the artists.  That would be less attractive to Google and its shareholders, I’m sure, but we’re talking user/creator experience here, not revenues for one huge company.

As I say, I believe user experience overall could be much richer than it is.  Imagine a teenager wants to hear a new song a friend played for her, but she doesn’t remember who the artist is or even the correct title of the song.  This is, of course, where Google makes her young life better than ours was; its page rank algorithm helps her (even though she only knows a few terms) find the artist’s website in a matter of seconds. Here, she is not only able to listen to the song she had in mind, but she’s also more inclined to learn something about the artist(s), more likely to explore other tracks, share music she finds on social media, read lyrics etc., and begin to discover how big a fan/consumer she will become.  Just finding a copy of a song that some other fan uploaded to YouTube doesn’t really offer much of a relationship at all for the prospective new fan.

The point is that, technically, all of the best features for both artists and fans could still exist in an online market in which YouTube is exclusively the platform it claims to be—a place for original expression—rather than the platform it is—a place for original expression and massive infringement of popular creative works.  And I think this is more or less how many of us in the 1990s imagined the web might evolve—as a more diverse market for entrepreneurism rather than a consolidated market with a few dominant platforms that figured out how to commandeer the relationship between a fan and creator, and then sell that relationship back to both parties by converting the transaction into ad sales.

Of course, after acquiring all the traffic that may otherwise have gone to the artists’ individual sites, YouTube was then able to position itself as indispensable and, therefore, free to dictate–and change–terms at will.  Even the revenue-sharing program through Content ID was only introduced after YouTube had cornered substantial market share by means of user-generated infringement shielded by the DMCA.  And based on comments from both entertainment attorneys and independent musical artists I know, Content ID may best be described as a mercurial and inscrutable arrangement for smaller creators and/or a tool used to leverage the platform’s ill-gotten market share to make a take-it-or-leave it “deal” with the majors.  Yet, for all the ways the YouTube platform siphoned off financial value and weakened bargaining power for may types of music creators, it’s not at all clear that we fans really needed the platform in order to enjoy exactly the same experiences we could have in a more diverse market distributed across multiple sites.

There may be no going back, of course; but in the larger dialogue about issues like YouTube’s extraordinary leverage with creative artists and the extent to which the DMCA provides cover for the predatory, winner-take-all nature of these platforms, I think it’s important to remember that the way things are is not necessarily the way they had to be–or have to remain. This is, in fact, one of the underlying themes running through every criticism I’ve read by Jaron Lanier, formerly one of the leading architects of these systems, but who now consistently argues that the web we have is engineered backwards—so that humans serve the computers rather the the other way around. And rather than think of the the design of Web 2.0 as having been inevitable—as technologically deterministic—that it in fact functions exactly as humans coded it to function.  As such, it is not entirely impossible or unreasonable to imagine how it might be better.

 


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