Tube, yes. You, not so much.
If there has been one consistent theme in everything I’ve written since diving into the morass we call the digital age, it’s that the Internet is not ours despite all appearances to the contrary. Like it or not, all the populist, free-speech rhetoric that’s been spoon-fed to the public by the chief propellorheads of the land is just a gateway drug meant to dull our senses so we don’t notice the monopolistic power grab that’s been taking place. No, the Internet is not ours so much as it belongs to a very small consortium of players, most especially Google, which controls nearly all search and nearly all advertising worldwide.
As I argued during the heated squabble over SOPA, these companies don’t really give a damn about free speech or about liberating creators and consumers of content from the media elite gatekeepers; they simply want to be the new media elite, and have the potential to be far more ruthless gatekeepers. Instead of an oligopoly of studios, labels, and publishers we’re gleefully handing over absolute power to a couple of companies, not only calling it progress but even more shockingly calling it democratic.
If you’ve been paying attention to Amazon’s practice of making books disappear as a “negotiating” tactic with key publishers, let me turn your attention to a recently announced move by YouTube, where apparently more teenagers listen to music than from any other source. The company has been working for some time on launching paid subscription services, and so has naturally been negotiating licensing deals with major music labels. YouTube claims to have signed agreements for 90% of the music it sought to license, but the remaining 10% comprised of independent labels, representing artists like Adele and Jack White, were not satisfied with the terms being offered by Google, Inc. and so refused to sign licensing deals. Taking a lesson perhaps from Amazon (or Al Capone), Google will begin removing the official videos of these unsigned artists from YouTube. But because the company is all about you and all about free expression, of course, any unofficial videos that make use of these artists’ works as soundtracks will not be targeted for removal by Google. You’ve got to love a company that can put the screws to an artist and exploit her at the same time while the “fans” applaud the whole stinking mess. I mean that is some whack stupid evil genius shit right there.
In 2006, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was You. YouTube had grown so rapidly that it was viewed by many, including presumably the editors at Time, as the year when Everyman became the story. And ever since then, YouTube, even after its billion-dollar acquisition by Google, has traded on this populist veneer. But nobody pays a billion dollars to maintain the worlds biggest library of home movies. It’s always been about big business and popular entertainment, and YouTube has admittedly provided opportunity for artists and other entrepreneurs to build or cultivate a following and make real revenue through ad shares. The flaw, of course, that remains shrouded by the smoke that still lingers from its populist beginnings is that YouTube is a monopoly. And whether it’s an indie label like Domino Recordings or a YouTube-borne entrepreneur, Google Inc. dictates terms, can change those terms, and has no viable competitor.
It’s true that several big players, including Amazon and iTunes, are jumping into the subscription streaming business to compete with the likes of Spotify, but odds are, one dominant service will emerge because that’s how economics on the web work. Once a site or service attains a certain marketshare and can then tie its service to app-supported devices (e.g. an Android app), it becomes generally unassailable by a would-be competitor. And that’s why all this gibberish about “break old media models and follow new ones” can be very misleading. In the moment, the promise sounds emancipating and possibly even lucrative for creators and entrepreneurs, but over time, as we see with Amazon and books, we find out we’ve made a deal with devil and let him kill off all the archangels.