YouTube Squeeze on Indies Instructive

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.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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12 comments

  • Sam Flintlock

    I’d agree it’s instructive, but I’d also suggest it’s been equally so about the majors.

    Like Spotify, the majors have again chosen to make a deal that deliberately screws over the indies and the DIY people. In fact, it’s even more stark. With the rise in self-released artists and viral sensations, the major’s overall control of the market has been lessened, although not as much as I’d like. And now we have a deal which will reduce the visibility of those artists outside the corporate mainstream, to the benefit of the majors. If anyone actually believes that this is coincidental to the deals being made, I have a bridge I’d like to sell them.

    Be interesting to see what Merlin do as well. They already sided with the majors on the Spotify issue. If they do so here, I think it’s obvious what side they’re on.

    I think you’re possibly overly pessimistic about this being overturned. Previous Internet giants (MSN Messenger, Livejournal) have been mostly replaced by now. And, from the sounds of what we know so far, what Google are planning is going to leave a gap for another video provider to jump into. There’s some murmuring among the indie sector about setting up their own service. At the moment, it’s no more then angry talk. But it could be interesting if it develops beyond that.

    • I’ve never been sure what is meant by Indie, at least as far as it refers to any genre.

      Anyway all of this is the scraping of pennies from a large number of sources. For a large media company with a large back catalog, picking an average of $50 a year in streaming revenue for each item, adds to 10s if not 100s of $millions. For an individual artist with handful of albums a few $100 at most.

      We are back to a feudal economy where you have to go to the Lord’s mill to have your corn ground. To the Lord’s market to sell your produce, and work on the Lord’s land for free.

      The internet has been enclosed.

      • “I’ve never been sure what is meant by Indie, at least as far as it refers to any genre.”

        Indie means ‘independent’ (ie, not on a major label)

      • What Audionomics said. I know it confuses things because people sometimes use it as shorthand for “white guys with guitars”, but in this context it’s about how the music is produced, not a genre. (So you can have indie rap or indie dance music).

        I’m hardline on this. If a record company has investment from one of the majors or is distributed by a major label, then I don’t consider them indie. Otherwise you end up with the current situation where Sub Pop are claiming they’re indie, despite being 49% owned by Warner. (This has been part of a repeated issue. The majors have subverted the indie system as much as possible to try and gain the credibility of their rivals. See fake indie labels like Hut back in the 90’s for a really good example of this).

        We are back to a feudal economy where you have to go to the Lord’s mill to have your corn ground. To the Lord’s market to sell your produce, and work on the Lord’s land for free.

        We aren’t back to it, it never went away. What you’ve just described is also very similar to artists spending years paying back their advances. We don’t need to go back to how it was, we need to go forward to something better.

        So take potshots at Google. But keep your powder dry.

      • See I’m sitting here going through a whole bunch of of albums on the Fuse Records label, Witches Bane, Hill & Dale, and Harbour Town, World Circuit, not to mention about 200 ECM recordings. Some of this stuff going back to the 60s. Yeah large record labels screwed over a lot of people, but at least in that situation Decca and Columbia weren’t ripping off artists that had no contract with them whatsoever.

      • Sam Flintlock

        The folk label Fuse? Good stuff. (I still have a fair bit of the Leon Rosselson vinyl). If you don’t know them already, check out Irregular Records. If you like Fuse. you’ll like a lot of Irregular artists.

        The folk labels like Fuse are interesting historically, because they’re the forerunner to the whole idea of indie as ethos and ideology that really came into age with punk and labels like Crass Records and Words of Warning.

        at least in that situation Decca and Columbia weren’t ripping off artists that had no contract with them whatsoever.

        You can make that argument with Megaupload or the Pirate Bay, but I don’t think it applies here. With YouTube and Spotify, what we’re actually talking about isn’t a complete lack of contracts. It’s using their market position to try and browbeat indie labels and self-published artists into highly favourable deals. That’s far closer to the business model of the major label deals.

        Especially when you take into account that, actually, the majors have previously acted to screw over the independent sector, despite having no contracts with the labels or bands concerned. The use of professional pluggers to swamp the airwaves (and payola, obviously). The deliberate undermining of the UK independent chart with the setting up of major label funded faux indie labels that technically fell within the rules. This is just a continuation of an approach the majors have always had. The old boss isn’t better then the new boss. In many cases, it’s not even a different person.

        And when you come across someone who claims differently, ask yourself one question. Cui bono?

      • Cool I have 12 Rosselson and Bailey vinyl albums, though two are pre-Fuse (Hugga-Mugga and Palaces), plus some Frankie Armstrong on the same label. Went to see Leon and Frankie in Bristol last weekend and will be seeing Roy in Derby next week. You may even remember the original Rosselson lyric that the sig is based on. Been away from the folk scene for a bit but I’ll check out Irregular Records. Was listen to Grace Petrie down in Bristol too who was neat. If you were ‘in to’ the folk you may have heard the album my friends made in the mid 70s called “The Hermit”.

        Anyway much of the music I’ve listened to has been recorded independently whether it is Folk, Jazz, or World. Don’t get me wrong I can listen to a EMI, Decca, Columbia, etc But one always seeks out content no matter where it might hide. Tacoma, Cumbancha, …

        We train our sights on whomever the major arseholes are. At the moment that is YT, Spotify, etc. Doesn’t meant the others get off, just that they are no longer the biggest shits on the block.


        They have been inserting little memes in everybody’s mind. So Google’s shills can shriek there whenever they’re inclined

      • I see Robb Johnson is on Irregular records saw him at Bristol along with Leon. He’ll also be at Derby next week.

  • Sam Flintlock

    Heh, Frankie is an old friend of my mums. Small world!

    I don’t think I know your friend’s band. I mostly got into folk through my mum- I turned 40 a few months ago, so it was obviously a bit before my time.

    • Ah a generational difference. Its a pity about Frankie’s glaucoma, do you know why that wasn’t picked up before it was too late?

      The folk scene is interesting in that nearly everyone singing contemporary songs borrows from each other. In the clubs songs by X will be sung by Y, songs by Y will be sung by X, and you even get Z who sings songs by X and Y but doesn’t write any themselves. No one seems to mind, after gigs they get together to swap and teach each other tunes etc. Its only when things move to the studio that licensing issues are involved. Its an informal NC Commons at work.

      Strangely for all the albums and songs that Rosselson has put out, very few are on YT, and hardly any of his lyrics are on the internet either. I’m not going to speculate as to why that might be.

      Anyway as for the labels vs the likes of Google, I think there is a huge difference between signing a bad contract with a label, and having a company exploit the work simply because they have induced others to upload the content. I take on board your comment about false advertising, but you now have a situation where that pushing of content hasn’t stopped but that even get content ‘out there’ one has to give away content to Google to even use the internet. I call that feudalism, paying tithes, and enclosure.


      They have been inserting little memes in everybody’s mind. So Google’s shills can shriek there whenever they’re inclined

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