Zoë Keating Ponders YouTube Service

I have to direct readers’ attention to this blog post by composer and cellist Zoë Keating.  It is the clearest articulation I have yet read about the rock-and-hard-place terms demanded of artists who are considering participation in YouTube’s paid streaming service Music Key.  Keating outlines some of the non-negotiable terms she doesn’t like, for instance that her entire catalog becomes fair game anywhere on YouTube and that she must release new work on Music Key simultaneous with any other release. And if Keating or any other artist does not wish to participate in Music Key, no problem, Google will simply throw your work to the wolves.

What does that mean?

Presently, Keating and other artists participate in YouTube’s Content ID program. The way it works is when someone uploads a video with Keating’s music on it, robots identify the track and send her a notice giving her options, including an option to monetize the video.  Many artists, Keating included, choose either to let the video remain without ads, or choose to monetize it with ads; and they typically only seek removal of offensive or unlicensed commercial uses.  But for all the noise people like to make about “new business models,” the Content ID program cannot generally be called an opportunity for artists, so much as it is a band-aid applied long after the bleeding of music’s value had begun.  It’s YouTube saying, “Well, people are going to use your music online and we’re going to monetize that, and there’s not much you can do about it, so here’s a slice of the pie.”  But nobody should think for a minute that Content ID is a revenue stream that most artists consider a portion of sustainable income. Still, it does provide artists a view of where their music is being used on the service, and this certainly has value.

But along comes Music Key with terms artists don’t like — last year there were several reports about the meager revenue shares in the offer — but an artist who declines to participate in Music Key will automatically lose his/her Content ID account.  As Zoë Keating describes, this puts her in the unfortunate position of potentially removing almost 10,000 videos and upsetting thousands of fans, or gritting her teeth and accepting YouTube’s exploitative terms for Music Key. But, the implication here is actually worse…

If an artist were to decline the Music Key deal, and next month there were 40,000 videos using her music, she could neither participate in the revenue nor very effectively remove those videos due to the slow and cumbersome DMCA notice-and-takedown process. Plus, Google’s bots are no longer identifying her music for her because she’s had that account revoked.  And if she did avail herself of DMCA for removal of any videos, YouTube will show users its frowny face icon, and the EFF will catalog the removal with the Chilling Effects database, making the artist look like she’s being a greedy, mean, censor.  See, it’s not so much a new model as it is a very old model coming back into vogue.

But Zoë Keating makes a very important point in her article about copyright itself.  If you pay attention to the facts she lays out — and she’s much friendlier about it than others, including me — you will notice that the central conflict she has with the YouTube predicament is the limiting of her choices as an artist.  This is something people continue to overlook:  that in most cases, what the artist wants is to retain his or her right to decide how works are used — by whom, for compensation or not, the timing and manner of presentation and distribution, etc.  People talk about copyright as though its last remaining use is for big media corporations to scrape every nickel out of a property it bought forty years ago. And they like to make generalizations like, “the labels have screwed artists for years.” But no label was ever able to say, “Hey, take this deal, or I’ll just give your music away and sell ads to the crowds I draw.” Here’s Keating on the comparison between the old boss and the new boss:

“But I want to decide what to do when. That is a major reason why I decided in 2005 to self-publish rather than chase after a record deal. I am independent because I didn’t want a bunch of men in suits deciding how I should release my music. For 10 years I have managed to bushwhack a circuitous path around them but now I’ve got to find a away around the men in hoodies and crocs . . .”

Others have said it before, and Keating is saying it again. The new boss wears a new uniform, but he’s just another boss. Only this time he has a worse deal in one pocket and a rock in the other.  Or as Keating puts it, having been an early evangelist of the Internet’s cultural potential, “the revolution has been corporatized.”

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