Nod Your Head is a recurring column from CoS News Editor Chris Coplan allowing a space to expand on topics that he encounters beyond the quick news post. In this edition, he examines YouTube’s recent announcement of a premium subscription service and how that could, for better and worse, forever alter the indie music landscape.
Recently, I got a smart phone that wasn’t a piece of junk, and that allowed me to start playing various games. One such game, which I’ll only describe as involving the mass murder of zombies, had me hooked from round one. As I slaughtered hordes of the undead, I realized how much fun I was having despite not paying a dime.
But then, just as I had hit the peak of my decapitating skills, I came to a crossroads: in order to meet the increasing demands of the game (i.e., kill 70 zombies in 45 seconds), I’d need to pay actual money in order to buy faster, more powerful weapons. Needless to say, I considered hanging up my chainsaw in favor of quality time with the Mrs.
My little situation is more than proof that I need a hobby; it’s also a kind of parable for what’s happening with the indie music industry/community. Last week, it was revealed that YouTube might block videos from those labels who hadn’t signed an agreement for their new subscription service. While majors like Sony and Columbia signed the dotted line immediately, outlets like 4AD, XL, and Domino all stood firm, claiming that YouTube favored the majors and were short-changing the indies.
Billboard was able to secure an early version of the contract. For audio-only music, YouTube will pay out 65.5% of the service’s revenue: 55% to labels and 10% to publishers and performers rights organizations. For music videos, that rate falls to 55%, with labels netting 45% and publishers/performer rights organizations retaining their 10% share.
If those rates still seem fair, or you’re just not certain, here’s a little context: they are lower than the 70% combined revenue that labels and publishing outfits earn from the “interactive, premium component” of services like Spotify or Rdio. Oh, and here’s a fun fact: each YouTube subscriber is worth $5.50 to a label and somewhere between 50 and 80 cents for music publishers.
In turn, YouTube clarified that the ban might only be temporary, and that rather then block videos permanently, it could end up just not paying labels entirely. There was also talk of removing copyright protection of those labels that wouldn’t comply, adding a whole other slew of costs and added responsibilities to labels seeking to battle copyright infringement. While contract negotiations are still ongoing, the entire ordeal seems to come down to one basic choice: indie labels either play the mainstream game or they’ll have to fend for themselves in the great video streaming wilderness.
Yes, the outcome matters greatly, as it impacts a sizable roster of beloved artists (Jack White, Adele, Vampire Weekend, etc.). And there may even be a chance that the indie labels can get the terms they want, which would mean a definite moral victory for them.
Even still, why this whole battle matters the most, at least to this writer, is that it’s the first clear-cut incident in the age of streaming where indie labels have to make that all-too important choice about how they operate. To continue to succeed, to metaphorically mow down zombies, can they keep doing things their own way?
Or does a person/group/movement eventually reach a plateau where additional success only comes in yielding to the machine? Is this the moment where the indie community needs to
buy the giant freeze-ray rework its operating model to further build a collective empire? YouTube is just the beginning, and as the music industry as a whole further works on generating a model that’s successful, the indies are bound to be faced with similar roadblocks.
Still, for the sake of argument, let’s start by looking at the whole YouTube dilemma. Barring the most optimal outcome, that the indie labels get their terms met and openly sign the agreement, let’s look at this as a matter of two very basic, uber distilled choices: maintain their independence and self-perpetuated prosperity or yield and sell out to “the man.” Like in so much of life, there’s good and bad in either outcome, and “success” is all in one’s perception.
Option No. 1: Let the whole darn block/ban happen and go about the whole video streaming process like a rogue pirate ship.
The most obvious downside to all of this is that indies will lose out on a lot of revenue. As Billboard points out, video streaming generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year for both publishers and labels. With that money, comes exposure.This may matter less for someone like Adele, but not having your smaller artists on the world’s biggest video streaming website is kind of a problem.
Still, the whole “lone wolf” thing does have its upsides. For instance, there’s the notion of hipness. Standing tall against YouTube will inevitably offer some connotation of a rebellious attitude. People like underdogs, and if labels can’t get what they want, then there’s still a victory to be culled from the whole experience.
Good exposure isn’t the only blessing in disguise, either. Maybe, by standing up to YouTube, there’s a way to show that their way doesn’t have to be the be all end all. Sure, indie labels may be a casualty of the streaming wars, but that doesn’t mean that future organizations/outlets/generations can’t learn a valuable lesson. One about the power of small business and community, or that when it comes to the Internet, we can have a democracy if we really are all involved. Again, it might not be the best for indie pocket books, but there’s still insight and ideas to be gleaned. If indies go it without the premium deal, they can start a much-needed conversation about how much we’re willing to pay for content and whether or not big business alone gets to make those decisions.
Option No. 2: Yield to the almighty YouTube overlords and enjoy whatever fiscal bread crumbs they just so happen to toss your way.
Again, if things don’t go well and agreements can’t be made, then bowing down to our new collective Web masters may be the only alternative. Still, it’s not all bad. I mean, at the very least, you get to make money, just perhaps not as much as one might like or expect. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Sure, you’re getting pwned harder than a fifth grader in Halo 3, but think about what continues to happen: you make money from playing silly, pointless videos on the Web. If someone paid me to do that, to share content I was going to create anyways, even if they’d dick me over royally, I would still backflip my entire way to the bank.
I’m no expert in the revenue streams of indies, but even if this is a sizable loss of income, perhaps that just means that it’s time for them to realign their practices. If YouTube isn’t going to play fair, then maybe video streaming is less of a priority. Maybe some of that budget gets shifted around, and labels explore new ideas to generate revenue.
Even if labels do happen to play the game, though, there are still downsides. In the same way that there’s a way to squeeze moral or ethical victories out of yielding, there’s also a similar loss in throwing up the white flag. Perhaps more than money itself, the indie labels don’t want to give up and roll over because of the very spirit of rebelliousness that many were founded on.
Cool points aren’t the only thing indies could lose. By yielding to YouTube’s terms, it sends one very powerful message to entities like this: “We can do whatever we want, and though you may put up a fight, you’ll eventually lose.” (I imagine they’d say it like Emperor Palpatine at the end of Jedi.) That, boys and girls, sets a very dangerous precedent; today, it’s a few percentage points of streaming video revenues, and tomorrow it’s outrageous demands and total creative control/censorship on any uploaded files/clips.
I might be taking this to an extreme, but it’s more the message that it could send than anything else. We’re at a crucial time in the monetization of content on the Web; one false move by either side, and you’ve showed your hand and forever sealed your fiscal fate. Those plucky indie labels, especially, need to be concerned with how they’re perceived in these proceedings.
As long as I’ve been a music fan, it seems the entire indie community has done a pretty good job of being plucky underdogs; the problem is, things have built in such a steady way (culturally, financially, etc.) that there really hasn’t been a fight. If anything, the indie realm is just as stratified as the mainstream, and occasionally as stagnant. With any luck, there’ll be more issues and concerns, which really lets an organization demonstrate their true inner worth and ability to fight. This is just the beginning a time of great renewal and rebirth for the indie world, a real, shining chance to try and make things better or more interesting.
Now, the sorts of issues and quandaries that can pop up are seemingly endless, but here are four that I think are of the utmost importance.
1) What really makes an album cycle? This whole issue of YouTube just speaks to a greater component of the entire album cycle: how do labels, publicists, etc. find 1) ways to stand out and still give fans access and 2) still make money out of said consumption. Still, I think the question needs to be asked: why does this specific act, streaming, have to be part of the cycle? Or, for that matter, why does anything that’s costly or irksome or just plain dissatisfying have to be a continued part of the promotional campaign? If indies are all about breaking boundaries and doing things a different way, why does YouTube have to be a part of that if it’s just getting in the way of success?
Is there not another way to disseminate music to the masses? Or maybe, and this is more likely, certain cycles demand certain actions and paths, while others might be an entirely different game plan. The point is, it’s time to actually think about cycles in a way that better measures the sort of nuanced and unpredictable elements of the music biz, the ideas and notions of cost and that, occasionally, some things are actually more valuable than others. Basically, to break further away from the “one size fits all” approach and explore each new album as if it’s unique and splendid and deserving of its own beautiful birth and life.
2) How insulated can the indie community truly be? As an extension of that last point: what if there was an indie YouTube? Like, no cat videos or political rants; just videos and interviews and features with certain bands from a certain pool of collaborating labels and/or publishing outfits. Whether it’s a good idea or a bad one is, once again, worth discussing. Not necessarily from a monetary standpoint, but from the perspective of capability. Does the indie community have the money and time and power and force of will to do an IndieTube? It might be a terrible idea, as the whole idea of video streaming is about reaching out to larger, untapped audiences, but the discussion has to happen at the very least.
I like to think that the indie realm is all about communication and reaching out, and in 2014, I think it’s time to really push those boundaries. A better, more prosperous world could be out there waiting, but somebody’s got to at least walk out the door leading outside.
3) Just how important is money? OK, dumb question; it’s actually really, really important. Dare I say, it might be the think that lets everyone, indie or otherwise, be able to do cool stuff like release albums and have a house and regular meals. I’m not saying abandon money entirely, ’cause fuck yeah capitalism, but much like the last two points, it’s important to ask these kinds of questions. If you make money from these YouTube dealings, how much will that actually help? If you lose money on these YouTube dealings, how much will that actually hurt? Yes, in business, losing money is universally considered a “thing to avoid entirely,” but maybe it really isn’t as awful as some folks think.
Does the scene need that money that bad to survive? If so, that should speak volumes about your true priorities. Can indies lose out on the X amount that’s usually generated and still be OK through other means and methods? Then, who cares what really happens to it and maybe focus your energies elsewhere. Yes, I’m skating over a lot of vital nuances to the whole issue, but I think the whole issue of “do we or don’t we need this economically” is another discussion to have. Even if the answer is that obvious, there’s a certain kind of strength and power in discovering and establishing such a basic, fundamental truth. Saying it loud, in my experience, makes tough, sometimes awkward issues all that less powerful and daunting in our brains. If indies aren’t about the money, it’s time to prove it or find a new credo.
4) At what point are the indies no longer truly indie? When they’ve gone mainstream and every band rides around in fancy jumbo jets? But seriously, I think about this concept all the time: there’s no denying that the indies are a cultural powerhouse, and though the money might not be as great as the major league labels, just look at the number of acts who can survive solely on their music careers. If loads of bands can just be rock stars and not, say, bike messengers by day, then I think it’s about time for some reevaluation. Still, I can hear everyone now, though, all nasally and annoying, “But Chris, the whole point of the independent scene is that you’re independent. That totally means being removed from the entire mainstream structure. Stupid.”
And to that I say, but is that really the sole defining factor? Is it not true that we use “indie” as a kind of pejorative to describe all that is not just mainstream? So, if tons of people follow your bands, and there’s money flowing back and forth, is that not just a teensie bit mainstream? I’m not condemning anyone or trying to cause problems; but I do want people in the indie world to take a serious look at seemingly innocuous things like labels and perception and see how madly important they are. So much of how you’re treated in the world has to do with what you call yourself, and maybe “indie” may have outgrown its usefulness. Or maybe that’s a badge of honor worth further rocking. But the conversation hasn’t happened, and maybe this is where it’s left the industry/community as a whole.
This might just be me, but with plentiful album drops, great press coverage, loads of festival appearances and tour dates, it’s easy to feel like the indie community is just straight killing it. But then big, bad reality comes along and serves up a heaping helping of frustration and disappointment, and now a lot of folks are reminded just how shitty the real world can be. By re-examining indie’s role in the world, these truths become a little more apparent to everybody, and thus they’re not quite of a shock to the ol’ system. Because that’s what this is all about, to wholeheartedly understand the kinds of struggles the world puts in front of independents. Then, we can all decide whether it’s worth it to fight the machine or if our collective pursuit of creative freedom isn’t worth the hassle and the heartache.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go swing a samurai sword at tiny 8bit zombie construction workers.