People who grew up 40 or 50 years ago would probably be astounded that today, we watch music almost as much as we listen to it.
Current statistics show that all but three of the 80 most watched videos on YouTube are music videos, and an American study in 2012 showed that over half of teenagers mainly use YouTube to listen to music. This shows that, despite the growth of tools like Spotify and iTunes, as well as the emergence of music sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, music is becoming as much a visual medium as an audio one.
You might think that the billions of views some of these videos are generating would mean that a healthy portion of the money Google-owned YouTube makes from them would be finding its way to the artists responsible for the music, but it appears that the total opposite of this is true. In fact, it was revealed this month that UK artists made more money from vinyl sales last year than they did from having their content on YouTube.
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has previously hit out at the likes of YouTube and Spotify, accusing them of exploiting a ‘value gap’, and even calling upon governments to intervene in ensuring a fairer distribution of money in the music industry. Such an agreement may one day fall into place, but the reality is that YouTube and its ilk are here to stay and everyone likes to hear their favourite music in just a few clicks, with even the most conscientious music fans admitting that ‘Spotify guilt’ is not enough to get them to change their ways.
Before the internet really took off, many musicians would complain that far too much power was held by a handful of record companies who would overprice albums, interfere with artists’ work and reward the music creators with a very small portion of the total income. Today, power has shifted more to consumers of music and those able to provide it to them digitally, but the disproportion in how money is spread throughout the industry appears the same, if not worse.
So how can musicians deal with this? Perhaps what is more important now than ever before is commitment to the DIY ethic displayed by punk and indie artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, musicians have several channels of their own, and it’s not uncommon to see them using them to promote their music, tours and merchandise. Small bands often double up as their own PR firms, sometimes acting in the interests of several like-minded musicians.
Most also have their own YouTube channel, and can benefit from inserting links to their own websites and online stores in the comments section. Since YouTube is so commonly used to find new music, maybe more thought than ever should be put into creating interesting, engaging music videos, and considering anything that creates a stir online. Last year, we saw how rock band Radiohead was able to grab a great deal of attention by taking the unusual step of going offline in the build-up the release of single ‘Burn The Witch’ and the album ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ from which it came.
It’s also common to see musicians trying to educate their fans on the need to actually support the industry rather than simply take from it, be it through attending gigs or purchasing music. The statistic about musicians making more from vinyl than YouTube last year highlights not only the slim pickings they take from the video-streaming site, but also the extent of the vinyl revival.
Vinyl remains a niche though, with most preferring the convenience of digital music on the go. By now, all musicians and record companies should really have cottoned on to the merits of including a digital download code in the record sleeve, satisfying the buyer with both the physical warmth of the record and the flexibility of an MP3.
It may be some time before YouTube and musicians really make peace, but in the meantime, perhaps they just need to learn that neither can really do without the other.