Does YouTube Understand Music Yet? Probably Not.
7 min read

Does YouTube Understand Music Yet? Probably Not.

Hello, I’ll just start off to say I’m really excited about this week’s newsletter. The focus is on YouTube Music, which I wrote about over the weekend at Gizmodo. I’ll be jumping off from there, as I get a bit more meta about how YouTube Music fits into the 2018 music streaming ecosystem. Otherwise y’all should know the drill: Comments, concerns, or questions can all go to, and if you do enjoy the newsletter recommend to a friend or co-worker it's much appreciated.

The main selling point of YouTube Music at the moment is its catalog. Not all of the officially licensed music, but rather the decade worth of legally dubious music, remixes, concert footage, and who knows what else that's uploaded to the platform. Content that YouTube doesn't own, isn't actively fostering the creation of, and in other parts of the YouTube world is actually trying to curb and reduce. That tension between YouTube Music shifting into a more legitimate platform, while at the same time marketing its endless video content is what makes the platform so interesting to examine how it moves.

Last month Julia Alexander, a internet culture report at Polygon, wrote a great story that looked at the future of YouTube from the point of view of its creators.

YouTube can’t promise brand safety with volatile creators on the platform — advertisers don’t want to be caught in a firestorm. The only move is to pivot, and YouTube is ready. Hollywood names like Will Smith and Demi Lovato are safe bets. Same with music videos already vetted by major record labels. Clips from late night shows are another safe bet.

Alexander highlighted that while YouTube is built on user created videos; the last couple of years of negative press around creators like PewDiePie and Logan Paul is causing an adverse response by the company. YouTubers, who made careers are on the platform, are realizing that their home might not be the best place for them to continue trying to make their content. This manifests in many forms: Demonetization of video content with little reason given, raising the barrier to get paid for content, subtle tweaks to the algorithm, or a Trending tab that favors video by Hollywood studio and major music labels. All of these hints are YouTube saying: “Of you can use our platform, but we’d rather you didn’t.”

Congrats to the music industry, along with Hollywood, the great beast known as YouTube heard your collective whines. Or well YouTube is listening to the angered shouts of advertisers that don’t want products next to live streamers who say racial slurs or make jokes about Nazis. Not a particularly extreme request all things considered. Yet, it’s YouTube’s decision to rely on professional industries, who are already equipped to make advertising friendly content, rather than boost its own community is interesting.

YouTube was built on user created content, but is now pivoting to holding back future creators from entering that space. That isn’t to say that people won’t still create on YouTube or find an audience—the platform is too big for that to be the case. No instead the company is establishing tiers where certain video creators won't be able to make money, while YouTube's more favored content will. That creates a potential future, where it wouldn't be shocking if YouTube actively funneled advertiser money towards these trusted partners and those legacy YouTubers are left without any real to sustain themselves. This is already happening to a degree, but not officially mandated down.

YouTube Music for all of those other YouTube music creators represents Hollywood and other professional video creators creeping into their space. These officially licensed songs is another way for YouTube to supply its platform with content that isn’t homegrown, but rather from large companies they can trust and potentially better monetize. Unfortunately that particular catalog alone no matter how good the recommendation algorithm isn’t going to convince people to pay YouTube Music’s premium fee. I say this because YouTube Red already offered much of the same content and never found much of an audience given YouTube’s size.

What is the Future of Music on YouTube Music

I enjoy Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio programming, but it can't compete with the dozens of hours of 1980s New York City radio mixes that litter YouTube. Spotify’s EDM curation may be pretty extensive, but there numerous out of print or hard to find records just sitting around on YouTube. There is a way in which no amount of officially sanctioned original content can compete with YouTube, but the problem is that YouTube owns none of this content and doesn’t appear to be doing much at the moment to foster more of it.

My concern is that YouTube moves more into officially licensed content, eventually there will be less reason for creators to keep uploading music and obscure content if the platform is trying to make itself a more legitimate service. These videos aren't making creators much money due to content ID, but with labels getting a closer eye on YouTube I hope that doesn't lead to more cleaning up of YouTube's wild west of content.  I asked YouTube's Elias Roman why there weren’t any channel specific pages on YouTube Music and he said that those should be coming eventually, but that they weren’t there at the jump says a lot to me how YouTube Music is viewing its own content. This isn’t a product that is built for the current YouTube music ecosystem, but one that is fundamentally trying to reshape it.

Back in February I wrote in a newsletter centering on the contentious relationship between YouTube and the Music Industry:

The music industry wants YouTube to either make a new product within YouTube so compelling that a billion people will subscribe for access to it or make YouTube so shitty that a billion people will pay money to [get] back access to a platform they’ve understood to be free for a decade. That sounds super easy, why doesn’t YouTube Red already have 500 million subscribers?

The following month Lyor Cohen, the Youtube’s global head of music, said to Bloomberg:

There’s a lot more people in our funnel that we can frustrate and seduce to become subscribers. Once we do that, trust me, all that noise will be gone, and articles people write about that noise will be gone.

My ongoing question with YouTube Music at the moment is who this service for? I’m of the opinion there simply can’t be a one music platform, even Daniel Ek said as much as Spotify went public. Music is a vast market that can sustain multiple companies providing a variety of unique platforms. That’s what I was trying to convey, but not sure I did well, in last week’s newsletter when highlighting Bandcamp and Soundcloud. They are two platforms with truly unique content that is user created that isn’t dependent on the same major label catalog. The concern of YouTube Music is that now that they’re going to increasingly rely on that catalog they’ll move further and further away from what allowed them to establish this vast library.

I’m rather pessimistic about prospects of the this new streaming service when the market is already full of so many similar products that really struggle to differentiate themselves. Except the fun part about cynicism around YouTube’s music strategy is that they must keep trying to make it work. YouTube Music is just another attempt to formalize the relationship between one of the world’s biggest tech companies and three multi-billion entertainment companies. I’m sure they’ll figure out how to make this work.

Spotify vs. Pandora: Which Radio Competitor Is Winning at the Ad-Supported Game? - Billboard

Cherie Hu wrote a good story looking into the space of ad-tech in music streaming, which is certainly only going to get more competitive as these platforms grow. This especially applies to Spotify once it tries to reach non-western markets and needs to find a way to make money in places that might not be receptive to a stand alone monthly fee.

Spotify Backtracks on Controversial 'Hateful Conduct' Policy - Gizmodo

Spotify officially walked back its ‘Hate Speech and Hateful Conduct’ policy last week. My only comment beyond my news stories above is that Spotify in its public statement said they didn’t do enough temperature checking to see how people felt about the policy. An idea that runs counter to the numerous reports that Spotify knew this was a potentially toxic policy from internal and external reactions. Just own the mistake!

Top Dawg Explains How He Warned Spotify's CEO That Kendrick Lamar, Others Would Pull Music Over Conduct Policy - Billboard

I’d say it’s kind of embarrassing that TDE threatened to remove its catalog over R Kelly and XXXTentacion being removed from playlists, but “embarrassing” is too light a word. It’s disappointing. The broader point being made that artists not Spotify is why the company is finding success is true, but damn would’ve loved this kind of industry backbone around any other vaguely political cause. I’ll step down from soapbox, but goddamn this is still a poor message to send.

Measuring Attention on Spotify: Followers vs. Listeners - Chartmetric

Chartmetric right now are right starting to track how many people actually listen to playlists. A fact that I’ve written about previous in previous newsletter, but continue to find fascinating. There is always a good amount of conversation around the topic of data and numbers, but reading pieces like this just reaffirm that we’re still in the early days of knowing what is good and not good data points.

How Spotify’s Gatekeepers Are Turning Listeners Into Fans (Or Not) - Chartmetric

Picking up on that theme another blog post by Samuel Chennault also took Spotify’s own stats a bit further by investigating the correlation between monthly listeners (a nonsense stat that means nothing) and followers (a slightly less nonsense stat that means a little of something). His conclusion was that some numbers mean more for some artists versus others, but generally more followers is better than monthly listeners. Who know that Spotify’s arbitrary stat based on an artist’s popularity within its playlist system might not translate into real fandom?

Discover Weekly - Sexism on Spotify - The Baffler

Liz Pelly wrote a great piece on the potential inherent sexism of Spotify playlists, which is something we’ve talked about for a while, so it was nice to see all of that reach and put into a singular piece. I won’t do it this week, but there is certainly something to be said about this piece alongside Spotify’s hate speech policy. Maybe another week.