Hello, I hope y’all are doing well this week. I recently received some very nice emails that just cemented how much I enjoy doing this newsletter, so I just wanted to say thanks. Next week is the fourth of July, so I’m going to hold off on a longer essay and instead opt to post recommendations of articles, books, and podcasts that I feel inform my thoughts about these many topics. That is also my excuse for why this week’s newsletter goes on a bit of a journey. Lastly, as always if you enjoy the newsletter grab a link here share with a friend, and always feel free to email any thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earlier this year I spent a newsletter observing the differences across social media platforms (Facebook), live streaming services (Twitch), and music streaming platforms (Amazon) trying to zero in on how musicians should navigate these constantly changing spaces in 2018. The framework isn’t perfect but I’ve still found it useful for trying to gauge these various options. Below is my original chart.
- Spotify / Apple Music / Tidal / Pandora (Monetization, No Communication)
- SoundCloud / YouTube (Monetization, Moderate Communication)
- Bandcamp (Intense Monetization, Limited Communication)
- Facebook / Snapchat / Twitter / Instagram (No Direct Monetization, Intense Communication)
- Twitch/ Kickstarter (Intense Monetization, Intense Communication)
Last week, there were a number of tech announcements that inspired me to provide a little bit of a refresh to this chart. First Instagram announced their IGTV: a stand-alone app and separate tab within the Instagram feed that offers longer-form vertical videos. The company reached out directly to Ninja of Fortnite fame, along with other YouTubers and former Vine stars (King Bach) to give the impression of being a creator first platform. An oddly novel idea only because competition like Vine and Snapchat always kept creators at a distance. However, an irony I'll tackle in a little bit is that there is no way to make money on IGTV, so far, even for these top-tier creators.
The other major announcement in Facebooklandia is that Facebook Groups will allow for the creation of for-pay group that can allow for specific features not available to non-paying members. All of these changes show that even though ads is what built Facebook's massive wealth, the company understands that for some ad revenue isn’t the end-all-be-all. Facebook, and Google, created ad networks at a scale that could either company worth a trillion dollars, but creators further down that food chain want income streams that aren’t so fickle.
The other set of announcements arrived from the Googleverse—I’m sorry I’ll stop—via YouTube. The company introduced: YouTube Channel Memberships, which will allow fans to subscribe to their favorite channel à la Twitch. That wasn’t all though, YouTube announced a partnership with TeeSpring to allow for channels to directly sell merch. These two additions to YouTube show the company is finally listening to the desperate cries of creators that want to find sources of money outside of dwindling advertising revenue. That YouTube just simply lifted features from Patreon on Twitch years later is worth noting, but also these are features that are arriving at a time when YouTube is facing real competition and could use some new, even if old, ideas.
With these new changes I’m going to update my little chart below:
(Small note: Over the last few months artists are using the very limited features Spotify and Apple Music allow to direct fans towards new music or inform them of a new release. I’ll reflect that here.)
- Pandora / YouTube Music (Monetization, No Fan Communication)
- Spotify / Apple Music / SoundCloud (Monetization, Extremely Limited Fan Communication)
- Bandcamp (Intense Monetization, Limited Fan Communication)
- Twitter / IGTV (No Direct Monetization, Intense Fan Communication)
- Facebook / Snapchat / Instagram (Limted Monetization, Intense Fan Communication)
- Twitch / Kickstarter / Patreon / YouTube (Intense Monetization, Intense Fan Communication)
What’s becoming clearer is that right now there is a shift towards the bottom of this list. While the passive income of streaming services is great for labels and artists with strong back catalogs, there is a lot to be gained by leaning in and directly connecting with your fans. Of course, all of these platforms can reshape how one approaches music, but I increasingly find there are a lot more unique ideas and opportunities in spaces where one’s source of income isn’t simply pressing play on a song. Now, aren’t musicians supposed to make music, yes but the definition of a musician changes from era to era, and right now with all the option available feels like a good time to change it.
A Brief, Incomplete, Too Narrowly Focused History of User Generated Content
For the last couple of months, I’ve thought a lot about how it feels like the era of “user-generated content” is over. When I entered high school in 2006, YouTube was just lifting off the ground, as I watched hours of video game footage. The following year Halo 3 arrived with a mode called “Forge” that allowed for limited map and mode creation. Now the concept certainly wasn’t new to video games—it was a less robust variation on PC gaming’s modding where people would create new levels, maps, and occasion entirely new games. What was notable about Halo 3 wasn’t the tool set itself, but rather the ease of use and scale. Unsurprisingly it was often compared to what else...YouTube.
The next decade saw a rise in YouTubers, Instagram influencers, Viners, Twitch streamers, etc. Whenever a new platform emerged a new set of people attempting their darnedest to make it into a career. That worked out better for some (Twitch, YouTube) than others (Vine, Twitter), but that cycle in a way started to slow down. Creators at the top end certainly felt the bumps and shake-ups of platform growth, but the more a platform develops it becomes increasingly difficult for every new person that joins YouTube to become a successful YouTuber.
That story is being repeated across platforms. That is what effectively caused Vine creators to leave the platform cause no one, creators or Vine, were making enough money. (I’m sure there are some other reasons I’m glossing over and one of y’all can correct me.) The model that people assumed should’ve been enough to help support their creative worked turned out to not be really feasible. That can be seen in the constantly shifting priorities of Medium or Twitter cracking down black marketing promotional rings, the organic ways that people find ways to build on these platforms feels increasingly unstable.
“I feel like a lot of social media nowadays, they’re trying to one-up their competition. We like social media because they’re different from one another, and if they’re being too similar to one another, we’re gonna delete those apps because the features are already there in another app.” - An anonymous teen to Digiday.
The irony that is slowly emerging is that while new platforms don’t really appear to be emerging the ones that do exists are increasingly copying and lifting from each other. Instagram stole from Snapchat. YouTube burrows from Twitch. Facebook attempt to become the next YouTube. Facebook and Whatsapp start to appear more like Instagram. YouTube continues to burrow from Twitch. Instagram tries to go after YouTube. The result is that what were once a unique platform for in this case photo and video sharing are melting into one app whose goal is just to keep you watch as much as content as possible. Instead of sharing a photo, it’s uploading minutes of video from your life, so what was once passive increasingly become engaged.
“If you were nine or ten years ago on YouTube it was very easy [and] if you were on there blogging it was easier to generate an audience because there wasn’t that much stuff on there” said Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer The Atlantic that is always on the pulse of internet trends, earlier this month on the phone. This point struck me in our conversation, because not only are these platforms using the same ideas, but the sheer number of users makes it harder to stand out among the rest. The more people who try and more competition grows and the harder it is to survive. That’s why these creators flocked to Twitch, where a small but dedicated audience can allow for a slightly more sustainable business model than the constant need for the scale of YouTube. That's what I imagine drives some labels to offer subscriptions is for the same reason, it's understanding that the streaming model isn't built for them and instead opting for business ideas that can work on a slightly smaller, but not quite silo'd off way.
That’s why I always think about each of these different platforms in the quasi-chart I listed above. Not only is the competition on each of these platforms so much higher, but the ability to stand out on one is also that much harder. It’s why when I read about YouTube adding channel-specific subscriptions it sounded great because one of the biggest platforms finally trying to figure out ways for their platform to encourage fandom not scale. I halfway expect Drake to start an OVO YouTube page on Friday and just say actually my album is here for a $5 a month sub and more content will keep coming and forget about Apple Music. Of course, that won't happen, but every week I'm going to start asking why some artists don't say fuck it and just do that.
That’s what intrigues me so much about these changes and shift for music is because these are shifts in a way that aren’t towards bigness, but rather intimacy. That’s why I’ll close one one last thing Lorenz said on our call, because I think it captures just how in the matrix we’re all at this point: “People were looking for content, nobody these days is looking for content, content comes to them.”
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I’m still mulling over this particular thought but the way music people talk about data is always so interesting to me in light of the intense skepticism going on around Facebook and Google. I can’t quite tell if people aren’t reading all of the stories about how these bigger companies are facing problems because of lack of privacy or concern over mega-companies hoarding all of this data? Then by consequence talk about getting user data from these streaming platforms like it’s nothing. Of course, much of this information isn’t quite the same as a Facebook shadow profile for non-users, but still.
Just add this to the ever-increasing pile of stories that make me increasingly skeptical, but very interested in seeing just how far western streaming services can do in non-western markets. Articles like this only increase my skepticism, when it becomes clear just how many other players exist in these spaces and how the Spotify, or even Apple Music, model of music streaming might not be truly global. But, also always great to know across the globe people always want to get paid better from YouTube.
I personally didn’t find the actual product guide aspect of this post to be very interesting. However, I took great amusement in the existential concern over product similarities in this breakdown. I talk about this nearly every week, so it was nice to see a more neutral approach arrive at like-minded frustration.
Shira Ovide goes in very quickly about how nothing about IGTV looks prepared to deal with any of the potential issues that could arrive from a video platform built to serve a billion people. She’s certainly not wrong and I expect when the first horrific IGTV video arrives the company will apologize and implement measures to prevent bad content that probably should've been there from the start. Wait, I forgot this is Facebook I’m sure they’ll just announce some artificial intelligence and laugh to the bank.
Just adding another story on tech employees standing up for their company doing work in spaces they find morally reprehensible. Not only do I wonder how Amazon will react here, but I wonder if the tech side of the company might start and asking more questions about Amazon’s treatment of factory and shipping employees. I say because many of the concerns expressed here are already being used on their companies' most vulnerable workers. Just a thought for future actions is people wanna take them.
I was on a podcast last week! Thanks to Jay Gilbert and Michael Brandvold for inviting me on and letting me chat about the origins of Penny Fractions, frustration over the lack of transparency in streaming data, and my love of YouTube charts. Certainly give a listen, cause I never know if I sound good on podcasts or if I’m just simply rambling into a void.