The B is for Billions
4 min read

The B is for Billions

Earlier this year when reporting a story for Thump that centered on popular EDM YouTube channels, I was struck by the relationship between labels and these highly popular channels. I can still hear myself over the phone struggling to understand why a music label would handover their music to these channels with seemingly the only return being attention. Of course, I overthought the conflict. The answer was simple: promotion.

Channels like Trap Nation or MrSuicideSheep, who’ve attracted million plus following over the last five years provide excellent space to promote artists. Though blogs and website still provide great chances of pushing a narrative or giving context to a new act, the sheer number views one can get on YouTube vs. a Pitchfork write-up is vast. That YouTube channel then can funnel into Spotify playlists, which though it doesn’t directly help the YouTube creator, it helps the artists and in turn gives more reason for managers and labels to seek out these platforms.

YouTube certainly attract the most eyeballs—Trap Nation on YouTube is 16 million followers strong compared to 1.5 million on Spotify. Most artists and labels have their own YouTube channel, but the calculation in terms of spreading awareness is to play in ecosystem of Proximity, The Nations, etc rather than over invest in a platform. Youtube views that can hits into the millions is nice, but boosting traction on more legitimate streaming platforms is certainly one of the goals when managers and labels pitch towards these channels.

That dual role of the channels is reflected in the updated Billboard Hot 100 formula. Not to downplay Trap Nation’s audience, but YouTube is used by over a billion people, and with a reach that large its worth checking other metrics beyond sheer numbers. YouTube views at this point are just ad impressions, but we’re trying to care about engagement—forgive me I work in media. And at least according to Billboard, the implicit message of the new Hot 100 is that Apple Music, Spotify, and any other paid streaming service is the engagement that should be prioritized.

A recent issue of Billboard dove into ongoing tussles between labels and YouTube over the issue of monetization. Part of the issue was that certain videos appeared to not be getting ads at one point, but overall the poor payout of YouTube views vexes the industry, as it remains the go to source for music consumption. However, the section I enjoyed the most was on manager's’ foregoing concerns over ad money and seeking ways of better understanding it as an advertising vehicle: "Managers are less concerned with cracking the monetization mystery and more focused on using YouTube to break artists, sell concert tickets and promote album presales. 'We get massive exposure when we have a hit on YouTube, and we can see how that impacts in other, better platforms; that's why we all put our music up,' says an executive who works with artists and managers. 'Maybe YouTube can do a better job at explaining to people what they bring to the table, in addition to monetization.'"

Let me close out with something that I'll probably repeat: All streams aren't created equal.

I know this is a point of contention among well...everyone I’ve talked to over the last month, as people can hold vastly different beliefs on the charts and more broadly the best way to contextualize these numbers. A thought that was mentioned to me earlier this week and I threw out earlier this year was weighting passive plays versus active plays. Thus rewards conscious consumer choice against lean back or purely algorithmic selection. Personally I’d love for that to happen, but of course there is no world where Spotify would release that information to Billboard, so it’ll remain a pipe dream for now.

One can imagine a best and worst case scenario of fandom and engagement per platform, a kid who loves an artist on YouTube contrasted to someone that only hears a song on a Trop House playlist and never engages with the music. I won’t dwell on it, because increasing it seems to me whatever platform that one argues for is essentially an argue for a particular value system that one favors. Maybe I’ll tease that out another day.

To sound a bit pompous 2017 feels like a moment of massive catch for music fans, labels, and even the charts to better understand what it means for all consumption to be quantifiable. The clash of CD vs. vinyl is back, but where cultural values were caught up in one’s physical media of choice; it’s a cultural choice with implicit economic ties in a post-streaming world.

Additional Reading

Did Mariah’s ‘Loverboy’ Cause Her Breakdown - Fox News

Yes, this is a Fox News article from 2001, but in case one thinks that YouTube is the first place that major labels tried to game the system please do check out how Mariah Carey finessed her way into a hits on the strength of discounted CD singles.

List of Most-Viewed YouTube Videos - Wikipedia

There are currently 85 videos with over a billion views with most of them being music videos. I don’t have much commentary except that it’ll be interesting to see how this list grows over the rest of the decade, as YouTube continues to grow.

Fans To The Front: How Fandoms Are Gaming the Music Industry - Rolling Stone

Bias that my friend Brittany wrote this, but I’ll say if one wants to understand how so much of online troll behavior is stuff that was already done years ago by young music fans take a glance at this piece.

Spotify, YouTube Music to End Free Streaming In 2-3 Years, Sources Say - Digital Music News

A few months old, but I find this interesting because this run counter to a recent report by GP Bullbound, which sees Spotify moving further to into an ad supported business model. But, I guess as long as paid-subscribers holds strong and ad dollars start to mature in other markets that could potentially be a win-win for the company and labels?

Something Is Wrong on the Internet - Medium

Honestly that this is allowed to happen and thrive on YouTube is a problem with the platform that should be addressed immediately and the longer this kind of content is allowed to find an audience and make money is a disgrace. I know this is being extreme, but my visceral hatred of spam-like content, algorithm gaming, and exploitation of user, in this case children, is probably irrationally high.