YouTube to Indie Labels: Pay Up or Get Out

The press is buzzing about YouTube's threat that it will remove content by labels that do not agree to the terms of its forthcoming subscription-based service. Is this good for YouTube?

There’s a lot of chatter and speculation going on right now regarding YouTube’s impending launch of its subscription-based service. Namely, that independent record labels are up on arms about the terms the video hosting website is supposedly offering, which according to the trade body Worldwide Independent Network disproportionately favor major labels Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros. at the expense of the indies. Even more alarming, an article by the Financial Times this week has stated that YouTube will start blocking material by those who have not agreed to the company’s new terms “in a matter of days”. Given YouTube’s popularity and ubiquity, these moves have been seen as essentially throwing independent artists under a bus if they don’t play along.

Media outlets have been quick to mitigate hysteria among music lovers and industry types by publishing fact sheets that attempt to sort out fact from fiction regarding the matter (The Guardian and Forbes are particularly handy in this regard). So far the media has been focusing mostly on what exactly the scope of YouTube’s potential actions will entail and what sort of impact that will have on independent labels and artists. Would YouTube actually dare remove whole swaths of music videos from its site in order to enforce its new contractual dictates even from massively popular indie label stars like Adele, a concerned public is asking — and understandably so. But perhaps a better question to pose is, is YouTube’s threatened course of action actually a bigger detriment to itself than the indies?

Don’t take YouTube’s threats to remove content idly even if audiences clamor for it — after all, when was the last time anyone saw a Prince video hosted there? Say that YouTube refuses to budge and rumored holdouts like Beggars Group — the umbrella label which houses notable indies 4AD, Rough Trade, and XL Recordings — continue to balk at the site’s new licensing mandates. No pay, no play, and scores of independent music videos are consequently expunged from the site. Certainly that could be a blow to an upcoming indie artist’s chances of building a fanbase, the sort of act for whom exposure on any popular media platform can prove pivotal in increasing visibility.

But what’s easy to forget in a world where YouTube is often the kneejerk video-viewing option is the simple fact that it’s not the only video-hosting site available. It’s simply the best-known, and is typically the first port-of-call out of sheer familiarity and convenience. A quick search engine query for promos by marquee-level Beggars Groups acts including Adele, Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent, and the Pixies — all artists who don’t necessarily need to trumpet the basic fact that they exist at every occasion — by any curious individual will immediately reveal the existence of alternate non-YouTube options. Score web clicks for Competing Websites That Aren’t YouTube. Not to mention that curious listeners may not necessarily be looking to watch a promo video — if audio is all they crave, music streaming behemoths Spotify and Pandora and their less-established competitors are surely ready and willing to provide.

YouTube is banking on its online prominence allowing it to set the terms that its suitors have to abide to. But the situation the site has engineered could backfire drastically, if enough indies with enough clout decide that ditching YouTube for other environs is a more suitable course of action. If there’s a video audiences really want to see, YouTube’s refusal to host it is hardly an impediment. The result would be a situation where audiences are actually drawn away from the site, and video hosting competitors who cannily fill the niche that YouTube leaves out in the cold stand to benefit enormously. So YouTube’s new terms don’t have to be a violent chokehold on the independent music sphere they — indeed, they could be they very thing that undermines the power the site is attempting to lord over it.