Never really pictured myself making a call for songwriter solidarity. Not that I have anything against the organized labor movement (I was even a card-carrying Local 802 member for awhile). But as I’ve mentioned many times, songwriting is a pretty lonely task– it doesn’t breed the kind of personality that finds strength in numbers. At the same time, there’s also no escaping that the music industry is one of the most competitive environments on earth– so the idea joining hands with all of the other people trying to get the same cuts, or record deal, or radio play that you are, and singing “We Shall Overcome” seems a bit far-fetched.
However, the time may have come. If you haven’t heard, things are getting increasingly ugly between YouTube and some of the music industry’s primary licensing agencies– culminating in a recent move by YouTube that pulled off all music videos for UK-based users, much to the chagrin of PRS (the English version of ASCAP, BMI & Harry Fox) and many UK music fans. Here in our neck of the woods, it’s gotten so ugly that Warner has pulled off many of their videos, even blocking A&R execs from watching YouTube in their office (now what will they do all day?)
Surprise, surprise: the issue centers on money. After years of negotiation with the music publishers, labels, and songwriter organizations, YouTube continues to fight to lower rates for use of music on the site– even as they have hardly paid up the monies that they owe for the past five years. The tentative deal that have been struck, which is what’s kept music available on the service thus far, have resulted in rates so low that they are almost meaningless (have you ever heard an artist or writer claim they’re really cleaning up on YouTube royalties?)– even as YouTube continues to grow in popularity and overall profitability. Given that a huge percentage of the videos on YouTube use music in one way or another, the music industry would like to see a healthy income from this service and others like it. Is that asking too much?
Apparently so. YouTube is continuing to stall negotiations and press for lower and lower rates. Perhaps they figure if they stall long enough, all the major labels and publishers will be out of business and the industry as a whole will be reduced to a bunch of individual artists desperate for any small opportunity for self-promotion. We might not be far from that point.
Not surprisingly, just as some labels are determined to go to battle, others are ready and eager to cut a deal. While Warner and PRS are taking a confrontational approach, YouTube and Univeral Music have recently announced the formation of Vevo, a “premium” partnership channel that will feature Universal Music artist’s videos and presumably charge higher ad rates, from which the profits can be split between Uni and YouTube.
It’s a nice idea, if in fact the consumer draws any value from a channel that shows videos exclusively from one label. Every marketing survey ever done has indicated that most music fans have little or no idea which label their favorite artist is associated with, and little interest in finding out. The real value in the new venture, at least from YouTube’s point of view, may be in dividing and conquering– pulling one of the industry’s biggest and most powerful players over to their side as a business “partner”, just as the others are getting ready to march off to war. I doubt this is an example of the music industry unity that NARAS, NMPA, and the RIAA were trumpeting in a recent Billboard article.
The problem is, venues like YouTube are the only game left in town. No one sees music videos on MTV. Radio is shrinking like a cheap shirt. Record sales have fallen to the point where last week’s #1 Album sold less than 90,000 units in its first week, the lowest #1 sales total since they started keeping track of these things. For most young consumers, music exists on YouTube, MySpace (like an old legendary club that no one goes to anymore), and iTunes.Of course there are live shows, which are great for established superstars, but pretty limited in their earning power for everyone else. Today’s reality is that the music industry has to make money off sites like YouTube, because it’s the only money there is.
In light of that rather dire situation, I think I have to side with the Warner approach, as opposed to Universal’s “embrace the enemy” tactics. Before our industry disappears entirely, we might want to heed a call to arms. Perhaps its time that the chief segments of the music industry– record labels, artists, songwriters and publishers AROUND THE WORLD– quit acting out of mutual antipathy toward each other and start facing up to our common cause. Maybe it’s time for all the labels to pull their videos off of YouTube. Maybe it’s time for all the publishers to shut down every video that offers a bad karaoke version of a song from their catalogs. Maybe it’s time for music executives to quit watching YouTube (this has become one of the primary spots for quickly finding new music, and I’m as guilty as everyone else), and for artists to start encouraging their fans to do the same.
Unfortunately, the music industry has put itself in a very weak bargaining position– in which the myriad of services like YouTube know that the labels and artists are desperate for the outlet that YouTube provides, and thus unlikely to ever actually treat the service as the blatant copyright infringers that they are (and have always been). It might be worth reminding them that YouTube without music would be a collection of news snippets and people doing funny stunts with their pets. That Susan Boyle video that made the rounds would not have been very interesting without sound.
I’m not normally a militant. But I’m not quite sure how the music industry somehow has managed to find itself on the verge of defeat in a battle that should have been a slam-dunk. There is no question that YouTube has been using music without permission or licenses. There is no question that the right to use music synchronized with visual images requires the negotiation of a sync fee and the issuance of a license. There is very little debate that eliminating all music from YouTube would be extremely damaging to the service. And yet, we find ourselves struggling to negotiate a fair rate. Now, we’re even starting to lose the public relations battle, being branded as greedy profiteers by the very people who have been pirating our music to build their own financial empire.
It might be time for an uprising from the creative community– not complaining, or begging, or negotiating, or tolerating or hoping for better, fairer times in the future. Maybe it’s time for actually making a stand and making some demands of our own, and doing it together.