YouTube and Billboard: Why the major labels still have the power
Where were you the first time you heard "Call Me Maybe," "Gangnam Style," or any of the other major hits of 2012? Unless you work at a mall or perhaps Applebee's, chances are you were sitting at a computer (probably also at work) on YouTube.
So when Billboard announced Wednesday that it would start incorporating YouTube views into its Hot 100 singles chart, the response was unanimous: "About time."
Optimistic observers might view this as nothing less than a win for democracy. After all, on YouTube the people decide what's popular, not the fat cats in suits, right? The Man might have ruined rock and roll with MTV, "School of Rock" told us, but with YouTube we take the power back!
Well, maybe. One big caveat is that it's unclear how far YouTube views will go in determining chart position. "On a typical week," Tweeted Billboard digital director Bill Werde, "@YouTube streams are part of a 20-35 percent slice that also includes Spotify, rdio, Vevo (thru YouTube) etc." Nevertheless, the change has already had a noticable impact, with Bauuer's "Harlem Shake" having skyrocketed to the top of the charts, though even without streaming data, Werde says the song would have still ranked in the top 15. Had the rule been instated earlier, I bet we would have seen an even faster ascent of viral star Macklemore, only the second unsigned artist to hit No. 1. (The first was Lisa Loeb).
But are Macklemore and "Harlem Shake" the exceptions? Or will the trend of artists finding mainstream success without the help of major labels accelerate, as Internet renaissance man Andy Baio predicts?
To find out, I reached out to Ezra Cooperstein and Jason Ziemianski who both work for LA-based media companies providing marketing/production resources for YouTube talents. Think of them as the "indie labels" for digital video. Although Cooperstein and Ziemianski work for similar companies, they have very different takes on Billboard's YouTube play. Cooperstein, the COO of Fullscreen, is excited about where this development might lead. "Billboard's new rule provides an opportunity for validation for the wealth of amazing artists who are playing outside of major labels," he says. "It acknowledges the reality that in today's digital world, the consumer is now the programmer." People: 1. The Man: 0.
But Ziemianski, the head of marketing for Big Frame, is less sanguine. "Most likely this won't have a dramatic effect on helping talented artists break through," he says. "What it might do is help the biggest artists achieve a higher ranking based on their social reach. This generally amounts to reshuffling versus any flood of new talent into the charts. There will be outlier cases, but they will be the exception." Contrary to creating an utopian musical meritocracy, Ziemianski calls it a "non-event," reinforcing the old chart model that helped birth the homogenized "pop" sound we all rail against (but secretly love). Score one for the Man.
In fact both Big Frame and Fullscreen are in active discussions with labels. Fullscreen has secured licensing deals from top music publishers like Universal Music and Warner so its artists can monetize covers of popular songs. While that doesn't sound very "rock and roll," Cooperstein notes that "this has historically been a key tactic used by artists to build a dedicated fan base." He's got a point. Even the Beatles started out playing covers. Everything old is new.
Meanwhile, Fullscreen ranks No. 2 in unique video viewers among YouTube partner channels, behind only VEVO. (VEVO is the thing that takes over your browser every time you want to watch Lady Gaga on YouTube. Richard Nieva wrote yesterday about how it's one of biggest beneficiaries of Billboard's announcement). But despite Fullscreen being like the Sub Pop to VEVO's Warner Music Group, they do have one thing in common: They both utilize licensing deals with the majors, at least to some degree. The Man pulls ahead...
I don't mean to downplay the potential for independent artists using social media, YouTube, and other digital tools. Amanda Palmer raised a million on Kickstarter. Pomplamoose parlayed a huge YouTube following into a Hyundai commercial (what better barometer is there for indie success?) But many of the YouTube sensations we've seen either had help from the majors (like Carly Rae Jepsen) or one hell of a gimmick (like "Harlem Shake"). Then again, if you can get sports teams, classrooms, and newsrooms around the world over to dance geekily to your song, you might just make it in this business.
The Beatles never had to deal with this shit.