Divide and conquer. It’s an old tactic. And it might seem like an easy one to use against the circular firing squad of musicians, songwriters, publishers, labels and independent artists that make up the music business.
That’s why it’s not surprising that Google is test driving the idea in response to the unprecedented unified front music creators have put up in recent months demanding reform of its YouTube platform.
Unsurprising. But also unlikely to succeed.
The latest example is a July 18th Guardian article asking “Is YouTube wrecking the music industry – or putting new artists in the spotlight?” It’s a good question. And it’s too bad the article seems utterly disinterested in exploring it. Instead, it trots out tired old maximalist arguments against creators having any kind of say in how their work is valued and used, totally lacking in nuance, context, or perspective. It’s an argument stuck on “repeat” – more worthy of a Y2K time capsule than a news article in 2016.
Like the claim that “[t]hose in the ‘old’ music industry want to keep things the way they always were.” Has the reporter picked up an iPhone in the last five years? If so, he might find one of the more than 3,000 licensed music services available to him. In fact, no group of creators has done more to adapt to new digital models than musicians.
Like when the article cherry picks the very small number of YouTube stars to support the claim that “new” musicians are experiencing a “renaissance” due to the service.
We are thrilled for those few who’ve broken through and found a way to make it work, of course. But that’s hardly the experience of the vast majority of musicians, young or old. Claiming that YouTube is good for musicians because that’s where Justin Bieber got his start is like claiming bagging groceries is a sure bet to NFL stardom just because Kurt Warner made it that way. These exceptions do not prove the rule.
And worst of all is the claim that the call to reform YouTube is a pet project of “major labels, major publishers and the “1%” of pop stars such as Paul McCartney, Elton John and Taylor Swift” but “does not reflect the industry as a whole.”
If there is anything that widely and pervasively unites major labels, major publishers, the “1%” of pop stars alongside working songwriters, side players, backup singers, indie acts, small labels and virtually everyone else who hopes to play music professionally (or used to, before YouTube), it’s that YouTube’s practices are terrible for people who make music.
We are from the Content Creators Coalition, an artists’ group run by and for artists. We spend our days talking to musicians across the United States about the realities of surviving as artists under rules largely controlled by YouTube.
When the United States Copyright Office announced a study of the statutory “safe harbors” YouTube exploits to drive down what it pays for music, we asked artists and songwriters from across the music economy to sign an open letter demonstrating that the entire music world objects to YouTube getting a free pass to destroy the economics of American music creators. Hundreds did and we have heard from hundreds more since.
Taylor Swift’s name sells papers and gets clicks, so it’s understandable that this article, and virtually every other article written on the subject, started by noting her support. But the result is that most readers who didn’t take the time to “click the link” didn’t learn about the widespread agreement amongst virtually all types of musicians and music businesses that the safe harbors and everything that comes with them are awful for music. Only if you took the time to read the New York Times article cited above, for example, would you learn that “the music world has been united to a rare degree in a public fight against YouTube.”
On the merits, however, this unity makes sense. The safe harbor Notice and Take Down system requires music creators to point out each and every instance where their work appears without permission on YouTube, one by one. With the explosion in internet speeds, unlicensed copies appear faster than any artist can find and “notice” them – and new ones pop back up faster than we can send the next round of notices.
That system is bad for major record businesses, who call it “largely useless” and expend enormous resources trying to stay ahead of the mushrooming unlicensed copies of music online.
But it’s even worse for small labels and independent artists who lack the institutional resources even to get into the game. It may be “whack a mole” for the big players, but it’s “be helplessly overtaken by moles with no way to fight back” for individual creators.
“Largely useless” for them is utterly futile for everyone else.
That’s why musicians and songwriters of all stripes widely, deeply and sincerely agree with major labels, major publishers and even the “1%” of pop stars on this point. We are united by a common and disastrous experience of YouTube siphoning off the lion share of the compensation for professional artistry, hiding behind the safe harbors, and watching YouTube get rich off our work.
Google touts its record of innovation to the public, the media, and its shareholders. Yet, when it comes to “notice and takedown,” they say there’s nothing more than can do.
That would be a laughable assertion if Google’s business model wasn’t killing so many music creators’ ability to earn a basic living.
Google can do better.
And the reporters Google tries to sell such ridiculous claims and spin with their phony divide and conquer rhetoric can do better too.
Melvin Gibbs, an award winning bass guitarist and producer who has appeared on close to 200 albums, is President of the Content Creators Coalition (c3). Jeffrey Boxer is the Executive Director/General Counsel of c3, a membership based, artist-run non-profit advocacy based group representing creators in the digital landscape.