The week of March 15, 2015

The discord of YouTube’s Music Key

By Audra Schroeder

The current landscape of music discovery and streaming stretches out like the solar system: There are heavy planets like Spotify and iTunes and stars like Rdio and Pandora. There are galaxies in between: Beats is attempting to relaunch after a disappointing intro by Apple; Neil Young’s Pono player (which has been deemed bullshit) and Deezer are trying to snag the audiophile. is channeling music blogs for discovery. But until Jay Z takes over, Spotify is still one of the most popular destinations for music discovery.

As much as YouTube is indeed a tool for discovery, parody, and virality, its interface has proven cumbersome as a streaming or downloading destination. In late 2013, the company, which is owned by Google, announced it would roll out its own music subscription service. It would cost a monthly fee and be ad-free. In November 2014, a six-month beta test for the service, titled Music Key, launched to get feedback from avid users, observe interaction, and hopefully iron out the details.

But Music Key had a few kinks to address, even before its beta test.

Last summer, one of YouTube’s top music executives left the company. Around that same time, a copy of YouTube’s indie label agreement leaked, outlining the terms and payment structure, neither of which seemed particularly fair. There was protest from several indie labels and artist groups railing against YouTube and Google’s corporate reach.

“By not giving their subscribers access to independent music, YouTube is setting itself up for failure,” Alison Wenham, CEO of Worldwide Independent Network, an organization that represents the indie music community, said last June. “We appreciate that a small number of independent labels may have their own reasons for agreeing to YouTube’s terms, that is their prerogative, but they are very much in the minority. The vast majority of independent labels around the world are disappointed at the lack of respect and understanding shown by YouTube.”

With all the pushback around Music Key, it’s easy to forget it’s still in the beta stage.

In December, the company was threatened with a billion-dollar lawsuit if the site didn’t remove some 20,000 songs that music exec Irving Azoff claimed did not have the proper licensing rights. In February 2015, leaked royalty statements from indie artists who opted into the service surfaced, though their authenticity and origin was unclear. (YouTube had no comment.)

In the context of the streaming solar system, YouTube’s entrance will be a heavy one. But who does Music Key really benefit?

Between a rock and YouTube

In early 2014, Music Key began licensing five-year deals with major and indie labels. Many jumped on board, but others held out for better terms. There was much ado about YouTube’s alleged blocking of videos from artists who didn’t opt in.

In January, Zoë Keating, a cellist with more than 5,000 subscribers on YouTube, wrote about the frustration with Music Key’s terms for artists. She attempted to dissect the claim that if she didn’t join the service, her videos would be blocked. The terms of the contract also stipulate that if an artist releases a track on a smaller site like Bandcamp, they must also do so on Music Key. She addressed the all-or-nothing stance YouTube proposed:

I’ve heard all the arguments about why artists should make all their music available for streaming in every possible service. I also know the ecosystem of music delivery made a shift away from downloading last year. Streaming is no longer advertising for something else, it is the end product. It’s convenient. Convenience is king. Yup, got all that, thanks. This is the important part: it is my decision to make.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

A Google representative fired back at her claims in an email to a Digital Music News writer, calling them false. In a second blog post, Keating provided transcripts of her conversations with Google, showing how confusing the terms can be for independent artists. She asked what happens if she doesn’t want to opt into the service, and this is the response she was allegedly provided:

“So what would happen is, um, so in the worst case scenario, because we do understand there are cases where our partners don’t want to participate for various reasons, what we basically have to do is because the music terms are essentially like outdated, the content that you directly upload from accounts that you own under the content owner attached to the agreement, we’ll have to block that content. But anything that comes up that we’re able to scan and match through content ID, we could just apply a track policy but the commercial terms no longer apply, so there’s not going to be any revenue generated.”

Keating also described initial meetings with a YouTube rep about Music Key: “The meeting was similar to one I had with DA Wallach of Spotify a couple years ago. Similar in that I got the sense that no matter how I explained my hands-on fan-supported anti-corporate niche thing, I was an alien to them. I don’t think they understood me at all.”

“Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to.”

Full albums from Taylor Swift, who became a cultural flashpoint after she infamously pulled her catalog from Spotify last fall, are absent from Music Key. However, she releases her music via Vevo, and the terms of her deal were likely handled by her label to ensure that monetization is secure. Keating is truly an independent artist and doesn’t have management or a deal with a label, like many artists uploading songs and promoting them on their own. “I am independent because I didn’t want a bunch of men in suits deciding how I should release my music,” she said in her blog. In 2011, she posted her streaming revenue from Spotify, Napster, and Rhapsody to see what an independent artist might make in one month and came away with this: “Nothing really eye opening here. It is pretty clear that it should not be for financial gain that an independent artist makes their music available for streaming, but instead it should be done for the purpose of exposure, etc.”

(We reached out to Keating for comment but did not receive a response as of press time. As she was struggling with the YouTube issue and seeing her blog go viral, she was also caring for her husband, who was diagnosed with stage IV non-smoker’s lung cancer in 2014. Last month he passed away. We extend our deepest sympathies.)

Artists getting shortchanged by corporations is nothing revolutionary, but the Internet has completely changed the flow of commerce and the value placed on art. This issue extends beyond YouTube.

Last year, a band called Vulfpeck uploaded an album to Spotify consisting of complete silence in an effort to fund a tour. It was an ingenious way to circumvent the system, and the band netted $20,000 from plays. Spotify didn’t think much of the band’s “stunt” and yanked the album. In 2013, Thom Yorke called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” for underpaying artists. He released his latest album via a pay-what-you-want BitTorrent model and sold over a million downloads in the process. Releasing a surprise album via iTunes or dropping it on social media made “pulling a Beyoncé” a modern term.

“People turned YouTube into a music service.”

In 2012, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery wrote a divisive open letter to a young NPR intern who claimed she’d only purchased 15 albums in her 11,000-song library. More recently, he had opinions about YouTube’s alleged strongarming and posted a communiqué to the Federal Trade Commission’s Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Director of the Bureau of Competition Deborah L. Feinstein on ethics blog the Trichordist in late January:

“In other words by saying ‘no’ to Music Key, YouTube will still feature user generated videos on their service AND you won’t get any money. Think about it. This is like saying ‘no’ to a record deal but results in the label having your songs forever and paying you nothing! YouTube is EVIL.”

For its part, YouTube said the issue with Keating was a big misunderstanding. If she wanted to monetize her videos, she would have to sign the agreement. If not, her videos could stay up; they just wouldn’t be part of the service. YouTube wasn’t forcing her to upload her videos, but picking and choosing which videos she did upload didn’t fit with its new business model.

Hearing both sides

YouTube turned 10 in February, and its evolution has largely been one driven by trends, virality, and most importantly, users. It’s become its own solar system, birthing stars who’ve become brand ambassadors for the company, in turn drawing in teenagers and millennials whose first screen is YouTube. They prefer the term “creator” to “star,” which puts users and personalities on equal ground. Not all creators see it this way, however.

YouTube’s Matt McLernon says the viewer-driven model made Music Key a natural selection.

“People turned YouTube into a music service,” McLernon said. “It started as a video platform, and music is just naturally hugely popular. And so the natural interest in music—as well as a ton of work that our team has done over the years, bringing as much music to the platform as possible—really turned YouTube into one of the ultimate destinations for music, for finding an artist you’re looking for or a song you’re looking for.

“YouTube still is this broad video platform, and so there weren’t necessarily the explicit things or features that people associate with a music service. We’d heard two things from two different types of audiences: From our music partners, we heard they’re looking for additional revenue streams and more ways to monetize on YouTube and more ways to turn their music into bigger revenue-generating pieces of content. From users, we’d heard requests for certain features, like the ability to remove ads or play a song in the background. Those two things met really nicely in the middle with this broad music service.”

Google’s response to artists’ issues felt like the left hand wasn’t talking to the right. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the YouTube/Google divide, but McLernon is quick to remind that YouTube is still an advertising-supported platform and cites that over the past few years, the company paid out more than $1 billion to the music industry.

“For music on YouTube, it’s still about both sides,” he said. “The free, advertising-supported side, as well as introducing a new set of features on the paid subscription side.”

The Internet has completely changed the flow of commerce and the value placed on art.

Users will also get a subscription to Google Play, McLernon said, packaged as a two-for-one, perhaps as a means to get the beleaguered service on people’s radar.

With all the pushback around Music Key, it’s easy to forget it’s still in the beta stage. YouTube invited users who play the most music to sample the site before its roll-out so it could hear from fans directly. McLernon says this is important, since YouTube is still a work in progress—a constantly evolving experiment.

“We’re trying to build a music service inside and alongside of that, so it’s something we want to do very carefully,” he said.

The idea, for users, is choice. But can it afford artists that same choice? YouTube’s foundation is the creator, the anonymous people putting their passion out there to an ecosystem of strangers. Music Key’s terms are a reminder that, as an artist, housing all your work on one platform won’t be sustainable forever. Still, McLernon defends YouTube’s ecosystem and Music Key’s mission.

“One of the parts that makes YouTube so unique is that, yes, we have deals with every major and indie label, but there’s also people every day who are uploading their music to YouTube, and it’s music you can’t find anywhere else,” McLernon said. “And so one of the parts of why we started this as a beta is so we could be learning from people. What do you consider music on YouTube?”

That question will take on more weight after Music Key rolls out. The service’s debut comes at a time when artists and fans are disrupting the model and tearing up the fabric, trying to find new galaxies. How much weight does the creator actually hold in this new model?

Illustration by Max Fleishman