June 20, 2014

YouTube, Indie Music Labels, and the Dangers of Digital Sharecropping

Ezra Fishman

Business Intelligence

The internet is abuzz with news that YouTube is threatening to block thousands of music videos if indie labels do not agree to the terms of YouTube’s new music streaming service. While YouTube’s exact threats aren’t totally clear, this situation serves as a good reminder about the dangers of "digital sharecropping."

The story, first reported by The Guardian three days ago, alleges that YouTube is using its position of power as the world’s #1 video destination as leverage to force indie labels to agree to unfavorable terms for this new service.

It’s very possible that YouTube is actually just telling indie labels that they won’t be included in the new streaming service if they don’t agree to the contract. It’s also possible that YouTube really is being a bully and will block channels of those who don’t cooperate. Time will tell.

Regardless of the outcome here, this dispute joins a growing list of conflicts between content creators and the platforms used to deliver their content.

As we speak, Amazon is blocking pre-orders of all books from New York publisher Hachette in the midst of a contract fight. Facebook recently began limiting the organic reach of Fan pages, forcing businesses and bands to pay to reach their full audience.

As content creators, we should be leveraging the big platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon to help distribute our stuff. But we also need to be wary of becoming completely dependent on someone else’s product or service.

Anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit."
- Sonia Simone via Copyblogger

In order to be more independent, we should be exploring ways to build our own audience on our website or another place we control.

For example, YouTube’s leverage over the band Arctic Monkeys is greatly reduced if the band has built a strong and loyal following on their own website. Ideally, this becomes the primary place fans come to hear more from the band, learn about tour dates, sign up for newsletters, and buy t-shirts.

On their website, the Arctic Monkeys control their content and can build their core audience without interference. The Arctic Monkeys would still have to negotiate to end up on the YouTube streaming service, but the threat of removing their channel carries far less weight in the negotiations.

At the end of the day, if we build our audiences or our businesses entirely on someone else’s platform, we are at the mercy of that landlord. It’s time to start thinking about farming some of our own land as well.

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