SoundCloud has long been a pivotal medium for emerging musicians, but in the past year, it’s suffered changes from which it cannot go back. Once artists realized that SoundCloud was in danger of failure, and that their dependence on the SoundCloud platform threatened their livelihoods, they stopped caring about it. In the wake of SoundCloud’s stumble, Spotify has capitalized in the public eye through moves like its RISE initiative, and Apple Music has continued its slow but steady growth, while a much quieter competitor, Google, has been laying the groundwork to stake a claim of its own.
Years ago, Google started building towards this destiny with a first key move: pairing Google Play Music with YouTube Red upon its release. Before this, Play Music offered the same general features on other streaming platforms—ad-free playback on the same general music library except for those Apple Music and Spotify exclusives, with the minor advantage of Google’s human and algorithmic radio generation—but with YouTube Red adding ad-free, savable YouTube into the mix, millions of live performances, unreleased edits, ripped vinyls and tapes, podcasts, and archived mixes became available at that same price, all fueled by YouTube’s user base. Moreover, the ability to close the YouTube app or even turn off your screen when streaming on your mobile phone and continue with an audio-only experience basically turned YouTube into as much an audio platform as a video platform. It’s this library advantage that makes the one-two punch of YouTube Red and Google Play Music the ideal choice for music listeners who enjoy a lot of rare music. Even a lot of those exclusives on other platforms are available on YouTube as music videos.
More recently, YouTube has added better social media functionality into its platform, like photo posts and a news feed. I’ve seen the Marshmello team using YouTube’s social feed to great effect by taking advantage of its relative emptiness to reach large audiences. Sure, YouTube’s relationships with its creators have sometimes been fraught. But for artists trying to grow another entry point into their brand, diversifying isn’t such a bad idea, especially when you know that YouTube is not going to go down anytime soon. For Google too, this accomplishes another goal they’ve long sought to fill: their own social network. Google+ did not take off like they hoped, so instead they are wielding YouTube in that fashion.
One reason I’ve been remiss to pointing out Google’s incalculable advantage in the library game is that I feared the industry would try and hinder them from this success. But it seems like even Google’s admitting the cat is out of the bag, now describing YouTube Red as a “premium music experience” first and foremost. They will probably have to contend with increased scrutiny because of that, which is not a bad thing.
For too long, the music industry has rejected the platforms on which people choose to congregate, forcing people into their own schemes and fighting those who lure through convenience rather than compulsion. Rather, we should embrace convenient platform choices and work with the tech companies creating them to bring about a more equitable distribution of revenues by using artists’ influence to push for fairness. Young generations like mine are growing up in an age where access is easily available, and this walled-gardening that the music industry’s old hats tend to support is crippling to our progress.
There are a few concrete steps that Google can take right now with YouTube to help equalize things. First, Google should expand YouTube Content ID to more readily identify copyrighted music and divert revenues accordingly, with more active effort by YouTube to find these use cases. It should also be able to identify multiple songs in a sequence. For example, when an entire album is uploaded as one video or a mix includes lots of artists. Second, creators and identifiers both need more accountability and information on the financials behind their videos and ad revenues. Finally, YouTube should open up its Partner Program to more creators and channels on its site to enlarge the pool of content that can be monetized. Even still, there’s more to do, but these three actions would be a good start.
This grappling between technology companies and the content companies and creators who use their infrastructure will continue well into the 2020s and beyond, and Google’s revenues dwarf the music industry’s intake, so in time, incessant pressures will balance the financial scales. For now, though, even as the music industry still has problems to contend with, a consumer favorite has become clear, and from an unlikely source at that.