If you’re looking for the best source of free music in the world, look no further than YouTube.
First and foremost, YouTube is an excellent resource for music fans. A few years ago, if you wanted to hear what a band sounded like in seconds, you’d check MySpace; these days, thanks to Google’s advances in music licensing, you can find just about any song on YouTube — and watch the video to boot, assuming you even want to. YouTube works great as an on-demand music service, and even allows users to create and share playlists. (Tip: the high-resolution version of the videos often contains better-quality audio.)
Where other ad-supported on-demand music services have failed or been driven under by lawsuits, free music thrives on YouTube, in part because it can offset licensing costs with lucrative video advertisements – and simply because it’s YouTube, and record labels cannot afford not to be there. Rather than pulling their music from the site, most of the major labels embraced it by creating a joint venture with YouTube (Vevo).
Clearly, YouTube does a lot for the music business, fans and artists. Music videos consistently rank among the most popular on the site. Even better, YouTube’s audio fingerprinting technology, Content ID, ensures that people can upload videos that would normally have to be deleted for copyright reasons, with associated royalties going to musicians and other copyright holders as part of YouTube’s Partner Program. Essentially, this does what used to be considered impossible: enabling copyright holders to profit from copyright infringement.
This is all well and good: YouTube users get to upload and stream pretty much whatever they want, while the artists and labels who join YouTube’s Partner Program are compensated commensurately.
But on a structural level, the site’s success with music could have a big, negative side effect. YouTube’s comprehensiveness as a free music source might be hurting music subscriptions, and by extension artists, by offering users a free place to hear just about any song they want — the same core function for which Rhapsody hopes you’ll pay $10 per month.
YouTube might even hurt those services a second time in the music app market. App developers who want to play full songs within their apps have a big incentive to integrate YouTube instead of paid subscription services.
For example, Last.fm, MySpace’s own iLike (even when MySpace offers its own full-song music subscription), Bump, Discovr and Muziic, among others, choose to embed YouTube videos as a method of including full songs without paying for a license themselves or integrating a subscription service that would ultimately generate more revenue for artists than those YouTube ads.
Music fans love YouTube, present company included. I have yet to find anything better for sharing music on Facebook, and the site has brought me countless hours (days? months?) of musical enjoyment. But by giving both fans and app developers such an excellent free alternative to the subscription services that might eventually enable artists of the future to buy a new guitar or pay their rent, is it really doing music a service? When app developers create interesting new services, like the ability to share music with a fist bump, use YouTube videos rather than a true music service, are they helping or hurting music, artists, and ultimately, fans?
Complicating matters: Google is working on a music service of its own, having purchased the do-it-yourself cloud-based music service Simplify Media last May and hired longtime Rhapsody executive Tim Quirk to oversee the project last year. Why the delay? It could be that, having seen how well YouTube already delivers on-demand music, Google understands all too well the heady competition faced by any premium music service.
We contacted two normally helpful YouTube spokespeople and gave them plenty of time to address this issue, but neither responded to our queries.
Image courtesy of Flickr/webtreats