It’s Spotify all over again with YouTube Red

By Johnny McCabe

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redsoul300/ Flickr

redsoul300/ Flickr

Early last week, YouTube officially launched its premium subscription music and video service, YouTube Red, and the prospect of a paid YouTube has both viewers and creators in an uproar. The service, which would cost potential viewers $9.99 a month in exchange for ad-free viewing along with offline viewing and music streaming, was introduced by YouTube as an alternative source of income for video creators on the site. With users paying real money directly through the subscription fees, the theory is that content creators, colloquially known as “YouTubers,” will do better than they ever have under the traditional regime of ad-based revenue.

Well-known YouTubers like PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) have come out in support of the service, which they see as an effective counter to the prevalence of ad-blocking software. However, the creator-supporting leg of YouTube Red is shaping up to be just another instance of the flawed logic behind musicians taking their music off of Spotify. Third-party subscription services, whether from YouTube or Spotify or wherever, will never be the best way to support creators.

Let’s start with some context. I covered Taylor Swift’s extremely public battle with Spotify around this time last year, at the height of a wave of controversy over the music streaming service’s payment policy for its artists. Swift’s position was and remains relatively simple at face value: art is valuable, and therefore artists deserve to be paid for creating it. She removed her entire music catalog from Spotify, arguing that by paying her only pennies per play of each of her songs, Spotify was extorting not only her but much smaller artists without her level of media presence and exposure.

I argued that by placing album sales over streaming services, she aligned herself with the record industry, favoring a proven exploiter of undiscovered artists over an alleged one. Furthermore, many of the artists Swift claimed to champion, from Ed Sheeran to Hoodie Allen, embrace Spotify as a net positive by taking it for what it is: a discovery platform, that allows them to get their music into the ears of people. Artists will always make more money from concert tickets and merchandise than they will off of distributed copies of recorded music.

Unfortunately, it seems like YouTube Red is headed in the same direction. PewDiePie, whose channel has more than 10 billion views, has taken up the mantle of responsibility over the impoverished creators, adopting the same “It-won’t-change-anything-for-me-but-the-little-guy-will-benefit” rhetoric as Swift did in her feud with Spotify. On one hand, it’s heartening to see him being so transparent – it’s tricky to figure out exactly how much YouTubers make – but he’s the highest earner by a mile, and also one of the first YouTube partners to announce his involvement in exclusive content only available to Red subscribers. However, by making it about ad-blocking software, PewDiePie makes the same false assumption that Taylor Swift did about Spotify – that ads make YouTubers any money to begin with.

In a lengthy video about this whole controversy, Hank Green (one half of the pioneering YouTube duo “Vlogbrothers”) outlines that even a hypothetical “YouTube power user” generates a few dozen cents per month in ad revenue for his channel. The Vlogbrothers have seven and a half million subscribers, and are one of the most well-known channels on the site. Ad revenue for smaller channels plummets even further into irrelevance. On a fundamental level, YouTube’s existing monetization model, unfair as it is, is exactly the same as Spotify’s. Spotify’s pay-per-stream feature is insubstantial, as is YouTube’s pay-per-ad. But those who look to these entities as money generating enterprises fundamentally misunderstand their value as social platforms.

The value of both YouTube and Spotify, like all other social media, lies in their capacity as discovery engines. YouTube allows anyone with a camera and microphone the potential to build an audience of people all across the world. Whether through playing games, making educational videos, makeup tutorials, or anything else, the main benefit and tangible opportunity provided by YouTube is for creators and viewers to make a community – a community that, like fans of an artist or band, will support their creator through other means. As third-party sites, YouTube and Spotify will only ever be in it for themselves, serving as facilitators of this community creation but keeping a majority of the profit.

This is the perspective that PewDiePie and Taylor Swift don’t understand: the inherent value of exposure. YouTube Red, just like Spotify Premium, is a great deal for the end user, if they are willing to pay for it. It is not, however, the best way to support YouTubers. The sooner both viewers and content creators wise up to this fact, the sooner we can all start supporting the people who make the stuff we love.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]