I’m amazed it’s managed to last this long without getting shut down. YouTube is less than a year old, but it’s getting harder and harder to imagine life without it. I first heard about the site the same way a whole lot of people probably did: I used it to watch the “Lazy Sunday” video. That video got yanked a few days later, but the site has since become something of a cultural juggernaut and a great democratic equalizer. Kids post footage of themselves singing Ne-Yo songs or doing the Chicken Noodle Soup, and people actually watch that footage. Great moments in sports and film and television that would’ve otherwise been lost forever are suddenly right back up there. Damn near every music video that’s ever been made has been archived. Some unseen army is uploading every single piece of pop culture detritus they’ve ever videotaped, and the rest of us love them for it. YouTube certainly makes my job a whole lot easier, but I can only imagine how much more I’d love it if I still had one of those jobs where you spend maybe forty-five minutes a day doing actual work and then the rest of the day trying to look busy. The site has basically changed the lives of everyone who realizes it exists, so obviously it’s too good to last.
Or maybe it’s not. Yesterday, YouTube announced a deal it’d made with Warner Music Group. YouTube can keep all its Warner music up, but now they’ll be sharing some of their advertising revenue with the label. I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work; it certainly seems possible that YouTube will start putting up more advertisements to keep pace with their new financial responsibilities, and none of us would really be in any position to complain about that. Idolator made the point that the people actually making the videos of themselves singing along with Warner Artists or uploading Warner music videos onto the site still won’t get paid anything, but, I mean, duh. The New York Times article didn’t have any information on whether the deal will apply to Warner’s non-music property, like if it’ll suddenly become totally legal to upload Bugs Bunny cartoons or whatever. YouTube makes it really easy to post its videos on other websites, even though those other websites probably aren’t contributing anything to their ad revenue, so I don’t know what the legal ramifications are there. YouTube claims it’ll use a music-recognition program to figure out whose music is ending up on the site, and it remains to be seen whether this thing will work here. We’re in uncharted territory here, and there’s still a lot left to figure out. It’s certainly not a bad idea to be completely suspicious of a major label’s motivations, especially considering that one Warner underling at Atlantic already threatened legal action against Nah Right for posting a YouTubed Lupe Fiasco video. It’s entirely conceivable that Warner’s just doing this for the positive press, that they’ll start diving through loopholes to sue people once the ink on the deal dries.
Still, this is something of a milestone. The music industry has a long history of kicking and thrashing and doing whatever it can to stop the progression of music-related technology throughout history: radio, recordable cassettes, fucking player pianos. The last time an online service as revolutionary as YouTube came along, it was Napster, and we all saw what happened there. Last week, the CEO of Universal was telling people about the damn fool idea he had that YouTube and MySpace owed his company, “tens of millions of dollars,” that same reactionary story again. The fact is that record sales have been in absolute free-fall this year, and the music industry is going to think of a new way of making money if it wants to continue existing, but suing its customers or its potential customers just isn’t going to work. Warner’s deal with YouTube isn’t going to solve the industry’s problems, but it’s an encouraging sign that a few of the people making decisions are at least willing to entertain the possibility that a vast viral network with unlimited promotional potential isn’t necessarily the enemy. One example: anyone who suddenly gets the urge to watch Monster Magnet’s “Space Lord” video and actually has that urge placated is probably a whole lot more likely to buy Monster Magnet’s Powertrip. In the meantime, anyway, every non-Warner record label still has its music all over YouTube, and nobody’s getting paid shit for that.