Valentine’s Day 2005. Three former PayPal employees register a domain name for an idea they had, as legend has it, after a failed search for online footage of Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Whether or not they knew it then, their idea changed the course of music history forever. Later that year, on 23 April 2005, co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded a video titled “Me at the Zoo,” an 18-second video that has been watched 31 million times since, and YouTube was officially born.
11 years later and God knows how many hours of videos later, YouTube has become the second most popular website in the world, behind Google but in front of Facebook. In fact, YouTube is actually available in a whopping 76 different languages, allowing essentially the entire world to navigate the site. From amusing home videos like “Charlie bit my finger” and “Keyboard cat” to music videos like Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” nearly anything and everything is available for streaming on YouTube.
It’s hard to deny that the streaming platform has had a massive influence on the way the public consumes content. But what does this mean for industries like television and music in particular? Previous to most music and the accompanying videos being available on YouTube, CDs were the most popular medium that allowed music fans to listen to their favorite musicians. Being able to access music online drastically changed consumer behavior, but whether YouTube has been a blessing or a curse is something no one can seem to agree on.
The obvious gripe that those in the music industry have with YouTube is that it makes music available to the public for free. Some argue this has led to a devaluation of music, a pervasive attitude that the ownership of music is a right rather than a privilege that should be paid for. Many artists and record labels have come forward to complain that they do not earn any money from their music being streamed online.
But this is not an entirely accurate representation. Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has generated more than $3 billion for the music industry through royalties and ad-supported services. Similarly, the video streaming site has also become a viable option to actually earn a living for many of today’s internet users. As this article states, YouTube ‘stars’ PewDiePie and HolaSoyGerman can earn up to $1.5 million and $180,000 per month respectively. YouTube has in fact also branched out to a paid-for music subscription service, similar to Spotify Premium, which would attribute to further profit.
Where YouTube might take in terms of financial gains, it gives in regards to opportunity. YouTube has given many aspiring artists the platform they need to build their careers, gain exposure and hopefully be discovered. Let us remind ourselves of the humble beginnings of one of today’s biggest pop stars: Justin Bieber. Whether or not you are a ‘Belieber,’ his rise to fame from grainy home videos singing Chris Brown covers to stadium tours across the world is an apt demonstration of the power of YouTube. The streaming platform gives artists a global audience of billions they would otherwise not have access to.
In the end, it seems that there is no black and white answer. In this digital day and age, the idea that the music industry does not profit or even need YouTube or other streaming platforms is misled. Has it led to a decrease in the profitability of the music industry? Yes, if you look purely at CD sales figures. But it has also made the music industry more accessible and inclusive, opening it up to emerging talents who can take their promotion into their own hands. Perhaps YouTube has made music ever so slightly less a matter of who you know and more a matter putting your talent out there for people to see. And isn’t that what art is about?