YouTube is a platform that has become second nature. Much like how Google has completely overshadowed other search engines to the point that Google is almost synonymous with the internet itself, if a video isn’t on YouTube then to all intents and purposes it may as well not exist. While music may not be its primary purpose, it’s a great tool for artists and fans alike. So we’re taking a look at how YouTube stacks up as a music platform, and how well it works for both music makers and music consumers alike.
More music is played on YouTube than on Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal combined. Even without an explicit focus on music it is still the biggest music platform in the world. For artists this means that you have a massive audience at your disposal, and for fans it means you have a world of music at your fingertips. All of this is available for free! It costs nothing to upload a video to YouTube besides your own time and effort, and as far as watching videos is concerned you don’t need to be logged in or even have an account in the first place to watch most videos, and so you’ll never need to pay a single penny.
Another factor that benefits both sides is YouTube’s top notch recommendations. We’ve all been sucked into a “YouTube black hole” at some point or other; you start watching one thing, you see something else interesting recommended at the side of it, and so it goes until suddenly it’s 3am and you wonder where the time has gone (and occasionally “what am I doing with my life”, but you can’t blame YouTube for that). From personal experience I’d say that YouTube’s recommendations are the best out there. The tailored suggestions it comes back with even after just a couple of listens to a song/artist etc are so spot on that sometimes its hard to believe that they don’t employ someone just to deal with your specific tastes. While the benefits for music consumers are obvious, for artists better recommendations means that your music will be more likely to reach receptive audiences and thus make new fans.
There are many artists who have built their careers thanks to YouTube. They usually start out by releasing a few acoustic covers and gradually build up views and subscribers. As their skill, confidence and production quality increases, they throw more and more original numbers into the mix and really establish themselves as an artist in their own right. Filipino singer Arnel Pineda landed his dream job as the lead singer of Journey after the band saw his covers on YouTube. Acts like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes might not be the successes they are today were it not for the attention they got from YouTube at the start of their careers, giving them an all important push in the right direction.
From an artistic perspective YouTube also opens up a whole new world of creative avenues to explore. It offers a whole other sense to work with. You can use imagery alongside a song to help tell a story or set a mood. Music videos have had a real renaissance thanks to YouTube, and much like with the heyday of MTV back in the 80s, a great video has the power to make a song a hit. Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America‘ is not one of his better tracks truth be told, but its iconic video has become an important cultural landmark for the 2010s. Would South Korean singer Psy be known across the world were it not for his batshit meme-worthy video for ‘Gangnam Style‘? Probably not.
An ingenious and well-constructed video can take a song to new heights, and sometimes overshadow the music itself in the best possible way. Look no further than the absolute masters of the music video: OK Go. What started with a viral dance routine on treadmills led them down the path to becoming one of the most unique and visionary bands of our time. Exceptionally inventive visuals which saw them playing with perspective, slow motion, and Rube Goldberg machines to name just a few really pushed the boundaries. They saw the potential that YouTube had and let their imaginations run free.
The trouble with using YouTube as a music discovery platform is that we inevitably end up using it for other things too. If you listen to cool new music then you will get recommended even more cool new music, but it will likely be mixed in with funny animal videos, Vine compilations, gaming ‘let’s plays’, tutorials for basic adult tasks like tying a tie, and other recommendations based on whatever else you’ve been watching.
Recommendations can be difficult to navigate for artists too, especially those still in the early stages of growing their following. Whether their content gets recommended or not relies on being able to please the algorithm. All hail the mighty and mysterious algorithm! There are many schools of thought on how to improve your chances with it based on everything from the thumbnail and the tags, to the time of day the video first goes live. While these things are worth taking into consideration, even so you will still need a fair amount of luck and perseverance. Basically the algorithm is like God and religion; it works in mysterious ways, and while lots of people may claim to have the answers you can’t categorically prove any of them right or wrong. Thankfully this is mainly a hurdle for channels just starting out, and the algorithm can turn from enemy to friend once you build up momentum.
Uploading content to YouTube is free, but making it sure isn’t. While acts can certainly just add songs to YouTube without videos, shooting an accompanying video is usually a risk worth taking for established acts to try and get a bit more attention. For up-and-coming acts who are hard up for cash however, videos are usually more of a financial burden than a creative outlet. It’s not like they’re gonna get the money back from YouTube itself either, even established acts will struggle in that regard. The notoriously stingy Spotify pays out ten times as much per stream than YouTube does. The same number of streams it would take on Spotify to make a day’s pay on minimum wage would barely even be enough to buy you lunch through YouTube. Most youtubers make their money through advertising and sponsorships but that isn’t really an option for artists. No one wants an ad break in the middle of listening to a song, nor do they want an infomercial for Squarespace or Dollar Shave Club at the end.
While YouTube has worked as an important springboard for artists, landing them record deals and such, using the platform long term can prove to be curiously confining. Let me elaborate. Take an artist like Dodie, she’s consistently released covers and original music for years now, as well as collaborating with other artists and releasing fun and down-to-Earth vlogs and behind the scenes stuff. She’s just now become “one to watch” within the mainstream music press. That’s great, but it’s long overdue. She’s one of the biggest “music youtubers” in the world. She has around 1.9 million subscribers, enough people to fill Wembley Stadium 20 times over. Calling her “one to watch” at this point is like saying “hey, just heard about this chap called Usain who’s pretty damn quick, could be a real contender one day!”. There are plenty of other artists too that have built up a massive loyal following through YouTube but have scarcely made a ripple in the larger music scene and remain basically unknown by the general public. I’m not entirely sure why this is, maybe some folks deride them as “social media influencers” rather than genuine hard-working artists. Whatever the reason I hope the dam breaks soon and these artists get the recognition they deserve.
I think that while people don’t give YouTube enough credit as a music discovery platform, and for its ability to break new artists and expand fanbases, at the same time it can’t be relied upon in isolation. It’s a great supplementary tool for both consumers and creators, but is best used alongside other platforms which have a greater focus on music.
Also, please note that this article took several hours longer to write than intended as I ended up watching music videos til the early hours. C’est la vie.