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Is The Great Artist Revolt Imminent?

1Is an artist revolution imminent? As major labels renegotiate with YouTube, the likelihood of a deal which benefits artists being struck seems unlikely, raising the question of what will happen if said negotiations do indeed fail.

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Guest post by Chris Castle of Music Tech Solutions

As I noted in a recent Huffington Post blog, major labels are in the middle of renegotiations with YouTube, Google’s subsidiary and the world’s dominant video search engine.  These deals are relatively short term and are renegotiated every few years.

What’s different this time is that a growing number of artists and songwriters at the grassroots and established levels are asking a simple question:  How can the labels conclude any negotiation with YouTube that doesn’t address the problems with YouTube’s legacy “DMCA license” business?  Would this not trigger an artist revolt if their demands are not met?

You may say you’ve never heard the term “DMCA license”.  It’s a term that has come to describe a bargaining position that plays a desire to push an extreme interpretation by a music user of the “notice and takedown” rules that twists the statute into an unrecognizable shape–so the users have neither a DMCA compliant service nor a license.  The DMCA license is predicated on the user having an essentially unlimited litigation budget that allows the user to strong arm an entire industry.  There is only one company in this category at the moment–Google–but others like Vimeo and Facebook are not far behind.

Will Negotiations Fail?

There are at least three key points to be addressed in any new deal with YouTube: updating YouTube’s legacy revenue share based royalty, marketing restrictions (such as on selling artist names as keywords and the use of recordings in UGC not approved by artists), but most importantly Google’s aggressive DMCA practices in both search and on YouTube.

For the first time, artists are crossing Google’s DMCA position in search with YouTube’s desire to have the cover of licenses on YouTube.

As of this writing, Google is rumored to be holding the line in their renegotiations regardless of what the artists want.  When you consider the issues we covered inYouTube’s Messaging Problem, it’s not surprising that the brittle true believers in Google’s policy shop make compromise on Google’s legacy business an impossibility (like long-time true believer Fred Von Lohmann, chief architect of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal strategy to destroy artists livelihood).

This leads me to believe that when confronted with these choices, the negotiations with YouTube will fail.  This is unfortunate, because what really should be happening is that YouTube should agree to take the DMCA safe harbor off the table if they are getting a license.  It seems not only logically inconsistent to have both a real license and a faux DMCA license, trying to combine the two comes up with an unworkable and frustrating structure.

If YouTube wants the benefits of a license with copyright owners, they should not be surprised that artists expect them to abandon the safe harbor for those licensed recordings, adopt a private arbitration process to resolve disputes, and respect the marketing restrictions that artists reasonably expect.

Where Do We Go if Negotiations Fail?

There’s no reason that official videos could no longer be available on Vevo that is partly owned by YouTube–although expect YouTube to violate their fiduciary duties as a stockholder if major label partners withdraw from YouTube.

The most likely outcome of getting out of the YouTube deals will be a renewed emphasis on alternative video sites like Apple and Spotify.  There’s actually no reason not to start working more closely with those two services right away which will address the artist displeasure with Google.

Plus, as I spun out a bit more on the Huffington Post, YouTube has the great benefit of label marketing budgets spent to drive traffic to YouTube (as well as marketing resources from companies in all other copyright categories).  If those budgets are redeployed to drive traffic away from litigious companies that insult artists with aggressive and unreasonable DMCA positions, the industry will be better prepared for the inevitable “step away” from YouTube.

I think that labels need to be coming to grips with a succession plan as it seems increasingly unlikely that Google will stop acting on the advice of the “policy people” who have never sold a record in their lives.

If the labels fail to satisfy their artists, there will no doubt be an artist revolt.

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