Sign This Label Deal or We’ll Shoot The Dog – Making Choices

Zoe-keating2Guest Post by Cortney Harding on This Week In Music Tech

Like everyone else, I read Zoe Keating’s blog post about YouTube Music Key’s contracts last week. I was a little turned off by her “I’m a struggling artist! Who met Eric Schmidt at Davos last year!” vibe, but I’ll give her credit for shining some light on the inner workings of these deals. From my vantage point, the deal YouTube is offering isn’t bad — they’re helping artists monetize, claim their work, and make sure their catalog is complete. If artists want a real alternative to Spotify, Music Key could be the solution.

At minimum, having another strong player in the market will create competition, which artists can then use to their advantage to negotiate better deals. A monopoly in the streaming space helps no one.

I also spent some time last weekend watching the flawed-but-still-interesting “Sonic Highways.” The Seattle episode was one of the better ones, but when I saw the inevitable picture of Nirvana on the cover of Rolling Stone with Kurt in his “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” shirt, I felt…rage.

Because here’s the thing with these contracts — artists don’t have to sign them. I’ll say it one more time, for emphasis — if someone presents you with a contract you don’t like YOU. DON’T. HAVE. TO. SIGN. IT.

No one forced Nirvana to sign to Geffen back in the day. All members of the band were adults who made the choice freely and decided to put their signatures on paper. They could have stayed on Sub Pop and grown into a respected indie band. They could have quit the band, gone back to school, and had other jobs. They weighed the pro’s and con’s and took the money. So it now rings a little hollow when I hear interviews with Kurt Cobain talking about how much he hates being a rock star, because no one made him become one. And yes, I know he struggled with depression and substance abuse and that clouded his thinking, but being smart enough to engineer posing on the cover of Rolling Stone while dissing corporate magazines is the very definition of having your cake and eating it too, and you gotta be of sound and savvy mind to pull that off.

As for Zoe Keating, if she finds the YouTube contract unsatisfying, she can and should refuse to sign it. If an artist wants to keep their music off streaming, that’s their decision, although I personally think it’s a silly one. But if you want to release your music on flash drives hidden around the world and have your fans go on scavenger hunts to find them, or only release CDs at Target, or whatever, that’s your prerogative. If you’re willing to accept that fewer people will hear what you’re working on, or discover you, or that you’ll likely make less money, fine.

Some people have said that Google is acting as an 800lb gorilla in this situation, and they are totally right. And water is wet, and snow is cold. Sometimes little guys have to deal with big, heartless companies if they want to accomplish a certain thing. I would love to have a custom mortgage that worked just for me, but Wells Fargo doesn’t offer that. My husband and I weighed the decision of signing a deal that we didn’t love against the benefit of owning our apartment, and came down on the side of ownership being a higher priority for us. Other people might decide the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost and keep renting, or look for another deal.

I’ve been seeing a lot of non-music tech articles that that all seem to have the same general theme: “why can’t I have everything I want exactly when I want it?” I watched a woman throw a fit because she couldn’t bring her toddler into a bar a while back. I heard another person complain about not getting promoted at work because he left at 5pm to go running every day.

YouTube_logo_2013.svgGuess what — you don’t always get what you want all the time. You get the toddler OR the bar. You get the promotion OR you get to take off and go the gym whenever you want. There’s no “right” choice in any of those scenarios, but there are choices.

So if you want your music to reach millions of people, you might have to sign a label deal whose terms you don’t love. You might have to play nice with streaming partners you find distasteful. You might have to do boring interviews with inept journalists, or play concerts when you’re jetlagged or hungover, or wear dumb outfits and dye your hair and shill for products. If you don’t like, no one is forcing you to do any of it. In the old days, with very limited distribution pathways, it was a little harder to go it alone; now, it’s a million times easier to make your own rules if you don’t love the options in front of you.

But it’s really not worth using a deal you don’t like as a personal brand building exercise. If you hate major labels, sign to an indie. Release music by yourself. Drive an Uber and rent your place on AirBNB when you’re on the road and play small clubs. Will you make millions of dollars and headline Coachella? No. But if what you have to do to get there is antithetical to your beliefs, then those things won’t make you happy anyway.


No dogs were harmed in the writing of this blog post. My dog would like you to know that I did not pay attention to her while I wrote this and, as such, am a bad dog-parent.

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  1. I’m not a musician. But I can see Keating’s point about the contract being an issue for all of us – non-famous YouTube uploaders, successful artists and YouTube viewers.
    Sure, Keating can tell YouTube to eat dirt and she won’t sign. But now, instead of all of us benefiting from the use of (admittedly flawed) automation to share revenue with artists when music is used in the background of a video, artists must now either just let their work be stolen or send takedown notices.
    That’s a lose/lose if I ever saw one. The incidental sampling of music on amateur videos with authors still getting some compensation was a great use of computing resources.
    Now Google has set the bar for author participation so high it’s going to be an issue for everyone, not just artists. We are now being dragged back to the era of use, takedown notices and blocked content. Everyone loses.

  2. I love your take on this. It’s America after all, and Google/Youtube has free choice to offer whatever terms they want for the service that they provide.
    However, it may be to the benefit of the musical community to band together and refuse unfair terms forcing Youtube to re-evaluate. Keating may have started something here…

  3. The key point in this dispute is that YouTube takes away Content ID if Zoë doesn’t sign. It might be fair if YouTube blocked all music from artists who didn’t sign, even music uploaded illegally. And don’t believe for a minute that they couldn’t. They have little trouble keeping hardcore porn off YouTube, so they could find anything else if they wanted too. But the whole business is built on abuse of DMCA’s ‘safe harbor’ provision. No one has to sign YouTube’s deal, but that won’t stop them from making money off of illegal material. Artists don’t have the choice to stay off YouTube, because Google knows damn well that anyone who doesn’t sign will be there anyway, illegally uploaded, and good luck to any artist who can’t use Content ID to find their stolen content.

  4. YouTube built a whole platform and audience out of content it didn’t own. And when YouTube started to monetize the content, it took 40 to 50% of ad revenues before sending content owners their cut. YouTube is definitely abusing a powerful position. It is one thing to have to deal with youtube, it’s another to submissive accept these terms and say nothing about it.

  5. It would seem that in addition to infringing material Googoyle have also been placing ads on videos which are terror related, as well as sex tourism videos. This is going to catch up with them. In the meantime, it’s not the kind of business I want. I made all of my vids unavailable for viewing on YouTube as of today. No thanks.

  6. Omg! have people taken leave of their senses or are they really that stupid?
    This whole Zoe Keating thing is a nonsense. Zoe, if you are not familiar with the whole YouTube/Indies contract stoush then Google it and read up about it. The terms YouTube offered was negotiated with all record companies and that includes the indies.
    If you want to upload your Content ID videos, and you want your music monetised so that if Joe from the Outer Hebrides uses your music in his video, you get paid, then you need to sign up to Music Key. That’s YouTube’s deal. If you don’t like it, then pull your videos off YouTube or adapt them accordingly. Make video PREVIEWS of your music and host the full version ON YOUR OWN DAMN SITE!
    Stop acting like a spoilt brat and create this ridiculous drama as those of us in the music industry (indies just like you) are aware of the terms and shall make a decision to stick or twist with it.
    I will not take any notice of the intellectually challenged people who just spout nonsensical abuse at YouTube without obtaining all the facts therein. Rant Over!

  7. Kenny – I don’t know where to begin..
    Yes, Merlin and YouTube finally got to something, after IMPALA issued an anti-trust complaint with the EC. You can read the original piece of garbage that they sent to the indies here:
    In other news:
    Explaining his decision to take action against YouTube and not Spotify or other streaming services, Azoff said to The Hollywood Reporter: “Because they are the ones that have been least cooperative and the company our clients feel are the worst offenders. It’s also their attitude.”
    Surely you must be aware of the pressure and criticism Google is starting to receive for passing the buck on terror-related videos..
    Or how about human trafficking, or sex tourism?
    MTP is a great blog by the way, follow them if you dare.
    And let’s not forget the Google Books fiasco, which I will leave up to the reader to investigate.
    Or don’t.
    But PLEASE KENNY – do not to attempt to characterize the readers here as nonsesensical or intellectually challenged. Take it elsewhere.

  8. Dear Asterblaster (great name).
    I really am flabbergasted by your response. I am a member of Merlin so I am very aware of the protracted negotiations with Google. However, your link between human trafficking and YouTube’s contract terms with artists beggars belief. I am not even going to respond to it. You clearly have a beef with Google so go fight with them. Artists do NOT have to accept any deal from anyone if they don’t like it. DIY is the name of the game. You have your own website and you have the tools.

  9. Hi Kenny,
    Well, i wouldn’t say that I have a beef with Google.
    It’s more like a jaw that gets lower to the floor every time I look at the facts.
    For one, there’s the obvious, that this is the same company, which in my opinion is establishing a very clear pattern of behavior in areas that go beyond, but also include music contracts.
    As to their advertising paradigm, we need to realize that it could well be the artist’s and/or label’s music with which the unsavory ads are displayed. Realistically, it is this very content that is attracting the eyeballs in the first place, let’s not lose sight of that.
    On the flip side, advertisers have no guarantee over what type of video they are being associated with.
    In both cases it might be argued that this is misleading on Google’s part, but regardless, some would agree that this is ultimately not great brand management.
    So to me, the links are quite obvious.
    I realize that a sell point of the Music Key service is to eliminate ads to end users, but of course this is only possible as an enticement because the ads exist in the first place.
    With respect to saying NO and using ones own site (or alternative sites), that is exactly what I did last week.
    I’m not saying that I’m boycotting Google or anything (that could prove much harder to do than it would initially seem). I’m just sitting it out for a bit to see which way the wind blows.
    And hopefully bring some attention to the situation by pointing to a track record and legitimate fact.

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