While many labels and high-profile artists have chosen to take a stand against other streaming services which they feel are treating musicians unfairly, the nature of YouTube makes it difficult to take this same approach, despite YouTube's pittance of a payout.
If you’re a record label, or an artist, band or publisher for that matter, the one thorn in your digital side is YouTube. Why? It’s by far the most widely used streaming service for consuming music, yet it pays the least of all the services. However, it’s come to light that YouTube’s licensing agreements with the three major labels have either expired or are about to, which brings new hope that renegotiated terms might mean increased revenue for the industry.
That hope may prove false though, since YouTube continues to hold all the leverage – in fact, it holds virtually all of it.
Until now, the major labels could drive a hard bargain with all other streaming services that not only gained them hefty upfront fees, but also even a piece of the company in some cases. If a music service didn’t like a label’s terms, it still had no choice but to take the deal, otherwise it would be minus the label’s catalog, which could mean a death blow to the service.
Not so with YouTube.
Since so much of the music on the service is illegally uploaded by its users, the company is able to dictate the license agreement terms, since if a label balks and refuses to agree to the deal, its music will still appear on the service.
In fact, Warner Music tried this very tactic a few years ago, but after a year of its songs still appearing on YouTube yet generating zero revenue, the company acquiesced and signed a deal on YouTube’s terms. Getting some money is better than no money at all.
All this is made possible thanks to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protects YouTube and other similar services in that they can’t be held liable as a result of unlicensed content that its users might upload. A record label can ask that the content be taken down, and YouTube will comply, but chances are that content will be re-uploaded immediately and the cycle will continue. Plus the burden of finding any unlicensed versions lies with the labels, all of which spend a great deal of time and resources searching for violations.
So YouTube is in the drivers seat in these negotiations. Even if the labels don’t like the deal presented, they have no recourse since their music will find its way onto the service, but the labels will get zero money if they pull their catalogs because they don’t like the terms.