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Irving Azoff lays into YouTube’s key arguments in ongoing safe harbours battle

By | Published on Tuesday 10 May 2016


Credit where it’s due, veteran artist manager Irving Azoff was a pioneer when it came to YouTube griping, publicly laying into the Google video site’s approach to music licensing long before it was the fashionable thing to do in music circles. Hell, he even set up his own performing rights organisation in part to address issues with the way YouTube pays royalties (or not) to publishers and songwriters.

With the American music industry at large laying into YouTube with increased frequency, volume and vitriol in recent weeks – mainly because the US Copyright Office is reviewing the safe harbours of copyright law that allow the video site to run an ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ streaming service – Azoff has published an open letter via tech site Re/code responding to some of the ways in which YouTube, and its Head Of International Music Partnerships Christophe Muller, have defended their approach to music in recent weeks.

Starting off by saying that “you say that music matters to YouTube, [but] there is an old adage about actions and words”, Azoff notes that – via its Red subscription service – the Google business now has its own original content that it wants to keep off the freebie level of the video site. And it seems to manage to do that just fine, Azoff reckons. So why won’t it give labels and artists the same power over their original content?

“If YouTube valued music, then it would allow artists to have the same control which YouTube grants to itself. YouTube has created original programming. Those programmes sit behind a ‘paid wall’ and are not accessible for free unless YouTube decides to make them available that way. If a fan wants to watch the YouTube series ‘Sister-Zoned’ that fan has to subscribe to YouTube Red for $9.99 a month. But the same does not apply to music”.

He goes on: “If music matters to YouTube, then why not give musicians the same choice you give yourselves? Taylor Swift should be able to decide which of her songs are available for free and which are part of a paid subscription service. Or she should be able to opt out of YouTube if you won’t give her this choice. But artists can’t opt out of YouTube. Because of the outdated Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the only way for an artist to keep a song off YouTube is for that artist to send YouTube a notice every time that song is uploaded by a different user. It is impossible”.

But what about YouTube’s rights management system Content ID, designed to help rights owners keep content off the video site with minimum effort? Well, Azoff’s thought about that. “The Content ID system that you flaunt is meaningless when YouTube continues to hide behind the ‘safe harbour’ provisions of the DMCA”, says he. “If YouTube cares about copyright management then join the music business in its efforts to reform the DMCA. Or, better yet, you could really prove your love for music by not allowing music on to YouTube unless you ask the creators of that song for permission”.

Noting that YouTube has previously said that, beyond Content ID, it can’t police the constant flood of content being uploaded to its servers, Azoff adds: “Before you tell me that you can’t control what is uploaded to YouTube, let me say it seems clear that YouTube can control the content on its platform when it wants to do so: It controls its own series programming, and it limits offensive content like pornography. It certainly monitors what people are listening to on YouTube and provides that information to advertisers”.

Azoff then notes an argument recently put forward by YouTube that it’s unfair for labels and artists to compare the royalties they receive from the Google service with those of premium subscription set-ups like Spotify or Apple. With the promo potential of its platform, YouTube would prefer to be compared to radio, which has always paid much lower rates (and in the US continues to pay nothing at all to the labels).

But that’s not a fair comparison, says Azoff, and if you can’t make music on an ad-funded YouTube work at the industry’s desired royalty rates, perhaps that’s because you’ve got the wrong business model. “You say it isn’t fair for an artist to compare what they make from Spotify to what they make on YouTube because they are different services. From a fan and artist perspective, they provide the same service – on-demand, streaming music”.

“It is true that YouTube has a different business model”, he concedes, but only with this big but: “That was not the artist’s decision. It was YouTube that decided to invest in an ad-supported platform. If an ad-supported streaming service doesn’t generate enough revenue for YouTube to pay artists at rates which are comparable to Spotify or Apple, then maybe it isn’t a good business”.

Finally, Azoff lays into YouTube’s other key argument, that it is paying decent monies into music, but artists don’t see it because of those pesky middle-men. “You can blame the labels and publishers – I know how easy it is to take shots at record companies and publishers – I have been doing it for years. But the root of the problem here is you: You have built a business that works really well for you and for Google, but it doesn’t work well for artists. If you think it is just the labels and publishers who are complaining, you are wrong. The music community is traditionally a very fractured one, but on this we are united”.

It is certainly true that the YouTube issue of today has rallied together strands of the music business which don’t always see eye-to-eye, including labels, publishers, managers, artists, songwriters and collecting societies, including both major and independent players.

Though behind the scenes not everyone is entirely on message, in that most agree that there are issues with YouTube and Content ID, but not everyone is so convinced that safe harbour reform is the way to address these issues, even if it could be achieved. Younger managers and label execs, in particular, see a multitude of under-tapped opportunities on the YouTube platform that could be enhanced for everyone’s benefit, and probably will be once the current war of words has fizzled out.

Still, Azoff’s voice is influential, and will be a useful ally for the record labels and trade groups still hoping to persuade policy-makers – in Europe if not the US – to put more liability onto YouTube over the content on its platform by reforming safe harbour laws.