Article 13 – Laws of Unintended Consequences

Published: September 14, 2018

I do not normally add disclaimers or qualifiers at the start of blog posts, but given how divisive the whole Article 13 debate has become, there is a big risk that some readers will make incorrect assumptions about my position on Article 13. The emerging defining characteristic of popular debate in the late 2010s has been the polarization of opinion e.g. Brexit, Trump, immigration. Article 13 follows a similar model, leaving little tolerance for the middle ground. You are either anti-copyright / pro-big tech or you’re pro-big government / anti-innovation.

Such extremes are the inevitable result of multi-million-dollar lobby campaigns by both sides. Reasoned nuance doesn’t really play so well in the world of political lobbying. My objective, and MIDiA’s, from the outset has been to strike an evidence-based, agenda-free position, that considers the merits of all aspects of both sides’ arguments. So, before I embark on a blog post that will likely be viewed by some of being pro-Google and anti-rights holder (it is not, nor is it the opposite), these are some ‘value gap’ principles that MIDiA holds to be true:

  • YouTube has misused fair use and safe harbour provisions against the legislation’s original intent
  • YouTube’s ‘unique’ licensing model creates an imbalance in the competitive marketplace
  • YouTube’s free offering is so good that it sucks oxygen out of the premium sphere
  • Google has rarely demonstrated an unequivocal commitment to, nor support of current copyright regimes
  • YouTube being able to license post-facto rather than paying for access to repertoire, gives it a competitive advantage over traditional licensed services
  • There is too big a gap between YouTube ad-supported payments and Spotify ad-supported payments, meaning too little gets to rights holders and creators
  • Take down and stay down is a feasible and achievable solution (albeit within margins of error)
  • The current situation needs fixing in order to rebalance the streaming market

Nonetheless, for each one of these positions from the rights holder side of the debate, we also see an equally long and compelling list of points from YouTube’s side. Rather than list them however, I want to explain how ignoring some of the counterpoints could unintentionally create a far bigger problem for the music industry than the one it is trying to fix.

Value gap or control gap?

What really riles labels is that they cannot exercise the same degree of control over YouTube that they can over Spotify and co. This is very understandable, as they rightly want to be able to determine who uses their music, how it is used and how partners pay for usage. However, taking a very simplistic view of the world, the label-licensed approach has created: a few tech major success stories that don’t need to wash their own faces (Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music); a collection of smaller loss-making services (e.g. Deezer, Tidal); and one big break out success story that can’t turn a profit (Spotify). In short, the label-led model has not (yet at least) resulted in the creation of a commercially sustainable marketplace. Rights holders want to pull YouTube into this controlled economy model. YouTube is understandably resistant. After all, YouTube is a crucial margin driver for Alphabet. It cannot afford it to be loss leading. Alphabet’s core ad businesses generate the margin that subsidises Alphabet’s loss-making bets such as space flight, autonomous cars and curing death (I kid you not). Ad revenue has to be profitable.

Fixed costs / variable revenue

As we explained in our recent State of the YouTube Economy 2.0 report, YouTube went double or quits during the last two years, doubling down on music, making music over index across its user base, in order to try to make it an indispensable hit-making partner for labels. That bet now looks to have failed. So, the question is, will YouTube acquiesce to the new command economy approach to streaming or do something else—perhaps even walk away from music?

The fundamental commercial imperative for YouTube is as follows:

  • Spotify pays a fixed minimum fee to rights holders for each ad supported stream, even if it does not sell any advertising against it. The rate is the same for every song, every day of the year.
  • YouTube pays as a share of ad revenue. This means it is always paying rights holders a consistent share of its income, including all the up side on revenue spikes. But ad inventory is not worth the same 365 days a year. There are seasonal variations meaning a song can generate less rights holder income in December say, than January. Also, not all songs are worth the same to advertisers: they are willing to pay much more to advertise against a Drake track than they are for an obscure 1970s album track.

This revenue share approach without minimum per stream rates is why YouTube has a profitable, scalable ad business, but Spotify does not (as recently as Q1 2018 Spotify had a gross margin of -18% for ad supported, compared to a +14% gross margin for premium). Remember, that’s gross margin, imagine how net margin looks…

The walk away scenario

Minimum per-stream rates could break YouTube’s business model, especially in emerging markets where it usage is strong, but digital ad markets are not yet developed. It would also set a precedent that other YouTube rights holders and creators would want the same applied to them.

So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that YouTube could simply opt to walk away from music, applying take down and stay down its way (i.e. every piece of label content stays down). It could feasibly continue to provide ad sales support and audience to Vevo, but if YouTube gets to this point, then relationships are likely to be fractured beyond repair, meaning Vevo would likely have to decamp to Facebook and build a new audience there, one which is crucially not accessible to under 13s.

A YouTube shaped hole

So, what? you might ask. The so what, is the YouTube shaped hole that would exist in the music landscape. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the long dark years of piracy booming and corroding the recorded music business. It was YouTube that killed piracy, not enforcement. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the ubiquitous availability of all the world’s music on demand, on any device, nullified the use case for P2P in an instant. Add in stream rippers and ad blockers, and you’ve got a like-for-like replacement. Piracy created and filled a demand vacuum. YouTube (and Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc.) have all since filled that same space, pushing P2P to the margins. YouTube, however, has had by far the biggest impact due to its sheer global scale. If YouTube pulls out from music, that YouTube shaped hole will be filled because the demand has not changed. Kids still want their free music, as in fact so do consumers of just about every age.

Piracy could be the winner

The most likely mid-term effect of YouTube shuttering music videos would be piracy in some form or another raising its head, filling the demand vacuum. Probably a decentralised, end-to-end encrypted, streaming interface built on top of a torrent structure, sort of like a Popcorn Time for music. Then it really would be back to the bad old days.

Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. But perhaps it is. I suppose a just-as-possible outcome is that YouTube sticks up the proverbial middle finger and creates its own parallel music industry, using a unified music right and ‘doing a Netflix’. Yes, YouTube could be a next-generation record label, with more reach and bigger pockets than any major record label. If the labels are worried about Spotify disintermediation, YouTube could make that threat look like a children’s tea party.

As one YouTube executive said to me a couple of years ago: “This is how we are as friends. Imagine how we’d be as enemies.”

Too much to handle?

‘Couldn’t Spotify, Deezer and Soundcloud fill the potential YouTube shaped hole?’ I hear you ask. If these companies did take on YouTube’s 1.5 billion music users on the current financial agreements they have with rights holders, and with their currently far inferior ad sales infrastructure, they would be out of money in no time. It would literally kill their businesses. Based on YouTube’s likely music streams for FY 2018 and, say, a minimum per stream rate of $0.002, Spotify and co would need pay nearly $3 billion in rights revenue, regardless of how much revenue it could generate. Let alone the unprecedented bandwidth costs for delivering all that video. Of course the flip side, is that in the mainstream streaming model, that is how much potential revenue is up for grabs. So, more money would flow back to rights holders. But the extra revenue could come at the expense of the survival of the independent streaming services, ceding more power to the tech majors.

The artist and songwriter value gap

Throughout all of this you’ll have noted I haven’t said much about artists and songwriters. That’s because the value gap isn’t really about how much they get paid, even though they get put front and centre of lobbying efforts. It’s about how much labels, publishers and PROs get paid. And none of them are talking about changing the share they pay their artists and songwriters once Article 13 is put into action. That particular value gap isn’t going to be fixed. Even if Spotify picked up all of YouTube’s traffic, on say a $0.002 minimum per stream rate, a typical major label artist would still only earn $300 for a million streams, while a co-songwriter would earn just $150. The new boss would look pretty much like the old boss.

Be careful what you wish for

The laws of unintended consequences tend to proliferate when legislation tries to fix commercial problems without a clear enough understanding of the complexities of those very commercial problems.

It is of course in the best interests of YouTube and rights holders to carve out a workable commercial compromise, and I truly hope they do. But there is a very real risk this may not happen if Article 13 is successfully enacted into national member state legislation. Perhaps the phrase that rights holders should be considering right now is ‘be careful what you wish for’.

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