Artist backlash over YouTube’s royalty payments grows noisier


While YouTube swats away major label criticism, anger amongst the artist community over royalties paid out by the video giant is steadily getting louder.

Last month, the likes of Katy Perry, Deadmau5, Fifth Harmony, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Garth Brooks, Jon Bon Jovi, Lionel Richie, Steven Tyler, Pete Townshend, Rod Stewart and Elvis Costello all signed a petition to reform the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) in the US, commenting that the current legislation “threatens the continued viability of songwriters and recording artists to survive from the creation of music”.

Their target: the ‘safe harbor’ provisions contained in the DMCA, which enable sites such as YouTube not to be held legally responsible for copyright infringement taking place on the platform.

The threat of a sea of unlicensed music content existing on YouTube appears to work strongly in Google’s favour when it comes to negotiating licensing deals with music rightsholders like the major labels.

The artist group’s letter, filed with the US Copyright office on March 31, was also co-signed by Barry Manilow, Bryan Adams, the estate of Count Basie, Bootsy Collins, Mick Fleetwood, Babyface, John Mayer, Pearl Jam and Bernie Taupin.

It warned: “Music consumption has skyrocketed, but the monies generated by individual writers and artists for that consumption has plummeted.”

Now, both Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Mötley Crue’s Nikki Sixx have added their names to a growing throng of artists raising public concerns over safe harbor, and its corrosive effect on artist payments from digital services.

“They’re hiding behind this safe harbor loophole. That’s allowing them… to not take care of artists.”

Nikki Sixx

According to the New York Post, Harry will this week urge President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to ‘close the so-called safe harbor loophole’.

And Sixx, now fronting band Sixx:AM as well as a successful career as a music radio DJ, has urged YouTube to “do the right thing” over artist royalty payouts.

“YouTube is paying out about a sixth of what Spotify and Apple pay artists,” Sixx told the Guardian.

“We are not telling them how to run their business. We’re saying treat artists fairly the way other streaming services are. And by the way, we are a big part of what built your business: music is the No 1 most-searched thing on YouTube.”

He added: “They’re hiding behind this safe-harbor loophole. That is allowing them the freedom to not take care of artists.”

The addition of Harry and Sixx to the group of artists protesting YouTube’s payouts and its safe harbor protection begs the question: Who’ll be next?

Last year, Taylor Swift lambasted Apple Music in an open letter for its decision not to pay artist royalties during its free trial period.

As a direct result, Apple’s Eddy Cue personally reversed the policy, publicly apologizing to Swift and her fellow musicians.

Due to safe harbor, it is currently incumbent on managers and labels to file individual takedown notices with Google-owned YouTube for videos that infringe on artists’ copyright.

YouTube argues that its Content ID system has been “built to ensure that record labels, managers and others don’t only have to rely on DMCA notice-and-takedown tactics to get infringing content removed”, claiming that since January 2014, over 98% of all YouTube copyright removal claims have come through Content ID.

YouTube told the US Copyright Office earlier this month that the argument the DMCA has directly resulted in  a ‘value gap’ hurting artists and labels is ‘completely false’.Music Business Worldwide

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  • David Schuette

    I totally agree with the Artist’s in this topic, Digital access to music has destroyed what was once a fair system of compensation, i have been in and around the music business for 40 years and have seen the transition to digital first hand, today you can see it in ticket prices, artists now rely on touring income because the royalties from their sales have plummeted, i know i am preaching to the choir here but many younger fans and artists have not experienced the effects, it has also pulled the plug on the incentive of artists to write and release new material in part, i don’t know how this can ever be totally fair? but when i see Corporate GREED bleed into the arts? i have to at least express my Disgust.

  • Nik Farr

    Seems to me YouTube could really easily remedy this situation by adding a “share/repost” feature to their technology. I was recently bootlegged for the first time, and while I was initially annoyed, the person who ripped my video gave me full credit and linked to my website and social media pages.

    I realized that this user’s intentions weren’t bad, and it DID expose my song to a bunch of other users who otherwise wouldn’t have heard it. Now, if the bootlegger had instead had the option to simply and legally share my video to their channel, I’d have gotten the views, and he’d have gotten additional content his viewers clearly want.

    I would suggest that YouTube allow users who monetize their videos to offer them for public sharing to other channels with a profit split option. For instance, I could elect to set my video to shareable but other users would have to agree to a 90-10 division of profits (as in, I created the content so I get the majority of the rewards, but they receive 10% of whatever earnings are generated by the views they help to bring to the table). It would be almost like a licensed third-party vendor situation. And let’s be realistic–all major labels would have to do is offer your average Katy Perry fan a fraction of a percent of the video earnings and that stuff would proliferate even faster, earning them that much more cash.

    Seems to me that this kind of setup would really help everyone, in the long run.

    • Nissan B Thomas

      Nik – You took the words right out of my mouth! I’ve been actually trying to find developers to build a prototype of a site with this type of functionality. Absolutely, what I find terrible about youtube is that the service does not really incentive more use of copyrighted material, and work to help promote authorized uses by going to labels and publishers and seeking sync rights so that video creators can participate, incrementally in the ad rev generated by videos. Heck, if youtube doesn’t want to do it, leaves the door open for other competitors to take advantage!

  • It’s amazing to me how little I knew of this problem before pursuing business as a performing artist. I feel these A List celebrities and artists have the influence to come together and truly make a difference for themselves as well as up and coming artists who need every penny they can get. They are definitely making some good moves with raising awareness. I don’t think an executive order would be the best approach, but it would be the quickest. Very informative article.

  • Many great jazz players passed on opportunities to be recorded back in the 1920s and 30s because they feared that other players would listen to the records and use them to learn their riffs and steal their gigs. Horn players played with a handkerchief over therir hands sometimes to hide their fingerings. I am not in favor of anyone stealing and profiting off of others’ property.

    Today’s technology provides incredible opportunities for legitimate use, and, yes, it also invites illegitimate use. I am not sure how to determine if YouTube is currently underpaying as much or maybe worse than Apple and Spotify are both perhaps over-paying in an ongoing battle to gain market share and “control” of the distribution channels for distributing digital music. Taking it to the local level on Main Street, not all musicians can get bookings at the fancy club paying “professional” rates, and there are some artists who choose to play for less money or even no money in dive bars in order to get the exposure and experience of playing out. Pressuring youtube or other “venues” to pay more might be akin to telling clubs featuring live music they must start charging an admission fee when they previously had none, or forcing them all to raise their current admission prices.

    Each of us still has 2 ears and 24 hours in each day. The articles quotes the artists’ letter with the complaint, “Music consumption has skyrocketed, but the monies generated by individual writers and artists for that consumption has plummeted.” I would say that targeted music consumption by song/artist has skyrocketed. A fair part of the burden is on the artists and owners of the property to speak up and report when they become aware that illegal copies are being shared. It is just as if you were being paid by what comes in the door at the club, when you at some point may see reason to have your own staff member also hanging out watching the door.

  • James Perrie

    I think it’s pretty funny that all the artists are just now starting to make a big deal of this issue. Everyone was quiet when all the music shops closed their doors because of digital piracy. I think the group that’s being hurt the most by this are the music lovers. On the one hand digital means that wherever you are in the world you can enjoy your favorite music. You can be inspired in the most amazing ways. On the other hand, record companies, artists and big business Are dictating where and what you can listen to it. For example to listen to a large variety of music you now need 3 to 4 apps or programs. One artist has an agreement with google, another with Spotify another with apple. The consumer is willing to pay, but make it accessible in one place for everyone. But the big question is who gets that power? Digital music isn’t going anywhere, and neither should it. If I was an artist not just a music lover, I would create a co-op style site where all artists can support themselves and the industry. It’s really not that hard.. take the power into your own hands and embrass the future..