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Lyor Cohen believes that short-form video poses a major threat to the music business. He also thinks it might be the industry’s savior.
On this MBW Podcast, Cohen – Global Head of Music at YouTube – explains his fears over short-form video platforms that fail to push users into deeper engagement with music and artist content.
“Short-form video that doesn’t lead anywhere is the most dangerous thing I’ve seen the music business face in a long time,” says Cohen.
Cohen believes that, if left unchecked, the rise and rise in music consumption on this type of short-form video platform could become one of the music industry’s “biggest crises to date”.
(Cohen doesn’t mention any particular platforms, but it’s worth noting that there’s been a lot of headlines written on MBW this year about TikTok’s failure – so far, at least – to launch a connected music service to its main platform.)
Cohen argues that YouTube’s approach with its YouTube Shorts product offers an important distinction: A platform that hooks you in with short-form video – but then nudges would-be fans to longer/deeper audio and visual content about artists on both YouTube and YouTube Music.
Cohen lays out three problems he sees growing to a head in the current music business:
- Problem No.1, he says, is an expectation for modern artists to spend a significant amount of their time, creativity, and energy on certain social media platforms – platforms that in Cohen’s view rarely lead to deeper fandom amongst consumers;
- Problem No.2, he says, lies with consumers themselves – and his concern that the next generation of fans aren’t currently delving deep into artists, their stories, and their catalogs;
- Problem No.3, says Cohen, lies at the door of record companies, who are struggling to break long-term artists with the level of regularity they’d like in this digital environment.
Cohen believes the migration of fans away from long-standing social media platforms towards short-form video services is a major opportunity for the music business to foster true fandom in a vast potential audience globally. And he believes YouTube Shorts can play a vital role in this evolution.
However, Cohen also warns the music business to drop its current “euphoric” state, and think hard about how short-form video’s role must evolve to best serve the next generation of fans and artists.
Listen to MBW’s Podcast interview with Cohen above, and/or read an abridged version of our discussion below…
You have three problems you’d like to see fixed in today’s music business. What’s No.1?
I don’t know what the euphoria in the music industry is about. I think we’re facing one of our biggest crises to date. Yet it feels like the band is still performing on the Titanic. I’m confused as to why there’s such euphoria.
There are three things that are deeply disturbing to me. The first one is that artists feel like they are completely out of position… they feel like they’re about to go on strike.
[It] feels like they’re overburdened with the effort of [gaining] likes and subscribers [on] social media – putting themselves out as ‘creators’ as opposed to artists.
“I don’t know what the euphoria in the music industry is about. I think we’re facing one of our biggest crises to date. Yet it feels like the band is still performing on the Titanic.”
The more we have artists always being ‘on’, instead of occasionally brilliant, our music industry is going to be in real trouble.
That ‘occasionally brilliant’ line isn’t actually mine, it was [Universal Music UK CEO & Chairman] David Joseph‘s, and it just so resonated with me when we were having a chat.
Artists are being overly taxed [by social media]. It’s time for the artists to get back to their craft of being an artist, rather than being social media stars.
How do we get there?
I think the answer is in short-form video.
Short-form video that doesn’t lead anywhere is the most dangerous thing I’ve seen the music business face in a long time. But short-form video that can be a discovery tool, like YouTube Shorts, can prompt the consumer into deeper fan engagement – of interviews, performances, premium music videos, all the stuff that an artist does.
That allows a kid to find the soundtrack of their youth. [But] if they’re only stuck in short-form video – and if they think that they’re getting a music service via short-form video – I think the music business is going to lose a generation of consumers that are really important and valuable.
No one is ever going to become a true fan of an artist with that ‘grazing’ behavior – hopping form one short-form video to another.
Have you [used] any of the short-form video platforms? You could lose hours and end up in being in a dumb state.
When I start doing short-form video, and I do it for too long, I feel like I’ve wasted an enormous amount of time and [that I’ve gone] into like a stupid state.
It’s our obligation to help the fans, the kids, by prompting them into [deeper engagement] with artists and recognizing what they like.
What’s the second big issue with the modern music industry?
The second thing that I would like to help solve is the abundance of choice that the kids have today. They’ve been hit by a tidal wave of choice.
The other thing that they’re dealing with, is that they really cannot stand traditional social media: ‘My life sucks, and everybody else’s lives are better.’
“You’re seeing a rejection of traditional social media [amongst young people]… Short-form video, I think, is part of the solution.”
That’s why you’re seeing a rejection of traditional social media [amongst young people], and you’re seeing apps like BeReal explode.
When I was younger, it was okay for me to break open a record, put in on the turntable, and listen. That’s how my get-down was.
The kids don’t want to do that anymore – they actually want to participate. Short-form video, a [format that] allows them to participate, I think, is part of the solution.
What’s the third problem you’d like to see solved?
I’ve never seen so much confusion [at] record companies, they actually don’t know how to break artists anymore. [Record companies] used to be able to work to a date [in an artist campaign], and focus on that date.
It’s not as clean anymore: there’s an elongation of the process of breaking an artist; the runway is littered with artists in the process of breaking.
Getting the kids to participate in short-form video, as their 3.0 version of social media, will help labels break acts and take the [social media] burden away from the artists.
“We have to prompt the consumer out of the grazing mode and into fan engagement mode. That is the key, and that’s my mission with YouTube Shorts.”
But we have to prompt the consumer out of the grazing mode and into fan engagement mode. That is the key, and that’s my mission with Shorts – to use it as a discovery tool and prompt [consumers] into a multi-format, richer experience.
Instead of the ’empty calories’ that are other short-form video platforms, I like to think of Shorts like an appetizer, YouTube like the main course, and subscription [via YouTube Music] like the audio desert.
That is, I think, a much healthier ecosystem [for the music business]. It’s sustainable and actually allows artists to go back to their craft; it also helps labels break artists, and helps [consumers] find the soundtrack of their youth and become deeper and more committed fans.
We started this discussion with you saying that you are growing concerned over the elation and triumphalism in the music industry today. But there are cultural issues in the way that people are listening to music and experiencing fandom, and how artists and labels are serving that. When you balance up the idea of consumers moving to short-form video away from traditional social media… are you optimistic about what’s going to come in the next five-plus years?
I’m optimistic because I’m convinced that the music industry is starting to recognize that short-form video has to lead somewhere [i.e. deeper fan experiences] and that it will take action.
I believe that behind the euphoria, people are starting to recognize that there is a concern that we could lose a generation of consumers if we do not prompt them into deeper fan engagement.
“I’m optimistic because I’m convinced that the music industry is starting to recognize that short-form video has to lead somewhere and that it will take action.”
I’m also convinced that YouTube Shorts and YouTube, in general, is the solution, but also [that its structure] will resonate with other [short-form video] platforms to start building deep fan engagement muscle – in order for this to be just a healthier ecosystem for everyone.
MBW’s podcasts are supported by Voly Music. Voly’s platform enables music industry professionals from all sectors to manage a tour’s budgets, forecasts, track expenses, approve invoices and make payments 24/7, 365 days a year. For more information and to sign up to a free trial of the platform, visit VolyMusic.com.