VEVO 10: ‘The more that you feed into the machine, the more pick-up you’re going to get.’

In the second of MBW’s series of features celebrating 10 years of Vevo, we talk to JP Evangelista (pictured main), Senior VP of Content, Programming and Marketing, about discovering artists, developing careers and how to flourish in an algorithmic world.

How did you arrive at Vevo?

I’ve been here since its inception. I was in Universal’s corporate digital division as Vevo was being conceived, part of a small team that moved over and became the platform’s pre-launch core group.

So this is a 10th anniversary for you as well – congratulations!

Thank you! Yeah, I think there’s only six or seven of us who have been here for the full decade.

Take us back to the thinking around Vevo’s conception.

The sentiment at both Universal and Sony was that music video was highly undervalued. At the time, the common business model was licensing against the per-play rate. We brought in the notion of creating scarcity, allowing advertisers to purchase space in and around music videos. They were slightly more devalued when licensed to everyone. That was the play: to create inherent value around individual music videos.

How has your role developed and what does it encompass now?

To give you some idea of overall company growth, we were around 20 people when we began, and we’re now closer to 300.

I started in the label relations world, and that role grew into talent booking, as well as programming both in the YouTube environment and what was formerly our owned-and-operated properties. Then, at the beginning of 2018, I took over as global head of the Content & Programming division, which also encompasses original content production and social marketing.

Can you give a top-down view of what platforms, brands etc, feed into artist discovery at Vevo?

I’d break down resources and tools into two subsets. There are the emerging artist programs that involve original content and concentrated marketing campaigns. The two main programs for us are DSCVR and LIFT. In the last decade, those programs have covered more than 400 artists. There are slightly different activities in both, but you’ll notice similarities as well.

DSCVR is for artists just starting out; maybe they have a track or two in the marketplace. We’re hoping to get the first high-quality visual of their performance into the world. They get a targeted marketing campaign on the DSCVR channel, which has around 750,000 subscribers. It’s a very targeted audience who wants to be on top of new music that hasn’t yet been given a label push. DSCVR is curated by the programmers here, almost an A&R role.

LIFT is far more metrics-driven. There’s an official pitch process through which labels suggest artists to our team. We’re looking for growth across video and audio streams as well as growth around their socials that we can plug ourselves into.

The idea is to see if we can really help break them in the mainstream. Artists that have been through that program over the years range include Halsey, Alessia Cara, Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, Khalid (pictured inset), SZA, Sam Smith, One Direction, and many more. It involves fairly lofty production investment, where we create two live music videos and a mini documentary that ranges in three to five minutes.

We have a team that’s focused on music video optimization as well as interpreting insights we gather to grow viewership – anything that can help garner algorithmic plays. We’re always furthering our knowledge regarding competition within an environment where  it’s music videos versus absolutely everything. That kind of expertise has been really well received from our label partners this past year, for both emerging and established artists.

In terms of how artists connect with your programs, is it usually done through labels or through managers? And is it usually them reaching out you or you reaching out to them?

It’s a combination of all those things. I’d say DSCVR tends to be more wide open; we look into quite a few artists, and there’s certainly some intense discovery that goes on from the programmers and curators here, forwarding names into a weekly review meeting. LIFT, as I mentioned, is a bit more of formal process, and while we’re keeping an active eye on various acts, we do receive pitches from both major and indie labels. Managers often feed into that process as well.

Can you give us any data that illustrates the impact Vevo can have on an artist’s career?

When we’re choosing a DSCVR artist, we’re looking at what might be other video assets in the tens of thousands of views, to bring them to the hundreds of thousands of views via what we create with them. So that sort of five-to-six-figure jump.

LIFT is more about trying to get them into the seven-to-eight-figure sort of milestones as they go along their journey with us. A LIFT campaign can last six weeks, and we’d want to see upwards of a 200 to 300 percent boost on their overall views, not just on the content that we produce, but across their catalog during that time. Cumulatively, our DSCVR and LIFT artists have amassed 65 billion views across their Vevo catalogs.

How important is original content in terms of artist discovery and to Vevo generally?

The Vevo catalog of originals is now around 8,500 videos, and it’s done close to four billion views. I’d say the majority of content we currently produce deeply differentiates itself from live sessions you see across other DSPs. We’re proud of our balanced look and feel, with well-designed sets that are in our studios in Manhattan, Brooklyn and London. We try to give an artist, especially one that’s coming through us on a promo round, something that feels different from other outlets that they see on those runs, something memorable.

That level of quality differentiation was important to us when I took over in my current role. And it was also a main point of feedback from shareholders: up the game, up the quality level. One of our main pivot points has been moving away from focusing on a subset of artists doing large scale events.

“We’re proud of our balanced look and feel, with well-designed sets that are in our studios in Manhattan, Brooklyn and London.”

These days we’re covering a larger number of artists with more shoots. That’s because we believe the role of these original pieces is to stimulate their [an artist’s] YouTube channel. Let’s say an artist makes three to four music videos per release cycle. That’s good, but to nurture a channel so that it sends positive signals to the YouTube algorithm, more activity is always advantageous. YouTube will want artists to sort of act as creators and have a regular cadence of uploads. Our original content fills some of those gaps, boosting audience engagement.

We also try to capture performances with as many tracks that the label isn’t commissioning music videos for, to give the artist’s catalog coverage more breadth as well as please hardcore fans.

It’s a strategy that feeds into the more general industry trend of Keep That Content Coming, isn’t it?

We also urge artists to think of other outside-of-the-box ways they can keep their channel active. If it’s a remix of a track, if it’s uploading lyric videos of a particular subset of songs, art tracks, behind-the-scenes profiles, other performances – anything to continue feeding that system.

Because one thing that we’ve noticed is that recency-of-upload is heavily affected by the YouTube algorithm; the more you feed into the machine, the more algorithmic pick-up you’re going to get. As it currently stands, 75% of an artist’s plays are going to be algorithmic, so you have to really work to be able to optimize into that world.

Does original content tend to focus more on emerging artists rather than established artists, simply because they need it more, and don’t have the resources to do it themselves?

I’d call it a three quarter/one quarter split, emerging to established. We still want to have a good subset of activities for established artists, because we’re still working heavily on their video premieres. But we think emerging artists are under-served. A compelling visual can really make a difference and reveal their talent at an early stage.

We’ve also noticed, with the rise of audio streaming platforms, that particular artists can amass a hefty number of streams on a given track, but fans just might not know the artist’s face yet. For us to present a live performance for the first time can really help connect a face to a song, bolster a burgeoning ‘brand’, and reaffirm why a fan might love an artist. Potentially, it can also help with ticket sales when it comes time to tour.

Latin music is enjoying a golden period at the moment. How is that being reflected in music video consumption and what are you guys seeing and doing in that space?

It’s something we’re investing heavily in, and we’ continue to do so. We have a Latin sub-brand called Somos that, right now, is based mainly around our social accounts, and has grown quite quickly. But it also pertains to the original content we’ll be creating in the future.

From an overall platform perspective, there’s been a 200% growth in Latin music in the past five years, and it now represents a top three genre globally for us, top five in the US. So we’re looking to continue creating and programming content serving that very engaged audience.

Do you ever speak to managers, or labels, or video creatives about your experience of what makes a good video, and what will work in terms of amassing views? In other words, because of your unique experience and position as a company, do you get involved in the creative side, or is that dangerous ground to tread?

We do speak to that community, including video commissioners and directors themselves on occasion, and we try to get the label partners to impart some of the video-creation insights we’ve shared with them, while still respecting an artist’s vision.

We share best practices, we build case studies, and we just sort of, from an art and science perspective, show them what we know. But they’re free to tackle it in their own way. One recent learning is that extended cinematic intros that don’t have music playing at the start, vastly impede audience retention. You could lose upwards of 50% of your viewers in the first 10 seconds if music isn’t playing.

Right now, the largest algorithmic traffic source on YouTube is algorithmic playlists. So, if you have a video that’s not playing by playlisting rules, you’re likely to get a skip. If you start getting lots of skips, the algorithm’s going to pick up on that and stop upselling your video around the platform. Get that music going quick. Sharing these kind of insights is all part of living up to our mission, which is to maximize commercial and promotional value in music videos. So, we show them the data and it’s up to them to make the decision. We’ll help wherever we can.

What are the things that give you most pride and satisfaction looking back over 10 years?

I’ve referenced a couple of the stats already, but the fact that we’ve created upwards of 8,500, pieces of original content since we started is pretty mind blowing to me. And of course it’s really great to look back at the list of artists that have come through DSCVR and LIFT and see where they are now.Music Business Worldwide

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