Is YouTube really going to block indie acts?

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Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The consensus across the music industry is that the next big thing is paid streaming, a la Spotify’s premium services and the recently launched (and recently acquired by Apple) Beats Music, and the rush of companies looking to get involved is beginning to resemble a stampede. The tech giants vying for control of the market are becoming increasingly unabashed about throwing elbows as they deem necessary.

Among those tech giants is YouTube—and there’s been speculation that when it launches its new paid streaming service later this summer, some indie labels may not only be left out of the deal but also removed from the site altogether. But according to a source at YouTube, not all indie artists are in danger of being shut out.

As has been reported in the Guardian and elsewhere, YouTube head of content and business operations Robert Kyncl confirmed yesterday that, as has been widely rumored, the video platform will be removing from its free side any content owned by labels that refuse to sign on as part of the music-based paid subscription service it’s working on, which is currently being tested as an in-house beta with a public rollout planned for later in the summer. So far, only independent labels are holding out—YouTube has already inked deals with the Big Three major labels (Universal Media Group, Sony, and Warner Music Group), as well as a number of indies. According to an official statement from YouTube, they’ve come to agreements with “hundreds of major and independent labels,” which an employee there speaking on background says represents “95 percent” of the labels they’ve approached. While the proposed changes may not represent the extinction-level deletion of independently produced musical content that some of the more alarmist responses to the news have made it out to be, it still represents a new level of aggressive dealmaking in a segment of the music industry whose public image has been already defined by contract terms that many artists consider unfair.

The indies that haven’t signed on are fighting back against what they consider unfair trade practices, including non-negotiable contracts delivered alongside “explicit threats” of removal from the platform if they don’t sign. In Europe, the trade groups Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) and IMPALA are asking the European Commission to intervene on their behalf, and in the U.S., the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), a member of WIN, has similarly asked for help from the FTC, claiming that the unfair terms YouTube’s offering indies are a result of pressure by the massive Universal Music Group and Sony, which A2IM calls a duopoly with outsized influence over the music industry.

It may take some sort of outside intervention for YouTube to change their position, but the amount of popular outrage that followed news of the situation might have some influence. If that doesn’t happen, the company’s new subscription service may have to launch without music by Jack White, Adele, Vampire Weekend, and other signees to XL Recordings, one of the industry’s largest indies and a rumored holdout.

Even if YouTube gets its way, however, smaller musical acts and their fans still may not have much to worry about. According to the background source at the company, they’ll only be blocking content from labels they’ve unsuccessfully approached as potential partners for the paid service. Artists and labels flying below their radar will still be able to post videos on the free platform, meaning that the vast number of amateur singer-songwriters and rappers on the site should be unaffected.

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