Pioneering the relation of music and video: a look at the digital innovators

Music and video became intertwined in the late 20th century. Now, in a digital reality, what is the combined future of the two?

“Video & livestreaming” will be one of the topics at c/o pop 2017, one of Germany’s leading music industry conferences and showcase festivals (Cologne, 16–20th August).

The smartphone has done to video what computers did to music. With the increased availability of high bandwidth networks, creating and sharing video has become more democratized, whether streamed live or just posted to Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube.

As video becomes more ubiquitous, it’s the people that best leverage the format that manage to carve out entire niches for themselves, or make a niche go from underground to global mainstream in a matter of years.

First forrays

Video, as medium for music, has an interesting history. Originally used as a way to promote music, it has now become one of the most important ways to listen to music, while still being a great medium for discovery. The early experiments with video, before MTV, provide interesting examples of innovations.

In the late 1950s, a jukebox especially for music videos was invented, called the Scopitone. Originating from France, the first music available on it came from artists like Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, and Jacques Brel. It spread beyond France, to West Germany, the UK, and the United States where 800 were installed by 1966.

Video killed the radio star

By the 1980s, the majority of households in the US had multiple TV sets. This brought the music video into the home, and into the rooms of teenagers when MTV launched in 1981. In the meantime people’s music experience became increasingly personal: from a radio per household to one per room and in our cars. This was followed by the Walkman, portable disc players, and later the MP3 player.

Computers made the same journey as televisions had made, and slowly found their way into most rooms of the house. Later ending up in our pockets like the Walkman: the smartphone was born.

The video formerly known as promotional

Doug Morris, who served as head of major label Universal for 16 years, experienced an a-ha moment when visiting a nephew in the mid-2000s and asking about the way he consumed music. The book How Music Got Free retells the story. Morris’s nephew explained to his uncle that he would never pirate, and then went on to show a site where music videos were available for free. Things clicked, and Morris realized that music videos are no longer the promotional object they once were: they were now the product and he wanted to get paid for it. He later became the first music exec to monetise online videos by agreeing on payment terms with Yahoo:

“In that one month, we turned videos, which were huge, they cost tens of millions of dollars in expenditure to promote the artist, into a tremendous profit centre which is increasing every day. You can’t be afraid of things, you have to go and face them, and I didn’t get one artist complaint, it was a wonderful victory for the industry.”

Morris went on to found VEVO in 2009, which rapidly overtook MySpace Music as the number 1 destination for music in the United States.

Doug Morris with Jimmy Iovine, founder of Interscope Records

YouTube as the world’s biggest music service

With MySpace in decline and increasing bandwidth speeds, YouTube quickly became the internet’s number 1 destination for music — particularly because everything was free to access.

In 2008, the incoming CMO of Spinnin’ Records, Meindert Kennis, understood this development and started experimenting with putting the label’s catalogue on YouTube. True to growth-hacking ethos, he doubled down when he saw it was working, making “Spinnin’ TV” one of the top 5 music channels on the platform and pulling the dance label’s EDM out of the niche and sending it into the global mainstream.

The timing was perfect: the US was just starting to warm up to EDM (2009 was the year David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas released the massive hit I Gotta Feeling), with the turning point being two years prior when Daft Punk headlined at Coachella:

Suddenly EDM went global, with stars embracing social media like Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, and YouTube to connect to fans and other DJs worldwide. As Danny Whittle, then-brand director of legendary Ibiza dance club Pacha noted in 2012:

Our musical genre embraced the Internet, all other genres fought it.

It was easy for dance music: the logistics of a tour are simple and so is the revenue split, because most DJs don’t bring a full band on tour. This made it economically viable to make music accessible for free, monetized by ads, while building a business on top of it.

Then came the takedowns

As major labels started to get more aggressive in asserting their rights, with Doug MorrisUniversal leading the way, taking down all of their music or videos featuring their music in an attempt to put pressure on YouTube to provide better payments. They famously took down a video now referred to as the ‘dancing baby video’, which featured a kid dancing to Prince.

This led to a lawsuit between the poster of the video, supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Universal Music Group, with the former arguing that UMG had not considered fair use prior to the takedown.

Meanwhile, gamers were flocking to the platform, uploading videos of gameplay and commentary, often accompanied by music. Recognizing the problem of takedowns, a label was founded called NoCopyrightSounds (NCS). It aimed to provide free music to use non-commercially for these types of videos.

Here, too, producers realized the benefit in making their music widely available, and monetizing in a different way: NCS licenses works for commercial use separately.

We’ll do it live

2011 saw the foundation of Twitch — a livestreaming platform for gamers. Here they could stream for hours, rather than posting short clips on YouTube. The platform grew influential, now counting nearly 10 million daily active users and over 2 million streamers every month.

NCS provided the soundtrack to this online subculture finding its place — representing a growing niche of video content. Representing a niche sound, they released underground tracks from a number of bedroom producers, including Alan Walker’s Fade:

By now, the track has nearly 235 million plays on YouTube. Other labels took note, and through Sony, Walker released an update to the track, called Faded, which has hit 1 billion plays on YouTube. The magic Gangnam Style-number, which was the first song to attain 1 billion views on YouTube after it went viral. Alan Walker’s Faded also counts well over 600 million plays on Spotify. That’s more than any Kendrick Lamar track.

Meanwhile live video is increasingly finding a way into our lives: whether on platforms like Chew.tv, where DJs can play live to their communities, or in our Facebook feeds. On Twitch, you can find livestreams of all kinds of labels, from NCS to Monstercat, which caters to a similar demographic. The largest names in dance are also there, like Spinnin Records and DJ Hardwell, but also the legendary underground hiphop label Rhymesayers. Dance producer Deadmau5 is on there, mostly playing video games, but also sharing his studio sessions, including the moment he discovered the vocals to his track The Veldt:

On Spotify, you can stumble upon Twitch-playlists by labels, containing music cleared for video-on-demand (VOD) sites like YouTube or live streaming sites. Twitch themselves have maintained a database of pre-cleared music since 2015, which contains mostly EDM and Metal.

Short format music videos

The important rising format for videos is ‘Stories’, the Snapchat-like video format that has become somewhat of a running gag after Facebook started implementing it in every one of their apps. The feature is highly successful in Instagram, though, and reflects our short digital attention spans. Its rise has gone in sync with that of Musical.ly, where tweens showcase their best playback skills and dance routines to short clips of their favourite music.

The format has led music industry analyst Mark Mulligan to speculate about the rise of the 15 second song, also mentioning that Scott Cohen, co-founder of indie distributor The Orchard, speculated about 30 seconds as a creative format years ago. It’s a topic of much discussion, with people wondering what the Vine or Snapchat for music could look like.

It coincides with playlist metrics: skip rates are crucial determinants for a track’s success in a curated playlist. In order to decrease skip rates, a song needs to ‘get to the point’ faster. Leading to the practice of special cuts being introduced to streaming service: the playlist edit is the new radio edit.

It’s clear that this Stories-type functionality, and live video, will continue to have their influence on music, much like how the rise of MTV and YouTube shaped new contexts.

What it means for the future, and what pioneers in this area are doing to innovate, is something we’ll be discussing at Cologne based conference c/o pop Convention 2017 (17 + 18th August).

We hope to see you there.

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