The music and video – like Liam and Noel or Simon and Garfunkel – form an iconic duo that experienced rocky lows and transcendent highs. From the heyday of Thriller and the explosion of MTV to the dark days of the early and mid-2000s when music channels replaced music videos with reality TV. But over the past decade and a half, the music video has grown out of the doldrums and evolved into something that transcends the catchy pop promo designed to move a few records, and which has fractured into multiple formats. It’s a way to connect fans to artists; it is an album-length narrative short; it’s a concert broadcast live; it is an exclusive award show performance; this is a fan-made reaction video; and in many cases, it’s a revenue generator in its own right.
YouTube has been an important driver of this evolution. Its monetization model means that music videos are no longer just a marketing tool for record labels and artists. Formats like YouTube Live and Shorts are creating new avenues for fan connection. And a wealth of data helps artists and labels learn more about audiences and tailor their content.
But perhaps even more exciting is the music-related content that comes not from the official channels, but from the fans themselves. Reaction and lyric videos, dance or guitar tutorials, creative covers mean that, for fans, there are deep rabbit holes to explore.
“It’s evolved a lot – now we clearly see viewership insights and even my own YouTube usage,” says YouTube’s Jonathan Tesfamariam. “You can start with an official music video and then find yourself watching a bunch of reaction videos. Or, you know you’re going to see this artist’s show on the weekend, so you go to YouTube just to remember the lyrics, so you watch a bunch of lyrics videos. This is possible thanks to the fact that artists no longer block other people from uploading versions of this song to YouTube.
There are, says Jonathan Tesfamariam, 80 million songs on YouTube — up from 70 million in December 2021, to give you an idea of the exponential growth in music content — but in his day-to-day job as head of YouTube music content sales, he finds that brands and agencies often don’t understand just how vast and deep YouTube’s music content is.
“I think it’s a bit underrated. You kind of have to really remind them of the magnitude of music on YouTube, first and foremost, and then compared to other art forms, the significant consumption and reach that we have on the platform he says.
On the other hand, YouTube Shorts, a competing vertical video format to TikTok launched globally in July 2021. For music acts, they present a new way to connect more directly with fans, but for labels and artists accustomed to presenting a more polished, filtered image that they take a bit of getting used to – but according to Jonathan, they’ve proven a useful way to build hype ahead of the release of new songs or albums for people like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran,
“Where the longer form content would be the official music videos and performances, the awards show and other recordings of live performances, the short essentially allows them to continue that connection with their subscribers and fans in between it all. “, says Jonathan.
“We just did an analysis to determine when artists are creating both short-form and longer-form content. Their channel’s overall watch time and subscriber base are growing at a faster rate than when they simply commit to uploading long forms.Those who get a head start and really lean into both formats benefit from the appetite for both forms of content.
The data also uncovers other startling revelations, challenging some of the long-held assumptions of the music industry — and advertisers looking to tap into music audiences.
“There’s this kind of old-fashioned notion of ‘premium’ when it comes to content. Historically, it had been judged on the quality of production, when in reality what audiences care about is how relevant this content is to them. This is why things like reaction videos are so popular now. It doesn’t matter that it’s not HD content. It’s ‘a song has just been uploaded to YouTube and it’s doing amazingly well – how can we take advantage of that’,” says Jonathan.
Where data helps brands navigate the music space is in understanding the rich and overlapping interests and passions of audiences.
“Sometimes brands can be a bit linear in terms of ‘this is who we are as a brand and this is the products we sell, so this is our audience, this is what they consume’ , explains Jonathan.
As an illustration, he turns to an audience the team calls “Beauty Mavens”, people who love fashion, beauty and self-care. The obvious placement for beauty brands might be makeup tutorials or beauty unboxing videos…but Beauty Mavens, like all of us, are into more than one thing. And one of the things they like is hip hop and rap.
“The assumption is that when they’re on YouTube, they watch beauty content exclusively. Using our data, we were able to show this category of brands that their audience also watches rap and hip hop music, and people like Lizzo and Cardi B. They have a great affinity with that audience,” says Jonathan, “It’s just opening their minds to what exactly YouTube is for that audience and therefore what it should be for that brand if they want to connect with their target audience when they really connect with content, when they are leaning and highly engaged.
However, YouTube has invested in developing technologies and policies that benefit both artists and advertisers.
“We have done a lot of work to listen to advertisers and be much more rigorous in terms of the policies and guidelines that we have to ensure that content on the platform meets certain guidelines and policies. And then there’s an extra layer when it comes to monetization. So we want creators on the platforms to thrive both financially, in terms of watch time, viewership and fan base, but they have to do it responsibly,” says Jonathan.
“We have the technology to be able to identify specific channels and videos that violate our policies instead of having this blanket exclusion of all that content, which is not what we want. We want creators are rewarded for their great content.”
As YouTube solves this conundrum, it continues to dismantle the boundaries and access control surrounding music videos and music-related content. The traditional music video was a very limited format – limited in length (notable epic exceptions aside), but also limited in terms of the genres and artists that audiences could watch. As Jonathan points out, some of the most popular genres are Afrobeats and K-Pop – a far cry from the days when viewers had to rely on music channel curation, when you couldn’t get around to Britney Wall-to-Wall and Backstreet. Boys.
“At the time, with television and radio, there were restrictions in terms of video and also what we would call access control in terms of music which was then exposed to the masses through television channels and mainstream radio channels. While YouTube is very open. It’s very democratic,” says Jonathan, before reflecting, “the guardian now, or the commissioner, is the public. They decide what becomes popular based on what they decide to watch.