Is the YouTube Free-For-All Over?

Aug 27, 2014 at 10:34 am

YouTube star Jenna Marbles in a recent vlog.
YouTube is a wonderful tool for procrastination, but often aimless surfing can lead to unearthing new genres and artists you never knew even existed. In between these discoveries are lovably offbeat videos of amateur acoustic covers, or rants about pesky day jobs that make perusing the site feel like peeking into a stranger's living room. This week, however, brought more news of the site's forthcoming paid-subscription service, making it clear that this YouTube we once knew is slowly vanishing.

Although speculation about the future additional service has has been making the rounds for well over a year, this week, screenshots of the new platform's interface and rumors of its potential name -- YouTube Music Key -- have surfaced. Like other streaming services such as Spotify, Music Key will likely be priced at $9.99 per month and offer access to ad-free audio and video, as well as exclusive concert footage, remixes and other content specifically curated for subscribers. Of course, the intermittent announcements of Music Key's features have not been without controversy. Earlier this summer, YouTube and Google were both under scrutiny after reports from indie artists and labels revealed that the licensing deals offered to them were unfair and perhaps quite different contractually from offers made to major-label acts. There was even a point in the squabble that content from independent artists was reportedly under threat of removal from the site entirely.

Music Key -- despite its promise to bring huge change to the platform -- is certainly not the first sign of YouTube's transformation. Along with the new service, changes to the site's comment policy and methods of content aggregation have signaled to many that the platform's mythic role as an equalizing force for up-and-coming artists seems to be in jeopardy. Regrettably, YouTube -- former home of the Internet free-for-all -- appears to be becoming more and more like a regular old TV set: Viewers are funneled to Top-40 fare, but not before commercials badger them to purchase a newfangled mop or open up another checking account.

YouTube's not just hawking products, though. Ads abound for popular YouTube channels and the Internet stars who host them. These YouTube sensations are a far cry from those lovable creeps staring down grainy, lo-fi webcams. These new folks are polished and appear to have all the qualities of a TV personality. It's strange to think now, but there was a time when the site was branded with the highly democratic motto "Broadcast Yourself." But this focus now seems to be redirected from the independent user to fixtures of the mainstream media.

This is not to say that all the glorious weirdos and independent artists have disappeared completely from the site. These videos, though, are harder to retrieve when you're forced to navigate through corporate-sponsored channels (like the ubiquitous Vevo) that pervade the site. A few weeks back YouTube celebrity Jenna Marbles began hosting the YouTube 15 countdown of must-see music videos on the site in partnership with SiriusXM. Countdowns and playlists such as these have downplayed the more exploratory features of the platform in order to provide even more opportunities for YouTube to catalog and rank the content posted to its site.

At the moment, it's hard to say exactly what the consequences of YouTube's new offerings will be. Even more ads for the non-subscribers? Less diversity of content? When something you've grown accustomed to changes, it's easy to bemoan the inconvenience. If an important cultural space like YouTube changes its ethos drastically, though, it's understandable for there to be dissent amongst fans and artists. After all, it seems that some of the tried-and-true online spots for independent music to gain traction are dwindling and changing form. Like YouTube, SoundCloud is also in the midst of incorporating advertisements into their site and starting up a subscription service.

Thankfully, there are other options online for independent artists to get their music out to fans. In a time when the online exchange between audience and artist is increasingly mediated, however, perhaps stepping away from our computers and seeking out live music is the best rebellion we've got. At a show, there will people equally stoked to hear the music, presumably no commercials for household products, and, with any luck, enough oddballs to satisfy those among us who yearn for the quirky, YouTube vlogs we love.


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