Is Google playing hardball with indie artists?

Zoe Keating

Not to put too fine a point on it, recording and music publishing companies have been fleecing artists and performers since the dawn of the recording age.

From the jazz greats to the Beatles to Taylor Swift, artists have been fighting to wring their fair share of royalties from the companies who distribute, publish or stream their music.

The truth is, in most cases the big companies have all the leverage: Artists need a platform and usually have no choice but to rely on the power and reach of the labels that sign them. Many end up agreeing to contractual terms that are blatantly unfair, if not downright insulting. The indie movement began, in large part, as a reaction to this arrangement.

Then along came the Internet and iTunes and the landscape began to shift. First downloads threatened the profitability of CDs and radio and now streaming threatens the profitability of everything. The “culture of free” has flourished on the Web to such an extent that most people don’t give a second thought to the notion that artists and performers are trying to make a living, not just provide background music to our lives. But the Internet also offered songwriters and musicians the rare opportunity to bypass the "suits" and engage audiences directly.

In fact, YouTube has become one of the primary ways many people encounter new music — so much so that YouTube plays now count toward Billboard rankings. Aside from the opportunity for exposure, YouTube, which is now owned by Google, offered musicians an additional way to protect their copyrighted work or to collect a few more dollars from it: Content ID.

With Content ID, YouTube tracks when your music is used in other media, such as a video, film or slideshow that is posted anywhere on the web. It’s a mutually beneficial service that helps writers and performers — most of whom are happy to have their tracks underscore someone else’s art — be compensated for that use or choose to request the other media stop using the material.

Now, Google may say its motto is “Don’t be evil,” but it’s still a business — and businesses exist to make money, not to be a public service. So it’s no surprise that Google wants to capitalize on YouTube's popularity with new music listeners. Late in 2014, it launched a streaming service called Music Key. Like Spotify and Pandora, Music Key is a subscription service and will share some small portion of its revenue with artists.

But at least one musician has raised a red flag about what Google wants her to give up in exchange for having her music available on Music Key. Zoë Keating, a cellist and composer who writes film and TV scores, has been blogging about her issues with the agreement Google has sent to artists. According to Keating, Google demanded that she include her entire catalogue on the service, and to give YouTube first access to any new music she releases.

“It was the internet and companies like YouTube that allowed artists like me to actually have a career,” Keating says. “And then suddenly they were dictating these terms that I thought were the kind of terms I would get from a record label — which is why I never went down the path of having a record label.”

For Keating, a particular problem was that YouTube wanted first access to her recordings. Artists who successfully use crowd funding often release music to paying customers before making it available anywhere else (Keating uses the online music store Bandcamp). “The bulk of my income comes from my core fans who pay what they want on Bandcamp,” she says. “That is a model that works for a niche artist like me.”

Keating says she asked Google if she could continue selling her music before making it available on Music Key. Google said no, and told her that if she doesn’t sign the new agreement to participate in Music Key, she would no longer be able to make money, through Content ID, from the 10,000 or so videos on YouTube that use her music. “It really rubs me the wrong way that they are linking up my participation in Content ID with my mandatory participation in Music Key,” she says. 

For their part, Google claims Keating misunderstood the terms of the contract and they have no intention of removing her work from participation in Content ID. This is how YouTube explained it to Billboard, as reported by Andrew Flanagan:

Keating [and presumably any other artist] has a relatively simple choice. She can sign the contract and allow YouTube and Music Key access to her entire catalog, along with the contract's other provisions, allowing her to make money from its presence on the site. Or she can refuse the contract and leave her music unmonetized on YouTube. She will still retain control over her Content ID account, and can allow or block her music as she likes.

YouTube also seems to be backing away from the contractual language demanding exclusive rights to any new material. They now say that artists can do “exclusives and promotions with other streaming services,” but that Music Key must still have access to an artist’s entire catalogue.

Keating has made a name for herself talking about artists’ rights on digital platform —  she once released the figures of all of her streaming revenues. It’s not that Keating is anti-YouTube; she wants to keep her work there, revenue or no revenue. “But I’m not going to do it at the expense of that control over releasing my music,” she says.

Just to be clear, most artists are not getting rich from streaming, unless they are already top money-makers. Spotify pays $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, according to figures published by Time. That’s a whole lot of decimals on the wrong side of the number, as far as most song-writers and performers see it.

It took 46.3 million streams of "Shake It Off" to make Taylor Swift somewhere in the range of $280,000 to $390,000. That’s a lot of money, for certain, and no one is worried that Swift is going broke. But if an indie artist is getting streams numbering in the thousands, not in the millions, there ain’t a whole lot of money piling up in the bank account.

So, the fight goes on.

Postscript: In the midst of her professional struggles, Zoë Keating’s husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with Stage IV non-smokers lung cancer. On January 24, Keating posted on her blog that doctors had found new lesions on Jeff's brain and they “need a new plan.” No surprise, Keating is now fighting on two fronts, as Anthem Blue Cross has refused to cover costs they deemed “not medically necessary.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen

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