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One of the best aspects of YouTube has been the ready availability of a massive range of music videos, all of which can be accessed for free.
Whilst a growing percentage of these music videos are uploaded by the copyright owners, the vast majority has been uploaded by fans, often in breach of the terms and conditions of YouTube's terms of service.
In most cases, and by way of agreements forged with many of the major music labels, YouTube simply throws ads on those vids and the revenue from that source is shared with the studios concerned.
However, there is change in the wind and it could mean that massive chunks of YouTube's most popular content suddenly disappears from view -- unless you're prepared to stump up a monthly stipend to become a "subscriber".
The YouTube Music Key service will offer ad-free video streaming of more than 20 million songs to those who are willing to pay US$10 a month for the privilege.
Although some details have been revealed, it remains unclear exactly what the launch of this service may mean to regular non-subscribers.
Given the ease with which music videos, or just the audio component thereof, can be downloaded and stored locally on your computer, phone or media player, YouTube is going to have to implement some major technical changes if it's going to convince folk to pay for what is currently available for free.
YouTube will also have to remember that they're going to be positioning themselves in a head-to-head battle with some of the already very successful subscription-based streaming and download services (such as Spotify and Rdio). Whilst its enormous collection of music material may be well patronised right now, there are no guarantees that this level of success would translate into subscription revenues.
The really worrying thing must be whether this service will eventually be extended to cover all YouTube's content, not just music videos.
The existing advertising on many videos is the lifeblood of a growing legion of YouTube VLogers and content producers, many of who might be significantly impacted if their content was thrown behind a paywall of the type suggested or littered with extra low-value advertising.
Of course it is most likely that existing non-music video material will still be available to non-subscribers but despite the "do no evil" faux-mantra of Google, I would expect that an extra "inconvenience factor" would be added to the "free" level of access so as to encourage a switch to the subscription service.
Google is also encountering a great deal of resistance from some of those creating music for YouTube. Under the new scheme, YT seems to be demanding that all the music uploaders make content available for both the ad-funded and subscription services. There are some who simply want to post their tunes without engagement with the subscription service but Google says they have to or they won't receive any money at all.
I love it when big names in the industry start clashing with those who provide or consume their content because it means that windows of opportunity start opening for new players. Agile, fast, hungry new enterprises can swoop in and, in the blink of an eye, completely change the face of the market by delivering services that are a better match for the demands of all parties and the sheer size of the incumbent often means they're unable to react quickly enough to avoid being roundly trounced.
Will this happen in the case of YouTube and its plans to create a one-stop music download and streaming service?
Only time will tell -- but eventually all companies get too big for their boots and start believing they are able to dictate to the market rather than respond to its demands.
Will you be paying US$10 a month to sign up to a service that delivers nothing more than you can already get for free (albeit by breaking the TOS of the YouTube site)?
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