Music, Life and Nonsense: How YouTube Has Changed the Music Industry

The music industry has clearly changed over the past decade, let alone the past couple of years. Labels and artists alike are charting new territory trying to find stable ground for each to make a sufficient living. Although major labels are losing strength in album sales, the Internet has allowed for a more democratized environment.

Now more than ever, artists do not need to sign a major label to be heard by millions. Specifically, YouTube has allowed many artists and even startup labels to be self-sufficient outside of the usual model.

A new phenomenon that has taken place is when musicians and singers cover songs and put their renditions on YouTube. Acts like Boyce Avenue (6.7 million subscribers), Alex Goot (2.1 million subscribers) and Tyler Ward (1.8 million subscribers) have all been able to have formidable touring careers outside of the computer screen. But the concern is, even if one can grow a fan base online, does that translate to live shows, merchandise and all the other revenue streams celebrated by signed artists? The answer is yes. All of the artists listed above have done national and world tours to sold out crowds in venues such as the House of Blues and the Bowery Ballroom.

Labels such as Monstercat and Keep Your Soul Records have emerged from YouTube as well.

Mike Darlington, CEO and founder of the dance music label Monstercat, said in an interview with Billboard, “It’s one thing to say we built something on YouTube, but with the numbers to back it up you can see we actually did something. It’s not just like we grew fans, but we grew fans who are actually purchasing music…Growing with YouTube means growing an audience that is generally younger and might not go to shows,” he says. “We learned early on we had two different audiences, some who listen at home and some who go to shows.”

Monstercat has garnered over one million record sales, according to Billboard.

Keep your Soul Records, founded by Jake Coco, W.G. Snuffy Walden and Julien Garros, specialize in recording and filming mostly cover videos of their artists. They sell the cover songs on iTunes and leverage that income and increased fan base to release original music.

Although many artists have made a living through YouTube, even the most prominent acts have not gone mainstream in the sense of selling out arena tours or getting major airplay. One big exception to the rule is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Before their breakthrough record, “The Heist,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were independent recording and touring artists who put up music videos and vlogs via their “Ryan Lewis” YouTube channel (3.3 million subscribers). They grew their fan base organically and independently of any major label. They were touring successfully, but never had a major radio hit nor had they ever sold out a major arena.

So what did they do differently? According to The Wall Street Journal, after “The Heist” was released, Ben Haggerty (a.k.a. Macklemore) and Lewis hired an independent group from Warner Music Group, the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), to help them get on the radio as independent artists.

Via their website, Haggerty wrote in a letter pertaining to this deal that “It was everything that we had always wanted: maintaining our independence with access to radio and thus the masses.”

The music video to their hit song, “Thrift Shop,” now has over 660 million views. According to Billboard, their album “The Heist” has sold over one million copies.

Whether Macklemore and Lewis’s path will become a norm is unclear, but it has proven that there are no real rules anymore. YouTube and the Internet at large have created a new environment for creating a career in music, but the industry is usually slow to respond to rapid change.

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