It hardly boasts the same sort of generational confrontationalism that marked the arrival of punk rock into a bloated music scene in the late 1970s, but something about the first YouTube Music Awards ceremony seemed ... well, sort of punk rock.
On the surface, at least, the ceremony – which was streamed live around the world from Pier 36 in New York City on Sunday evening – was about breaking down barriers between old guard major-label superstars and DIY-based YouTube phenomenons. Just as punk made it plain to the less than virtuosic that a music career was a possibility, so does YouTube offer anyone with a video camera, a laptop and a modicum of talent the theoretical opportunity to command a worldwide audience.
So Sunday’s show celebrated low-budget DIY anomalies like the “Harlem Shake” video phenomenon, and mega-hits from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Lady Gaga and Beyonce. Perhaps even more significantly, the show was a complete mess, an off-the-cuff anti-glamour affair hosted by actor Jason Schwartzman and comedian Reggie Watts that teetered on the edge of anarchy and breakdown. That made it fun. But will it last?
Well, it’s doubtful that the folks behind the MTV Video Music Awards are worried. Somewhere in the area of 250,000 viewers took in Sunday’s YouTube webcast. Back in August, 10 million folks watched the MTV VMAs. That’s quite a difference.
However, YouTube would seem to have the edge over MTV, the Grammys and the American Music Awards, for the simple reason that the coveted 18-to-34 demographic turns to YouTube for most of its music needs, at least initially. Those mainstream network shows have the numbers right now, but YouTube has the young people. And as everyone in the entertainment business or the media will tell you, whoever has the young people will survive, and whoever doesn’t, won’t. The more savvy mainstream pop artists have known this for a good while now. Which might explain why Lady Gaga, Eminem and Arcade Fire showed up on Sunday, performed and, in the case of Eminem, filmed a music video in real-time during the YouTube webcast.
Turning the billions of views generated by YouTube into cold, hard cash has been the primary concern of the music business over the past several years. Billboard now factors YouTube views into its weekly Hot 100 rankings, which goes a long way toward legitimizing the service. Plans are reportedly afoot to launch a paid subscription wing of YouTube in 2014, one that will attempt to appropriate the model made successful by Spotify, rDio and others. YouTube currently boasts in the area of 1 billion users. Not all of them are likely to make the jump to paying even a nominal fee for something they’ve grown used to getting for free. But if even half of them do ... well, you do the math.
These money worries aren’t our problem. As music consumers, what should concern us more is how YouTube’s ascension to the head of the class will affect the music.
So far, the evidence doesn’t suggest that the influence will be a particularly good one. Why? Well, musically speaking, YouTube tends to celebrate the moronic. How else can we explain the success of Psy and “Gangnam Style,” and now, “What Does the Fox Say?” This is some of the dumbest music that has ever been made. And its success means that we are most definitely going to be treated to a host of bandwagon-jumping imitators. “This is boring,” is what the fox should be saying.
The democratization of the music industry as exemplified by YouTube has its up side, but whenever “Anyone can do it!” becomes the mantra, a lot of people will be doing it who probably shouldn’t be.
In the plus column, though, is YouTube’s prominence as both an ether-based historical museum for popular music, and the opportunities it affords to independent artists who might have legitimately interesting musical statements to make. Just about anything that has ever been filmed – a rare concert performance, unused historical footage, long-deleted music videos – can be found without much effort on YouTube. Anyone who loves music knows that this is completely awesome.
Similarly, music that doesn’t need to toe the line in mainstream terms is all over YouTube, and that same “anything goes” attitude pervaded Sunday’s awards. This should give us all hope.