For over 10 years, ELEVATOR’s YouTube channel has been highlighting underground and independent artists before they catch big media looks or rally support from any of the major streaming platforms. Take Los Angeles-based rapper Gusto Leimert’s song “I Care” for example—on Spotify it has 282,000 plays, but on ELEVATOR’s YouTube channel the video has over 2.5 million views.
The ELEVATOR channel has nearly two million subscribers, and all of their most popular uploads are song streams and music videos with tens of millions of views. Because of that reach, many artists and labels want to be featured. At a simple glance, it seems like a win-win scenario: artists get promotion, and ELEVATOR builds their own following. But it’s not that simple.
For seven days in August, ELEVATOR’s YouTube channel was shut down completely. About 2,500 videos were made unavailable, and a collective 900 million views disappeared. The takedown was caused by a third copyright strike, and YouTube’s process for restoring a channel isn’t easy.
“This is not actually our first time being shut down,” Bryan Zawlocki, co-founder of ELEVATOR says. “There are always publishers, producers, and DJs who are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, using the song is OK,’ and it wasn't.” As ELEVATOR grew, so did the number of submissions coming from budding artists seeking to reach a bigger audience. Many of these artists have no problem with their music being hosted on another channel in the early stages of their career, but as they grow, things get complicated. Some of them enter deals with major labels or publishers, and eventually someone with claims to the songs realizes that music hosted on an outside channel’s platform may be cannibalizing their views. It could be seen as promotion, but it's also seen as lost value. This is when the copyright violations and takedown notifications start coming in.
"Anyone can file a copyright claim without any real kind of proof that they own the song. And then you gotta fight to rectify that." – Bryan Zawlocki, co-founder of ELEVATOR
“Anyone can file a copyright claim without any real kind of proof that they own the song. And then you gotta fight to rectify that,” Zawlocki explains. “I've seen producers maliciously play that game. They hand out free beats to dozens of artists and then come back after distributing the beat and claim all of the revenue from all of the songs, from all of the artists, hoping for one of them to take off.”
The music industry still hasn’t caught up to the internet, which probably surprises no one. Between artists, management teams, lawyers, publishers, producers, and labels, there are a lot of people with an interest in any use of a song. On the major streaming platforms and official channels, tracking the plays (and money) coming from a song is relatively simple, but once third parties start using the music on YouTube channels and social media accounts, it becomes harder to track (and therefore monetize) the music. If a song is used as background music on a popular YouTube channel or as the soundtrack to a viral meme, it could help a song reach more people, but it could also be seen as money left on the table. If a song has two million plays from a tweet, but those plays aren’t monetized, included in official play counts, or properly credited, is it worth it to a publisher whose job it is to capitalize off a song’s usage?
This conundrum has resulted in a piracy battle that has been going on since the beginning of the blog era. Almost a decade ago, OnSMASH—a popular hip-hop blog that has now been in business for nearly 15 years—was shut down on Thanksgiving day in 2010. Back then, like most other popular blogs, OnSmash would upload songs for free download along with write-ups and commentary. When OnSMASH was shut down, owner Kevin Hofman started “FreeOnSMASH.com” until the lawsuit was settled over five years later. When he finally settled his formal charges in 2016, Hofman admitted that the never fully recovered from the damage done.
With the rise of streaming, things are a bit different now. Free downloads aren’t an issue, because most users stream music on the platform of their choice. But when music is featured on third party YouTube or social media channels, similar problems arise. A viral YouTube video or social media clip can trigger streaming numbers to skyrocket, but whoever is uploading that music is usually at risk of legal action or a shutdown.
“Having the site down kind of tanked our submissions a lot for the week. And obviously the YouTube revenue is affected,” Zawlocki says. “The views took a deep dive as well, and it looks like it's kind of affected our channel in the YouTube algorithm,” he explains. “Our views seem to be really low for the last couple of uploads we put up this week.”
Even with contracts in place, owners of YouTube channels and media outlets have little leverage when a major label or publisher decides they don’t want a song featured somewhere.
Even with contracts in place that should allow for the upload of song or a project, owners of YouTube channels and media outlets have little leverage when a major label or publisher decides they don’t want a song featured somewhere anymore, even if they agreed to it at some point. When someone issues a copyright claim or takedown notification, even without proof of ownership, YouTube’s policy is to take it seriously and issue a strike and a warning: either take the content down or get the claim revoked by the issuer. Three strikes, and the channel can be taken down. In many cases, producers or labels just want to claim the video and monetize it themselves, but in more serious cases, they can issue a takedown request, essentially asserting that a channel is in violation of their copyright. Resolving this often involves a legal battle that can take weeks or months.
For Pigeons & Planes, even protecting content with legal contracts was not a foolproof solution for hosting music on YouTube. “We had contracts in place that basically said: ‘You are confirming that you have the right to allow us to use this music, and you are allowing us to use this much of the song for this purpose on this platform,’” Jacob Moore, founder and editor-in-chief of Pigeons & Planes says. “It wasn't that complicated, but if you're doing that every day multiple times a day it becomes really time consuming, and tracking down the right people wasn't always easy. Even with those contracts, sometimes the artists and the labels will give permission to use a song, but a publisher who comes into the picture down the road will issue a takedown, or a producer will file a claim. A lot of the times we’d get permission from an artist at the early stages of their career, and they’d go on to sign a label deal, the song will blow up, and all of a sudden the whole situation changes. The contract didn’t hold up once labels and publishers come calling. YouTube has to maintain and protect those relationships.”
The same goes for social media. Even for a 15-second clip of a song in a tweet, and even with permission from the artist or label, a copyright violation filed means the content gets flagged. If it happens multiple times, the account can get taken down.
“Having a legal team and getting paperwork in place can help, but it becomes a lot of work just to use a clip of a song in a tweet, and even then if someone files a complaint, it becomes a whole ordeal and you can't just say, ‘Here's the paperwork, now take away the strike,’” Moore clarified.
These contractual bidding wars aren’t foreign to A&Rs at record labels. Joey Walker, who works as an A&R at Alamo Records, has been witnessing it for years. After signing rappers Ralo, Smokepurpp, and Wifisfuneral, Walker himself has been responsible for clearing takedown notices and strikes so that the content about his artists can continue to live on channels outside of Alamo’s control. As the owner of his own music blog Daily Chiefers, he understands the value of third party promotion and has seen how it can help more than it hurts, even when the numbers aren’t tracked and monetized. In his opinion, we’re in the midst of a turning point. Record labels haven’t fully caught up, but they are attempting to change their old school methods and react to all the changes that come with the constantly evolving internet.
“I think that most of them are now finally understanding the value of these support systems—they used to just take them down and not care. With the new age changing into streaming and moving away from digital purchases, they're realizing the whole career is based off of the support,” Walker explains. “They're beginning to realize these hundred-dollar, five hundred-dollar things that they're trying to collect don’t make much impact. The intangible value of these blogs or these YouTube channels is way bigger.”
"[LABELS] Are beginning to realize these hundred-dollar, five hundred-dollar things that they're trying to collect don’t make much impact. The intangible value of these blogs or these YouTube channels is way bigger." – Joey Walker, A&R at Alamo REcords
By running Daily Chiefers, Walker has also had his fair share of frustrations. Due to copyright complaints, he’s lost several Daily Chiefers Twitter and SoundCloud accounts. “My original Daily Chiefers Twitter is still suspended right now. I'm still working to this day—it's been about three years—to get that unsuspended,” Walker says. “I've had three SoundCloud accounts get taken down. The only thing I have not gotten taken down is Instagram. I've lost Twitters, I've lost SoundClouds, I've lost a lot.”
One solution may be for media outlets and third party platforms to partner up with record labels, a move that Walker has considered at Alamo Records. “I've tried to do it myself. I brought it up to them, like, ‘We should try to partner up with these people.’ But it usually doesn't make sense,” Walker says.
ELEVATOR has turned down multiple partnership offers, and Zawlocki agrees that there still aren’t clear ways to make sure both sides are being taken care of. “A lot of times you run into an issue with splits. We might have a label submit a video and they're down to do a revenue split, but then who handles the split? Is the label going to send us a check every month? Are we going to handle the split? Then we have to do that accounting every month and it's a big accounting undertaking to facilitate that for thousands of songs and videos,” he says.
Even if those partnerships are in place, a lack of alignment between a record label and a publisher can create a conflict. The label may want promotion for their new artist, but the publisher’s job is to collect money for any uses of music, so letting a multi-million view video slide under the radar isn’t in their best interest.
“Ultimately, I think the solution is going to lie in tracking the use of music, no matter where it's hosted,” Jacob Moore says. “If there was something in place that tracked metadata accurately, payments could be properly made automatically.” As things stand now, something as small as a misspelling could halt the entire process. There’s also the issue of copyright claims filed when a fraction of a song is being used in a full video—for example, a 15-second song clip in the background of a longer video. “To me that would be like Crayola trying to own every piece of artwork that somebody made out of crayons,” Bryan Zawlocki says. While he believes that everyone should be properly compensated, accurate metadata and blockchain information would be necessary to break down who should get paid, what they should get paid for, and how much payment they deserve.
In the meantime, independent music blogs, YouTube channels, and social media accounts are still serving their purposes, even if they have to redefine themselves and sacrifice things like music video premieres and social media clips featuring music. Growing platforms like the 2-year-old app TikTok are already proving their value in breaking artists—just look at the rise of Lil Nas X. According to Joey Walker, if you aren’t using TikTok to keep tabs on emerging songs and artists, you’re already behind.
Inevitably, new social media platforms will emerge, and the ways of promoting music on the internet will continue to expand and morph. Until there’s a dynamic, forward-thinking solution for properly tracking all the uses of a song online, there is no end in sight to the tug-of-war between the industry and the internet.
"Whether it's dealing with YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, it's up to the music industry to figure out how to be more flexible and address the root issue. You can't stop the internet from using music,” Moore says. We've already seen how these platforms can actually help artists in a major way, and an app like TikTok using 15-second song clips isn't replacing monetizable streams on actual streaming services—if anything, it's driving more people to listen to full songs. And still, labels seem to think that simply asking for more money is the solution. Artists today are being discovered and breaking on these platforms, and many of the biggest channels aren't owned by major labels. There have to be creative ways for the industry and the internet to work together instead of keeping the battle going forever. Until then, both sides are missing out on opportunities.