In this op-ed, Chris Castle examines Lyor Cohen's relationship with YouTube/Google, and how he has worked to reconcile his role in their exploitative business model while claiming that he's working to help artists, as well as whether there's any merit to his claim.
Op-ed by Chris Castle of Music Tech Policy
Christof, let me ask you, why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?
We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.
- from The Truman Show, written by Andrew Niccol
You’ll hear a lot of trash talk about Lyor Cohen, but credit where it’s due–he gave an interview that interested me about how he sees his role at YouTube. I actually think he’s got some old school ideas that may be fundamentally sound, but are not connected to the Google reality.
I submit that his problem is that either he’s getting paid so much money he doesn’t need to be attached to reality or he doesn’t understand that Google does not give a rip about us. Or maybe it’s a little of both.
Lyor’s main problem is that he either doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore Google’s exploitative business model. MTP readers will recall a prescient 2008 book review of Nicholas Carr’s The Google Enigma (entitled “Google the Destroyer“), by antitrust scholar Jim DeLong that gives an elegant explanation of Google’s mindset:
Carr’s Google Enigma made a familiar business strategy point: companies that provide one component of a system love to commoditize the other components, the complements to their own products, because that leaves more of the value of the total stack available for the commoditizer….Carr noted that Google is unusual because of the large number of products and services that can be complements to the search function, including basic production of content and its distribution, along with anything else that can be used to gather eyeballs for advertising. Google’s incentives to reduce the costs of complements so as to harvest more eyeballs to view advertising are immense... This point is indeed true, and so is an additional point. In most circumstances, the commoditizer’s goal is restrained by knowledge that enough money must be left in the system to support the creation of the complements….
Google is in a different position. Its major complements already exist, and it need not worry in the short term about continuing the flow. For content, we have decades of music and movies that can be digitized and then distributed, with advertising attached. A wealth of other works await digitizing – [music,] books, maps, visual arts, and so on. If these run out, Google and other Internet companies have hit on the concept of user-generated content and social networks, in which the users are sold to each other, with yet more advertising attached.
So, on the whole, Google can continue to do well even if leaves providers of its complements gasping like fish on a beach.
And that was the truth in 2008 and its still true of Google ten years later because that’s their business model. So when Irving Azoff says of Google that YouTube doesn’t pay artists and songwriters adequately–even the top songwriters in the world who are members of Irving’s Global Music Rights–that’s entirely consistent with the predatory business model Jim DeLong identified.
And when Lyor tries to flatter and deflect his way around Irving’s criticism, he’s missing the point entirely which is not surprising given that he works there. But it doesn’t change the fact that Irving is right—Google is built on an exploitative business model that depends on using the DMCA safe harbor to undermine basic private property concepts and complete one of the biggest income transfers of all time to the great detriment of artists and songwriters.
MTP readers will also remember my 2007 post, The DMCA is Not an Alibi, now called “the value gap.” That was the one that really started criticisms that I had a Google problem. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have come up to me and confessed that they didn’t see what I was driving at until years after. Not that it matters, but important years were lost when people in positions to marshal resources to combat them simply failed to do so.
Nothing has changed since Jim and I wrote those pieces and nothing will change until there are tectonic shifts in how Google is permitted to operate and the loopholes it relies on. We’re thankful of the victory in Europe, but as one loophole closes in Europe, another opens in the US through the Music Modernization Act’s inexplicable and likely unconsitutional reachback safe harbor.
In a recent Billboard interview, Lyor said:
“Prior, [YouTube would] make a deal with the industry, go away for a few years and then come back. And that, to me, is where misunderstandings happen,” he explains. “It’s really hard to find an artist and break that artist — I mean, it’s almost impossible. So if Google and YouTube understand how difficult it is, maybe they could think about ways to improve that part of the business….”
How did you alleviate the disconnect between YouTube and the music industry?
Just going back to back with them. Demystifying our intent. Understanding how hard it is to break artists and to go to work on behalf of the creative community and the labels.
I think Lyor is essentially correct in his old school assessment of Google’s “new boss” problem, but he’s treating the wrong symptom. It’s not that Google doesn’t understand anything, they understand just fine how hard we think it is to break an artist in the music business. They just don’t care and to the extent they think about it at all, they think that we don’t understand because they think they “break” YouTube “stars” when those “stars” get corporate sponsorships.
And that is because their business model is based on manipulating loopholes and not on “breaking artists,” if “breaking artists” means establishing artists as able to have successful careers apart from YouTube. And that dependency has become clearer in the years since Jim wrote his “flopping on the beach” post which makes Google’s commoditization even more insidious.
So while we’re happy that the Europeans have seen the light on the “value gap,” the DMCA is still not an alibi–unless the U.S. government continues to fail to address the underlying cause of the new algorithmic Darwinian music business that is gradually asphyxiating artists and songwriters.
And while we can appreciate Lyor’s old school view of his role in the Google Nation, no one should be persuaded that his approach will change anything as long as one of the largest corporations in commercial history is allowed to weaponize the DMCA safe harbor. The artists Lyor is focused on “helping” aren’t just flopping on any beach, they are flopping on Google’s beach, one way or another.