August 23, 2013

YouTube vs. MTV -- targeting vs. browsing

Here is an NYT article about the rising role of YouTube videos in driving the sales of albums and singles.

The message you're supposed to take away is that YouTube is removing the "gatekeepers" or middlemen like MTV program directors, and letting listeners directly decide what to watch and listen to. But it sounds like sales still rely mostly on what radio gatekeepers play:

A wildly popular video on YouTube, besides generating an additional stream of revenue for labels from ads that precede videos, often persuades radio programmers to champion a song, which in turn spurs sales of albums and singles, music executives say.

Listeners have to get their initial exposure from somebody, and the ordinary person is not the ultimate prime mover -- they haven't listened to hundreds or thousands of new songs, or watched their videos. Most people wouldn't want to bother with that -- let somebody filter through all that and give me a rough list of things I might like, and then I'll check those out. Probably I want a screener with similar tastes to mine.

YouTube is not a screener, but a virtual warehouse. You go there and search for a video that you've already been tipped off to by a screener such as some internet celebrity whose recommendations you tend to check out, on the basis of having similar tastes. Then you might recommend it in turn to your Facebook feed, your Twitter feed, your whatever feed.

So, YouTube is to MTV (and radio) what Amazon is to Barnes & Noble. A brick-and-mortar store has a condensed inventory compared to Amazon, and they feature recommendations all over the store. They more heavily promote books that have been favorably reviewed by outside critics. And you navigate it in more of a browsing way, rather than going there to buy a particular target book.

At Amazon, the selection is too vast to look through on your own. You go there when you have a specific book in mind. They attempt to promote books that have been favorably reviewed by outside critics, but not really. They know that you've come for a specific book -- yet, a book that you were tipped off to by some outside source, not you yourself (unless you work in publishing).

Like Amazon, YouTube has too many videos to browse through. Anything that uses a search engine is unbrowsable -- it is for targeting a specific item among a staggeringly vast selection, and at most wandering in a small, fixed radius around the initial target (you searched for X, so you might also like Y). You go to YouTube to look for a video that you've already been tipped off to by a cultural gatekeeper (they're still there, only online). And you don't get exposed to much that's far away from your initial tastes.

MTV, back when it used to show music on television, was more like Barnes & Noble. They did not "force feed" you anything -- if you didn't like the video, you changed the channel, simple as that. The selection they chose was based on what the screeners thought would resonate with the audience. Screeners came both from within the channel (like B&N's staff picks) and from outside (like book critics in major newspapers).

Most importantly, you were able to browse a wide selection and discover songs you never would've found if you had only used the channel in an on-demand fashion. MTV, like B&N, had to choose its selection based on catering to a wide audience. There was no search engine, so the results were not micro-tailored to any individual's wants. You were a dance fan, so you tuned in for Madonna, that video from Flashdance, and that video from Footloose, but there are only so many of those they can play before it becomes a dance-only channel and alienates most viewers. (And imagine if B&N only stocked books in the gay vampire genre.) So you also saw videos that introduced you to heavy metal, R&B, heartland rock, new wave, synthpop, college radio, and so on.

Sure, you didn't keep the channel on as often if it was showing music from a style that you don't care for, but it's not that hard to just leave it on and give it a chance every now and then.

Even my dad, who has always been stuck in the mid-1960s for music, got turned on to "Bette Davis Eyes" in the early '80s, probably from MTV as well as radio airplay, and regularly played a tape of Kim Carnes' greatest hits along with the Stones, the Beatles, the Byrds, Creedence, and his other favorites. That never could have happened if we only had search engines to demand that they play specific songs that we already knew about and liked.

The NYT article also goes over the stylistic trends in videos now compared to at other times, but that's a topic for another post. The main point is that these tiresome, recurring gushes about Eliminating the Middleman are always bullshit. The middleman is there because you don't have the time or willingness to sift through everything yourself. Cultural gatekeepers will always be with us, and the shift from analog to digital media has not changed that fact. What the defining qualities are of the gatekeepers -- that's more important than if they're there or not (and a topic for another post, since it appears to reflect the zeitgeist rather than the medium).

What has changed is the browsing vs. searching method of consumption. Analog is harder to search, digital much easier. Each method has its own benefits and costs, but in our revenge-of-the-nerds culture of fanboy geek-outs, people only emphasize the costs of analog and the benefits of digital.

Here's to songs that you would never have imagined would suit you perfectly, if you'd only stuck to the bespoke, custom tailoring of cultural search engines.



16 comments:

  1. YouTube is great for browsing, if you know how to use it. I've first learned about many of my now-favorite songs by following the Related Videos links and browsing lists created by other users.

    Sure, the creators of the lists are gatekeepers, but there's a much wider variety of gatekeepers to choose from than we had with MTV and a couple dozen radio stations. And I assume that the Related Videos links are generated algorithmically based on correlations in users' viewing habits and expressed preferences, which arguably means that there's no gatekeeper at all.

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  2. "YouTube is great for browsing, if you know how to use it."

    Well, that qualifying clause means it doesn't apply to all but 1 in 10,000 YouTube users. A list created by another user? Boring, let's see what my favorite websites are saying is the must-listen-to song right now.

    And the "related videos" don't take you very far from where you started. Typically it's other songs by the same artist. And they tend to lead in a circle.

    They don't have an algorithm that points you in a direction that you didn't even think to look in. You're confined to the pool that you started out in, just exploring nooks and crannies of it. You don't get transported to another pool altogether.

    "Sure, the creators of the lists are gatekeepers, but there's a much wider variety of gatekeepers to choose from than we had with MTV and a couple dozen radio stations."

    Nah, you could've found those lists in the old days from the music nuts, whether through media (radio, TV, print, featured in movies, played in a club or bar, etc.) or by talking to the nuts in real life -- or by talking to someone else who had talked to them, and so on along the chain of word-of-mouth transmission.

    Let's not lose sight of reality that people listen to a much narrower range of stuff than they used to. (Or watch on TV, movies, read in books, etc.) Super-consumers are rare, and have always been super-consumers, even in the '80s before the digital revolution. The average person, indeed the vast majority, don't get exposed to anything but what they already know they like these days.

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  3. I didn't have cable when I was growing up, so I didn't really know much about music until the internet brought file-sharing and then youtube. There was so much I never would have heard on the radio. I suppose there was still a "gatekeeper" function in that I would read recommendations whether in the "X Best" list format or allmusic's historical account of a genre. Pandora then expanded that a thousand-fold. The bands it exposes me to might have broken up a decade ago, but the music remains good.

    I remember once hearing an argument (it might even have been on VH1) that the advent of music video killed off artists that thrived on Album Oriented Radio but didn't have a comparative advantage when it come to video. It might be true, I don't know. But a lot of my favorite music preceded the music video era, or just didn't create videos. I think separating music from video lets each specialize, and most of the music I listen to on youtube is just the audio-track paired the album cover.

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  4. Another good post. BTW, doesn't it seem like movie and music critics don't have as much influence anymore?

    Remember when a single critic's opinion could make or break a movie, book, or album?

    -Curtis

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  5. I think it's always been word-of-mouth for popular culture to take off.

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  6. "I didn't really know much about music until the internet brought file-sharing and then youtube. There was so much I never would have heard on the radio."

    Well you're talking the 2000s, when radio was basically dead, and so were record stores. Remember that back in the '80s, and even into part of the '90s (though declining), there was a really diffuse and decentralized network of sources for recommendations.

    Ask some of the guys who worked at a record store. And since there were hardly any chains, and weren't required to promote only albums X, Y, and Z, they all had their own opinions. Not to mention other customers at the store -- "Oh, is that by that group who does Hungry Like the Wolf? Hey, you know anyone else who sounds like that?"

    Music nuts in school or at work, or around the neighborhood. Friends. Etc.

    So much of the "wonders of the internet" is really just replacing something that existed before in a social context, with a version that allows the increasingly anti-social audience to get the task done in isolation.

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  7. Forgot to mention that record stores also allowed browsing, i.e. of the physical records, tapes, or discs. My friends and I used to spend an hour at each place we stopped by, mostly browsing and only using a little time to look for things we'd already had in mind / on our "be on the lookout for" lists.

    Even if you don't buy an album that you've stumbled upon while flipping through their stock, you at least file away the band name, or album name, or an image of the album cover. The more places you see them at, the more you think, "Hmmm, maybe there's something to this band after all."

    I think that's how I learned about Frank Zappa. He definitely was not au courant in the mid-'90s, but every record store, whether a mom & pop used store or Tower Records, usually had a whole bunch of his albums. Like, rows and rows. There's no equivalent of that on YouTube or iTunes (or Napster).

    Like other music nuts, I pretended to like The Residents for awhile, and every time I checked a store for their albums, their name card was always next to the name card for The Replacements. Something as serendipitous as that can tip you off to a cool band you wouldn't have heard of on the radio or TV (not in the late '90s).

    Of course, I didn't buy every album that I stumbled upon, but that was an easy way to familiarize yourself with The Canon over time. Something you could get around to later, but at least have them flagged in your memory.

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  8. Music is an auditory medium, merely looking at records seems of limited help. I didn't care about Nirvana until I happened to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit", whereupon I bought the CD and listened to it on loop for I forget how many days. Now we have lots of music at our fingertips we can listen to at zero marginal cost, which makes exploration much easier.

    To take a different example, I knew that some folks were huge fans of Metallica. I had heard some of their songs but didn't see the big deal, they were just alright. But I also heard that they had albums preceding the Black Album which weren't on the radio. It turned out one friend of mine happened to have an old cassette tape of "And Justice For All", so I insisted we would have to listen to it at some time, which meant us eventually huddling around his insufficiently loud tape player getting a muffled introduction to what real metal sounds like. "I guess it sounds good?" was the conclusion. Once I had access to the internet, I could listen to their entire back catalog while getting recommendations for other bands in similar genres, comparing their "Garage Days Re-Visited" covers to the originals* and so on. Maybe MTV had gone down the tubes by the time I was exposed to it, but there's really no comparison.

    *Speaking of which, I could hear plenty of boring Fleetwood Mac on the radio and Santana's quite good cover of Black Magic Woman + Gypsy Queen (and much more rarely, Judas Priest's cover of "Green Manalishi"), but I didn't hear Peter Green until the internet. I suppose there was a bit of a "gatekeeper" effect in that the Best of Black Sabbath surprisingly mentioned them as peers alongside Led Zeppelin/the Yardbirds, Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge in the proto-metal genre. But then many of the album versions of their songs weren't that great, it was the live jams people had uploaded to the internet that stood out.

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  9. Forgot to mention how I got interested in pre-Black Album Metallica. It was one of those "Mr. T vs [X]" internet comics. I was a middle schooler with no job and money to blow on an album on the off-chance I might like it, so my musical exposure was largely limited to what was on my clock-radio (which was a big step up from just having to listen to my parents' oldies/country and not understanding what was so great about music).

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  10. "Music is an auditory medium, merely looking at records seems of limited help. I didn't care about Nirvana until I happened to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit", whereupon I bought the CD and listened to it on loop for I forget how many days. Now we have lots of music at our fingertips we can listen to at zero marginal cost, which makes exploration much easier."

    You're trying to dictate reality from theory here. People listen to such a tiny, narrow range of music compared to the '80s. Where's the smooth jazz hit like "Smooth Operator"? Whatever else is going on besides having so much at our fingertips for zero marginal cost is resulting in most folks having no idea of musical styles outside of their hyper-tailored tastes.

    Same with not judging an album by its cover. Sure, you can't sample the songs directly, but you can hear a lot by looking. You're telling me the cover of an Iron Maiden album gives you no information about what it will sound like, or worse, will give you an impression that is biased in the wrong direction?

    You wouldn't look at the cover of Rio and assume it was folk music. It looks carefree and exciting, neo-Deco stylization in musical form, and something that will get girls to abandon themselves.

    Ding ding!

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  11. "Maybe MTV had gone down the tubes by the time I was exposed to it, but there's really no comparison."

    Dude, you never got to see Headbangers Ball, where MTV devoted 90 to 120 minutes of balls-to-the-walls heavy metal (not the more mainstream hair bands). From Wikipedia:

    "Headbangers Ball was one of the most popular music shows ever to air on MTV, on the air for nearly 8 years, and for a time, it was one of the network's flagship shows. For some time in 1988 and '89, the show was increased to 3 hours. One hour added, plus Hard 60, a daily version of the ball that aired for an hour every weekday afternoon."

    Every weekday afternoon -- not just something that came on at 3am Saturday night.

    Metal was so huge in the '80s that you could not avoid exposure from mainstream outlets like MTV, radio, or movie soundtracks (Footloose, with its diverse selection, features "Metal Health" by Quiet Riot as Kevin Bacon pulls into the school parking lot in his yellow Volkswagen bug).

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  12. And then there were MTV's other big focus shows on outside-the-top-40 music.

    Anyone remember 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation?

    "120 Minutes began on March 10, 1986. For the first ten years of 120 Minutes, viewers could see artists as varied as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bronski Beat, New Order, The Replacements, The Verve, James, Slowdive, Weezer, Robyn Hitchcock, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, Butthole Surfers, Radiohead, KMFDM, Kate Bush, Ramones, XTC, Morrissey, The Smashing Pumpkins, Kitchens of Distinction, Sarah McLachlan, They Might Be Giants, Dinosaur Jr., Rage Against The Machine, Hüsker Dü, The Offspring, and Bad Religion. Nirvana's music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" received a world premiere on 120 Minutes, but soon proved so popular that the channel began to air it during its regular daytime rotation. For a time in the mid-1990s, a companion program called Alternative Nation aired every weeknight on MTV."

    When I watched it in middle school, 120 Minutes came on from 2-4am Sunday night, and I would always be knocked out asleep in Tech Ed class on Monday morning.

    Aside from all of the college rock / indie / proto-alternative music from the '80s and early '90s that they used to show, you could easily see old hardcore punk videos too. You won't believe it, but I distinctly remember seeing the video for "TV Party" by Black Flag on 120 Minutes sometime in '94 or '95.

    Henry Rollins was huge at the time (...when has Rollins not been huge?), and we knew he used to be in a punk band called Black Flag. Getting to see the video on MTV was like a religious experience back then. Relics being unearthed and brought back to life, while the audience is in a half-dazed stupor. Too bad no one else was with me, but that was one of those things I told my friends about the next day.

    ...And then there was Yo! MTV Raps, starting in 1988 and lasting through '95. Didn't really do anything for me, but it was yet another way that non-mainstream songs made their way into out-of-the-way houses across America in the pre-internet days.

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  13. Beavis & Butt-head introduced middle school kids to a lot of earlier kickass music that we were too young to remember when it was first out. We remembered the really big hits, but not the next tier down, and not college rock.

    That was where I discovered the Dead Milkmen ("Punk Rock Girl"), who became my favorite band for a year or so. Just head on over to the used record store and pick up the tape, CD, or record from what you saw on Beavis & Butt-head. No YouTube or iTunes necessary.

    Of course they played a lot of "older" metal (as you described it, pre-Black Album). They showed the video for "One" by Metallica, "Mother" by Danzig (the original b&w one, not the newer live version), "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies, just to name a few that spring immediately to mind.

    They also played New Wave and synth-pop, and not only to mock the by-then outdated '80s sound. Like how they watch "Words" by Missing Persons and comment on how hot the chick singer is.

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  14. ..."Goodbye to You" by Scandal / Patty Smyth is another New Wave fave that I remember discovering on Beavis & Butt-head. (In typical fashion, they parody it by chanting "Goodbye to poooooo" during the chorus.)

    Or "Dancing with Myself," where they chant "Playing with myself, oh oh, Playing with myself." A funny intro to 8th-graders who didn't get the chance to watch much Billy Idol when he was first out.

    You weren't going to hear those songs anywhere else in the mid-'90s, except for the odd spot on an alternative radio station.

    Although MTV also had those annual countdowns of the Best Videos of All Time. Suddenly you saw old Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel, INXS, you name it. Only once a year, but you made sure to tune in and see something old but great for the first time.

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  15. MTV used to kick so much ass.

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  16. Steve Johnson8/25/13, 10:07 PM

    I remember once hearing an argument (it might even have been on VH1) that the advent of music video killed off artists that thrived on Album Oriented Radio but didn't have a comparative advantage when it come to video.

    Was that argument the song Video Killed the Radio Star?

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