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.