In September 1998, two young students from Stanford University registered a small, private company in a friend’s garage in California aimed at giving web users across the globe a more informed and wide-ranging choice when it came to searching the internet. Google fast became the perfect platform for businesses, organisations and individuals from all backgrounds and industries to promote, display and advertise their services. The search engine, with its simple interface and user-friendly design gave people, whether technically savvy or not, access to the world wide web – a place that for the last decade had been mainly the preserve of the geeks and hackers. The now multi-billion dollar brand began life giving a voice to the ‘everyman’, encouraging linking and communication, and helping to expose a fat cat culture now so heartily disliked.
So what happened to this refreshing young business whose very existence relied on creating a place of fairness, equality and inclusion? Well, put simply, it started to grow. In 2004, when Google was first floated on the stock market, the search engine was valued at a massive $23 billion. Its stock performance over the following years excelled with shares hitting $700 for the first time in October 2007. Today, Google continues to impress as one of the most powerful brands on the planet. But despite its ‘fun demeanour’ and unofficial company slogan of ‘don’t be evil’ a darker side to this seemingly unstoppable internet force has recently emerged. Over the years, Google has become embroiled in a series of controversies relating to the privacy of personal information, censorship and most significantly copyright.
In October 2006, Google announced that it had acquired video sharing website YouTube for massive $1.65 billion and insisted that the move would “provide innovative and exciting services for our users that will add a new dimension to on-line media entertainment”. Speaking at the time, Eric Schmidt, chief executive officer at the company, said: “We look forward to working with content creators and owners large and small to harness the power of the internet to promote, distribute and monetize their content.”
So, three years on, is Google struggling to uphold this pledge to support these ‘content creators’, which include, of course, professional producers? It would seem so. Earlier this year YouTube, which remains the largest video sharing community on the internet, began to block user access to music videos from the UK. The site’s existing deal with the PRS (Performing Right Society) had come to an end and the pair had failed to reach an agreement on a new one. The decision by Google sent shockwaves though the music industry which accused the company of using bullying tactics to prevent producers – already struggling to find revenue streams to develop young and aspiring musicians – from earning their fair share.
And it seems that it’s not just the UK’s internet users that look set to feel the pinch of Google’s inflexibility. As from last week the search engine no longer allows users with German IP addresses to watch music videos on YouTube, after similar negotiations broke down there. In his recent blog for wired.com, technology journalist Eliot Van Buskirk summed up the situation by stating there was a “huge gulf between what GEMA (Germany’s music royalty organisation) wants, and what Google is willing to pay”. He added: “Google seems to think the music business needs YouTube more than YouTube needs the music business and so it would rather block music videos from Germany than pay GEMA’s proposed rate”.
So could this be possible? Has Google really become so all-powerful that music artists need it more that it needs them? And has the music industry, once the ultimate fat cat, been reduced to the new underdog? The latest figures suggest not. According to the YouTube Report 2009 a massive 61 per cent of internet users, including almost 80 per cent of males under 25, visit the video sharing website purely for ‘entertainment’ purposes. Further, if we look at YouTube’s All Time Most Viewed list music is the clear winner, reflecting 51 per cent of the top 70 most watched videos. Of those asked, 31 per cent of YouTube users visited the site to watch new music videos while 23 per cent wanted to see their favorite band. Another 15 per cent used the site to check whether a favorite band had uploaded videos. Few, including Google, can argue the significance of these figures. Without access to music videos, visitor numbers will start to plummet and without an audience, advertisers will be quick to jump ship.
Figures or no figures, it is difficult to ignore the changes, which Google as a brand has been through as its wealth and power have increased but how bad has it really got? Does its treatment of music artists put it on a par with corporations who pay mean wages to third world countries because they can and because the workforce in that country is reduced to a take it or leave it culture? Unlike most of the real world, the online community is generally one that supports fairness, with the web acting as a forum to rally against the fat cats. This online community in many ways owes its very existence to Google but now the boot seems to be on the other foot.
While we all love a bit of Google-bashing now and again it is perhaps easy to forget that that the company and the web in general has done wonderful things for the music industry. Although some music producers see the internet as a threat, we must remember what the development of modern technology has actually allowed us to do. Growth in audio technology means anyone with a laptop and connection can not only make their own music, but also to distribute across the globe in seconds, a feat that even a few years back would have been deemed impossible. What Google must keep in mind is that its value as a website is in the community it creates and that the loyalty of much of its YouTube audience is down to the talents of musicians.
Google is worth a massive £5.6 billion so to withhold even a small amount from the artists which have helped make the company one of the most successful on earth seems a little unreasonable to say the least. If Google’s own intellectual property rights were infringed upon or threatened in anyway it would take action without question. This is not a complicated area. Everyone is entitled to protect their intellectual property including young musicians and small bands. The web world is already aware of Google’s power as a brand but if it continues to exploit musicians YouTube looks set to quickly lose a large percentage of its audience. Google has the potential to do great things for music but fundamentally it needs to start by giving the artists what they deserve. – soundlounge