Nikki Sixx launches campaign to get YouTube to ‘do the right thing’ over music royalties

Mötley Crüe co-founder Nikki Sixx is the latest musician to criticise YouTube over the royalties it pays out for music video streams. Sixx’s call for the video site to pay more to musicians for using their videos is part of a campaign by a coalition of prominent musicians launching this week, with pressure to be put first on YouTube, then on US legislators.

Sixx and James Michael – partner in his current band Sixx:AM – are calling for more artists to speak out and put pressure on YouTube to match the royalty payouts of music streaming rivals. A number of big names are expected to speak out this week.

“YouTube is paying out about a sixth of what Spotify and Apple pay artists,” Sixx told the Guardian, on the eve of a world tour that he intends to use to bring the issue to wider prominence. “We are not telling them how to run their business. We’re saying treat artists fairly the way other streaming services are. And by the way, we are a big part of what built your business: music is the No 1 most-searched thing on YouTube.”

Sixx:AM are joining a debate that has heated up in recent weeks, as legislators on both sides of the Atlantic mull reform of the “safe harbour” laws governing sites such as YouTube that allow their users to upload content.

Under current safe harbour laws, these sites are protected from copyright infringement prosecutions as long as they remove any copyrighted material when notified by the rights owners.

The music industry bodies argue that this immunity means YouTube negotiates from a position of strength when negotiating licensing deals with labels and publishers.

They were recently backed by a petition sent to the US Copyright Office for its consultation on safe harbour reform, signed by artists including Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, Deadmau5 and Christina Aguilera.

When musicians get involved in debates about streaming royalties, a common criticism is that they are motivated by greed: rich artists grumbling about not being richer. However, Michael – who is also a producer who has worked with Meat Loaf, Kelly Clarkson and Alanis Morissette as well as emerging artists – stressed that Sixx:AM are speaking out on behalf of their younger, poorer peers.

“Fans may look at this and say, ‘You guys are rich, why are you complaining, why do you want more money?’ But it’s not just a bunch of rich guys wanting more money,” he said. “Quite the contrary: this is about the little guy – the up and comers that we were at one point. We were afforded the opportunities, but those opportunities will go away if we don’t get some balance. This is about the future of music.”

A spokesman for YouTube, which is owned by Google, told the Guardian: “Google has paid out billions to the music industry, and we’re engaged in productive conversations with the labels and publishers around increasing transparency on payouts. We believe that by providing artists and songwriters greater visibility around revenue earned on YouTube, we can solve many of these issues.

“We’re also working hard to bring more revenue to the music industry through our subscription service, as well as continuing to grow our ad supported business, which allows artists and labels to monetize the 80% music listeners who historically have never paid for music.”

YouTube’s defence against criticism over its music payouts is multi-pronged. First, it points to the $3bn it has paid out to music rights holders so far, noting that they include some young, independent artists who built their fanbases on YouTube.

Violinist Lindsey Stirling, for example, earned more than $6m in the 12-month period up to June 2015 according to Forbes. Those earnings included album sales and tours, but were fuelled by her YouTube channel.

Sixx:A.M. will continue to use YouTube: ‘We love YouTube. We just want them to pay everybody fairly’

YouTube also points to its “Content ID” system that identifies copyrighted music uploaded by its users, and enables the rightsholders to remove it from YouTube, or “claim” the videos and make money from adverts shown around them.

Under safe-harbour laws, rights holders have to send a separate “take-down” notice every time they find a song that has been uploaded without their permission.

Content ID automates that process, with YouTube telling the Guardian that 98% of copyright management on its service taking place through the system, and only 2% through takedown notices. “Over 90% of all Content ID claims result in monetisation, resulting in significant revenue for YouTube partners,” said a spokesperson.

The complaint from the music industry is that rights holders have to agree to YouTube’s licensing terms if they want to use Content ID, and that those terms are inferior to those negotiated with rivals like Spotify, which do not qualify for safe-harbour protection.

“YouTube have said, ‘Here’s our solution: we will ask artists to agree to our licensing terms, and in exchange for that we will pay you.’ But what they’re offering to pay is such a small fraction of what their competitors are paying,” said Michael.

“The technology does already exist to do a much more accurate job of protecting artists against unlicensed use of their music. The problem is that the only way they will engage that technology to protect you is if you agree to their terms. And those terms are just not adequate.”

“They’re hiding behind this safe-harbour loophole,” added Sixx. “That is allowing them the freedom to not take care of artists.”

Sixx:AM are about to release their latest album, Prayers for the Damned Vol 1. Despite their campaign over royalties, the band will still use YouTube to promote their music. “We love it. Are we planning on pulling [our music] and not even being engaged in YouTube right now? No. We love YouTube. We just want them to pay everybody fairly,” said Sixx, who hopes more artists will put pressure on the video service’s parent company.

“Google’s original corporate motto was ‘Don’t be evil’ because they wanted to take care of their employees and do things fairly. They recently changed it to ‘Do the right thing’,” said Sixx.

“All we’re saying to Google, which owns YouTube, is yes, don’t be evil! And do the right thing as far as artists are concerned, for the fans. That’s all we’re saying.”

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