The golden opportunity in YouTube

10 July 2011

Hundreds of millions of people across the world may be ripping mp3s from YouTube – and this is a golden opportunity, says Joe Taylor

YouTube is the no. 1 music website in the world. When you enter an artist and song title into Google, a YouTube video is often the top result now.

Did you know it’s possible to rip an mp3 from a YouTube video? Do you know how many people are doing it?  No-one does, but here’s an indication: “Free YouTube to MP3 Converter” has been downloaded 24 million times from at the time of writing. Another piece of software that rips videos from YouTube and converts them to formats including mp3 has been downloaded 73 million times. These are just two of maybe a dozen hugely popular ways of ripping mp3s from YouTube. For more,type “mp3 YouTube” into Google.

So why aren’t YouTube selling mp3s? They have enabled links to iTunes where metadata is correct, but those links are discreet, and they open a new webpage which says “If iTunes doesn’t open, click the iTunes application icon in your Dock or Windows Task Bar. To download iTunes, please click here.” Too cumbersome!

What we need is a one click “buy mp3” button on every YouTube page, enabling the user to buy the soundtrack to a YouTube video as an mp3. In other words, we need YouTube to incorporate an iTunes-style download store.

I believe if such a service existed then it could rival iTunes in size – especially if it included the many tracks on YouTube that aren’t on iTunes, including rarities, live recordings, bootlegs and mash-ups (which are a large part of the reason why YouTube is the no. 1 music site in the world). And it should – if you can stream tracks and you can download them via an unlicensed service, why not let people pay for them?

If I’m wrong and such a service were to launch and flop while hundreds of millions of people continued to rip mp3s from YouTube, that would at least be strong evidence that we need to take action against unlicensed YouTube rippers – and of course Google could be the key ally in taking such action.

Why would anyone pay for mp3s direct from YouTube if they can get them for free? Well, none of the methods for ripping mp3s from YouTube are particularly user-friendly. Nor are they well publicised as they are unlicensed. In order to know about them, not to mention use them, you have to be comfortable with technology and relaxed about copyright law. And the mp3s obtained vary in bitrate considerably – some are close to CD quality, while others are barely listenable.

Despite all this, it appears that tens or hundreds of millions of people ARE ripping mp3s from YouTube. They are a potential market, as are the hundreds of millions of people who use YouTube, use mp3s, and would rip mp3s from YouTube if it were well-publicised, easy and legal to do so.

Do YouTube want to become a retailer? Some say there’s a long-term business strategy at Google to drive down the cost of content to zero. But we know they want to sell downloads – a download store is an integral part of the cloud service they have been attempting to license.

Right now the unlicensed cloud service they’ve launched in the US requires the user to upload all their mp3s to the cloud, which could take several days. With licenses like the ones Apple have just obtained for their iCloud service, Google could simply scan the users’ computer for files, then give them access to high quality versions of those files on Google’s servers. This is a better solution for customers as it doesn’t hog their broadband connection for days. It’s a better solution for Google as it requires as a fraction of the server space. And it’s a better solution for copyright owners as Google would pay them.

Why do people want to rip mp3s from YouTube rather than just listening on the web? Portability – with an mp3, you can listen on your iPod or phone when you’re out of reception, although you have to transfer the mp3 there which is fiddly. So with Google’s cloud service, the download store on YouTube becomes even more attractive. Love the Lady Gaga video? One click to buy and you’ll not only get the file but you’ll be able to access it from any computer with an internet connection or any Android phone (and there are 400,000 of those being activated every day). So, like Apple’s iCloud service, Google’s mooted cloud service will undoubtedly drive download sales, as the easiest way to access your new favourite song on all your devices will be to buy it.

But Google haven’t been able to obtain licenses from all the majors for their music service, so they don’t yet have a download store. For me this should be music industry priority number one – particularly now Apple have licenses for iCloud in the US. YouTube is not only the biggest music website in the world, it’s also probably the biggest source of single-track piracy via YouTube ripping, and quite likely the biggest source of cannibalisation (i.e. it’s a substitute for people who would otherwise use iTunes or Spotify). In other words, it’s a huge shop window for music and potentially a huge driver for download sales.

Moving beyond YouTube, let’s seek out all the music consumption that’s happening online, then work out a way to make (more) money out of it. For every popular form of unlicensed downloading or streaming, let’s either license it or make sure a rival, superior, licensed version is launched. Everywhere music is streamed or written about, there should be a buy button. Soundcloud is a great service, but it’s also susceptible to mp3 ripping, so why doesn’t every Soundcloud stream feature a buy button? Why doesn’t every Guardian or Sun or Drowned In Sound review carry a “buy” button? Surely this is the way to grow the digital music market.

Follow Joe on Twitter at

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