What happened to the future of music?

By James Patrick Casey

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Remember the time that we stole the whole day? And nobody knows it, we took it away? These are lyrics from Alex Day’s ‘Forever Yours’ and, in answer to their question, it appears no-one remembers. In 2011, the unsigned Day stunned the music world by hitting number four in the UK Christmas charts with this song, which led to his radically non-corporate, YouTube-based music career being called ‘the future of music’ by Forbes. Since then, both he and independent musicians have fallen quite spectacularly, with YouTube strong-arming indie labels off its site, and streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music suggesting that the future of music isn’t for the online artist, but for corporations exerting their influence through slightly different apps.

Some of YouTube’s most popular musicians have already made the shift to larger labels. Pentatonix and Walk Off The Earth, whose biggest videos amassed a combined 300 million views, signed to Sony-owned labels in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Yet they had widely different careers before their success on YouTube: Walk Off The Earth were an independent band for six years, while Pentatonic had won NBC’s The Sing-Off, but had subsequently been dropped by Epic Records. The fact that YouTube is used as a scouting network by mainstream labels trivialises the site to being little more than a platform for artists, rather than a space for a distinct ‘YouTube music culture’ to grow.

Such a culture has been present in the UK for years, and has been closely tied to the development of vlogging culture; vloggers like Charlie McDonnell and the aforementioned Alex Day embarked on successful solo careers, even forming vlogger-musician supergroups Chameleon Circuit and Sons of Admirals with other prominent UK YouTubers. Some members of this movement are also open about their desires to become musicians, with Emma Blackery and Bethan Leadley being musicians first, vloggers second.

Yet this scene is collapsing, and not by moving to more mainstream platforms. Allegations of sexual abuse on YouTube terminated the careers and projects of a lot of YouTubers, such as Day and his Sons of Admirals partners Ed Blann and Tom Milsom, whose downfalls shook confidence in totally innocent members of the scene. Many individuals have also suffered as musicians, with Leadley complaining of being branded as her sprightly, quirky YouTube persona ‘Musical Bethan’, rather than as ‘Bethan Leadley’, a professional musician creating sincere art.

It seems that the intertwining of various aspects of British YouTube culture – vlog, film and music – has created a generation of talented, creative people, who lack the specialisation of image to make their mark on mainstream culture, either on their own terms as independent artists or by joining major labels. YouTube became a messy hotbed of innovation and ideas, rather than a serious challenger to mainstream models of music distribution.

Perhaps this is why services like Apple Music are being phased in currently. It’s been three and a half years since Day’s Christmas number four alerted the world to the presence of music on YouTube, but those YouTubers have failed to form themselves into a cohesive industry. The establishment has let YouTube have its turn, and having squandered it on tag videos and endless ukulele covers, the ‘future of music’ can do nothing but feel nostalgic as it’s confronted with Apple Music, corporatism with a human face.

This isn’t to say that the mainstream is inherently bad; Pentatonix and Walk Off The Earth have continued releasing music since signing to labels, and the career of dubstep violinist Lindsey Stirling skyrocketed with the release of her debut album. But there was an opportunity, a brief few years, to create something intrinsically different to the established industry, rather than just be a particularly listenable cog in the Sony and Apple machines. The great tragedy is that this opportunity will perhaps never arise again; the headhunting of leading online musicians by corporate labels will continue, and the ease of access to a camera, an acoustic guitar and a thousand Twitter followers means British YouTube culture is now far too diverse and expansive for a single, functional industry to ever form out of its sparkling depths. Forbes’ ‘future of music’ is now firmly a thing of the past.


Photo by Rego Korosi