The Death of YouTube

Depending on whose count you follow, we’re in either the second or the fourth Adpocalypse since spring 2017. At that time, large companies began pulling their money from YouTube when it was revealed that ads for their products were playing before extreme and offensive content. YouTube’s ongoing response has been to create tighter terms of service, restrict monetisation and demonetise, suspend and delete content and entire channels, all in order to make the platform as appealing as possible to large advertisers.

The continuing twists and turns of this story have caused such a drop in channel revenues, and forced the platform to change so much, that it’s tempting to talk about the death of YouTube as we know it. As with proclaiming ‘the death of the electric guitar’ there’s a lot of hyperbole here; this is really a conversation about change and evolution. But for the gear community, these issues may well bring about a certain ‘death’ of YouTube, albeit a very positive, even necessary, kind of death.

As the various iterations of the Adpocalypse spiral on and on, creators have looked to develop alternative channel revenues, from merch to user sponsorship like Patreon. But the biggest money still comes from the same places as ever, and so many opt to team up with larger sponsors. For all their rage against it, these YouTubers have been forced to come to terms with the true nature of the platform as a place ultimately governed by business interests, content curation and restrictions, not a utopian Wild West for independent content. It’s a strange position to be in, one that leads to the beautiful irony of wealthy twentysomethings pining for the long-past days of a YouTube free from corporate control, seconds before delivering a scripted ad for Amazon’s Audible. In all, YouTube’s efforts to appease advertisers have constricted economic opportunities in a way that favours certain types of content, but also pushes people to take more money from elsewhere, with more and more content becoming adverts or product placements.

This has given brands of all sizes a certain dominant position that has turned social media as a whole into a transactional space. This has its own unique effects on guitar content. Whilst it can be difficult to survive as a content creator nowadays without taking money from companies, both the creators and the companies are aware that the true value of gear YouTubers is in their independent status. The smaller brands do utilise freelance creators to make marketing content, just as bigger brands have their own marketing departments to do so, sometimes bringing in well-known faces to boot. No problems or controversy there. But many of these companies are looking for something less obviously transactional, something that is, in appearance, more of a genuine endorsement from a fellow enthusiast. This is the most powerful and effective kind of content for attracting a consistent gear audience that trusts the creator. It hearkens back to the days when every review was just some person sitting on their bed, talking into a Sony Cybershot propped up on a stack of books. A time when every opinion was, without doubt, genuine. So we have a nice deal: the company wants approval that seems independent, the YouTuber needs funding.

But there’s a problem. That content will no longer be viewed as independent if there’s a clear exchange of money. Especially not when some companies are sending out scripts, advisory notes and even sometimes contracts for YouTubers to sign, despite the latter being legally questionable for a review. If the audience were aware of this, the content would no longer be viewed as independent, and then the main power of the content would be lost. Sure there would be exposure, but the independent appraisal would be removed.

The company doesn’t want to miss out on these YouTube benefits that go beyond standard marketing, yet they’re only going to engage when there’s clear, transactional benefit. So how to get around this dilemma?

For certain YouTubers, the answer is simple. They just don’t let the audience know.

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This industry isn’t particularly big and people talk. I have heard about large sums of money that companies have paid YouTubers. I’ve then watched the content from those YouTubers and they have not at any point stated their relationship to the company. The favourite phrase is something like “I just got to check out this awesome new [product] from [company]”. No mention of a relationship, no mention of sponsored content, and no mention of money. In the guitar world, more than others, there is a certain focus on integrity and straight-shooting, so these are traits that YouTubers need to keep – at least in the eyes of others – to retain their position as independent creators.

Companies and YouTubers know this because they’ve had glimpses of how people react to controlled, non-independent content. The infamous Mesa Boogie Andertons video is a prime example. Viewers reacted angrily to Mesa sending a demonstrator to seemingly babysit Chappers and The Captain and make them redo their negative Cab Clone video. There was also controversy around Glen Fricker and Stevie T reading from scripts to advertise a mobile game. Although it was considered a little out-of-place for a gear channel, people weren’t really concerned about the ad itself. They were more concerned about what passing off a script as personal opinion suggested about the operation of gear channels. Were scripts used in other videos? Did gear companies ever tell YouTubers what to say? Glen says when videos are sponsored or companies are involved, but what about gear channels on the whole?

More generally, commenters often complain about content becoming infomercials and feeling gear channel fatigue. This is all despite the fact that such influencer content is taken as standard on social media overall. Some parts of YouTube are evolving to a new understanding of the platform, accepting it as a more controlled and business-minded space. Many people feel that if it keeps a creator doing what they and the audience love, then where’s the harm? But the evidence is clear that the gear community still views YouTube as a place for independent, real, down-to-earth, straight-up opinions. And even outside our community, everybody wants to know which content is an ad and which isn’t.

More to the point, we’re not talking about sponsors here, like an Audible plug at the end of a reaction video. This is about companies paying for the content itself without that being disclosed. As some pointed out in the discussion over Glen and Stevie T, scripts are a bad sign but ads about mobile games aren’t a big deal, as at least it’s not someone being paid to give a positive opinion on the gear itself. That says it all. People will value an opinion more when it’s not been paid for, and people want independent reviews. So those involved in these transactional corporate-YouTube relationships have been careful to preserve their independent credentials, even if this means making it intentionally unclear where they earn their money from.

And make no mistake, it can be a huge amount of money. In one video, Rob Chapman suggests that some of his fellow YouTube musicians make over $30,000 a month. Creators develop multiple income streams, but numbers that high should raise questions for anyone who still believes most guitar channels are actually independent.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the reactions of the community if they knew how much some companies had paid for what seemed like an independent review. People understand that few companies would shell out thousands of dollars and give a creator the total freedom to trash their product. Of course there are strings attached, and of course people would be angry to find out about it. And those involved know it.

But there are big problems on the horizon for the corporate YouTubers. Regulation and guidelines in Europe are already making influencers clearly disclose paid promotional material1. There are legal concerns being raised about the less-than-transparent practices of some of social media’s biggest stars and about paid content on the platforms in general2. The US can be wary to regulate as fast as the EU but in this case they’ve acted quickly, with suggestions that regulation should go further still3.

In other mediums, many of these practices are outright banned and would be considered shocking even if they were permitted. Imagine the outrage if it was discovered that Disney secretly paid reviewers to give the new Star Wars movies better reviews. Killing these practices could pose the end of the hidden corporate YouTube channel, as any paid content would have to be disclosed as such, and so would be viewed as the equivalent of an ad. In the very near future, channels will have to make a choice: are you a genuine independent channel, or are you a freelance maker of infomercials? There’s not necessarily anything wrong with either, but you have to choose.

It’s a necessary step, but personally I think it’s sad that regulations and red tape have to get involved before people act transparently. I thought the guitar community was above that and so did many others, but it’s time for us to re-evaluate. Sadly, there’s just not as much rock n’ roll integrity as we thought.

None of this means that YouTube will disappear, but it does confirm that a certain death and rebirth should occur right now, for the better. It’s time for the more utopian vision of YouTube – as an unrestricted wonderland for independent creators – to die and for us to understand the space as something more corporate and predefined. This isn’t necessarily good or bad – it’s just the process of a developing platform. Our community might only be feeling these growing pains in recent months, but others have felt them for a long time.







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About the Author: I’ve loved guitar and writing since a young age, but it took me a surprisingly long time to put the two together! These days I work as a writer and content creator, mostly in the guitar industry, and because I have the same obsessive problem as all gear enthusiasts that’s how I spend a lot of my free time as well – writing about, talking about and playing guitar. Originally from the UK but now living in Germany, I get the chance to work with some incredible European guitar makers whose work and dedication to the craft constantly inspire me. My dream is to one day be as good at playing guitar as I am at not shutting up about it. Might be tough.

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