Did you know that in addition to streaming, (see last week’s column), YouTube is also considered a primary music platform for lots and lots of people? Chances are high you did, because over two billion people listen and/or watch music videos on the platform. With those numbers, you might just be one of them.
That means YouTube is exponentially larger than MTV ever was, and YouTube Music is influencing an entire generation of music fans -- similar to what MTV did in the 1980s.
My prompt for this column this week came because I learned two things. First, I learned that YouTube is now packaging ad campaigns to reach Gen Z audiences based on the music they listen to. From what I can tell, its algorithm is more about the music than the demographics, which means you could mistake me for a Gen Z if I only listen to Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus for a month. Possibly they factor in your reg data, but I can’t be sure.
The truth is, although I respect and even like all those artists I just mentioned, my interpolation of Pearl Jam, Tribe Called Quest and Toad the Wet Sprocket would confound the algorithm and the truth would emerge. I am not a Gen Z-er -- far from it.
Second, did you know MTV started to shy away from music videos as far back as 1992? For a generation of my peers, MTV was the barometer of popular culture and it drove much of our musical tastes. As we got older and leaned away from the unlikely combination of “Headbangers Ball,” “Yo MTV Raps” and “TRL”, our tastes expanded to include artists that simply weren’t covered by MTV. With our generation, so went the music videos on the “music television” network. 1992 was about the right time, with the eventual death knell happening some time in the late 90s or early 2000s.
Fast-forward to today. With all the music you could ever possibly want to hear available, we live in a world of algorithms and similarity. Platforms enable you to literally hear and see anything, and yet we still end up with the ability to clump together audiences based on similar tastes, and myopically push people into a package that focuses on their commonalities, driving toward a single outcome.
My hope is that YouTube doesn’t only focus on the associations between artists and consumer preference. I hope they infer more about what the audience is interested in and use those profiles to expand their tastes. In fact, I wish more often we could leverage profile data to build a broader set of tastes rather than simply target and target until we exhaust all our targeting altogether.
The promise of digital media was always that everyone had a voice, and you could be exposed to many more schools of thought. This would expand your senses and help you see other points of view, or experience new tastes. Somewhere along the way that expansion became slightly perverted, and now the pendulum seems to be swinging back to silos and narrower taste making. Maybe we need to do that to shut out some of the noise.
Or maybe I am just overreacting to no longer having the ability to watch videos all day and be exposed to new artists. Maybe I should simply make some time and watch YouTube Music more often.
Maybe I just want my old-school MTV again.