‘They Legitimized Buying Views’: How YouTube Ads Impact Latin Music – Rolling Stone
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‘They Legitimized Buying Views’: YouTube Ads Divide Latin Music Industry

The massive streaming service offers a “safe and sanctioned” way for labels to pay for views. Are labels abusing it?

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YouTube is changing how it counts video views that are purchased. But some industry insiders say it doesn't go far enough.

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Major music companies are allegedly spending tens of thousands of dollars to boost view counts on the world’s largest streaming service. 

How the companies are doing it, though, is entirely legal on YouTube, thanks to a type of Google advertising that one digital marketer describes as “the legit way of juicing streams.” Three sources with knowledge of major-label marketing campaigns say that Universal Latin and Latin labels in the Sony system have been spending aggressively to boost the views on new videos. The companies might shell out between $20,000 and $60,000 in the first 24 hours and up to $100,000 in extreme cases; in some scenarios, this can result in more than 12 million additional views for a new song. 

Sony Latin, Universal Latin, and YouTube all declined to comment.

“There is definitely money being spent on views,” says Tomas Cookman, founder and CEO of the independent Latin label Nacional. “Is it fair to pay to have all those perceived views on a video? Probably not. But any time there’s a system, there’s going to be some manipulation of that system. And whoever tells you there isn’t is probably doing it.” 

Gaming view-counts often takes place through what are called TrueView ads. These are not designed specifically for music companies — corporations like Geico can pay for them, too. But artists and labels figured out that the ads function as a “safe and sanctioned way to help your view-count up inside of the YouTube system,” according to one Latin label employee. 

The principle behind TrueView ads is simple: An artist pays to have his video run as an advertisement in front of other videos. Say, for example, that J Balvin and Bad Bunny want to promote their “Que Pretendes” video in Chile and Argentina. If they paid for TrueView ads, YouTube users in those countries would encounter a shortened version of the “Que Pretendes” clip before whatever other video they wanted to watch. 

Under some conditions — if the user interacts with the ad or watches it for a certain amount of seconds — then a view is added to the “Que Pretendes” video’s count. The Argentinean or Chilean users do not have to search out the “Que Pretendes” clip or visit the official video’s page to add to its views. Just by sitting passively and waiting, they will contribute to its play count.

“20 million views in the first 24 hours! Bro — it’s not real.”

Labels have been spending money on advertising since the dawn of the record business — one could argue that’s the entire point of signing a deal with a major label. But old-school paid promotion was unreliable. A billboard for Boyz II Men in the 1990s might catch the attention of pedestrians, but they had to remember to look for Boyz II Men during their next visit to Tower Records. TrueView ads cleverly eliminate any attrition between the prompt (remember this artist?) and the action (stream this artist). By encountering the artist’s advertisement, you’re also streaming the artist.

“[YouTube] basically legitimized buying views,” adds a second Latin label employee. 

The Latin music industry is not the only sector of pop taking advantage of TrueView ads: A recent Bloomberg article reported that the Indian rapper Badshah, the K-pop group BlackPink, and Taylor Swift have also spent money on these advertising campaigns. (Badshah admitted as much in an Instagram video; a rep for BlackPink did not respond to requests for comment, while a rep for Swift declined to comment.) One digital marketing expert says using TrueView “is super prevalent with a lot of the major labels’ stuff.” 

But some members of the Latin music industry worry that it may be particularly susceptible to the pressures of showing high view-counts on YouTube. “Latin labels go harder on YouTube [than general market labels] because it’s much more important,” says one Latin music executive. “General market labels, Spotify is where most of their consumers live… Our biggest platform is YouTube.”

Another reason that TrueView ads might have particular prevalence in the Latin market is that these campaigns are cheaper to run outside of the U.S. The first Latin label employee estimates that $1,000 might get an artist between 250,000 and 500,000 views from countries in Latin and South America. The cost per view in the U.S. could be five to ten times as much. The cheapest views come from countries like Turkey, the Philippines, and India.

Promoting a new video with TrueView ads is supposed to function like a squirt of lighter fluid on smoldering coals. “You say, this is just giving me a head start so the song appears to have a strong release,” the executive explains. 

That appearance of a strong release can then be trumpeted in marketing campaigns. “10 million views in the first 24 hours, 20 million views in the first 24 hours!” the second Latin label employee jokes. “Bro — it’s not real.” 

“Labels have always been about the first-week sales. Now it’s about the first day.”

Think of the marketing value as the exciting burst of flame that erupts after the lighter fluid is added to the grill, catching the attention of those nearby. But TrueView is not just for show: Labels hope that the coals actually catch fire. In particular, they hope that enough people start watching the video they are paying to promote that it catches the attention of YouTube’s vaunted algorithm, which quietly impacts the watching and listening of millions of users. 

“Once you start getting some views, YouTube starts recommending the video, putting it up in the sidebar,” says a second digital marketing expert. “If you don’t spend money on videos, it’s very hard to get them picked up by the algorithm, because everyone else is doing it.”

Labels might pump tens of thousands of dollars into a TrueView campaign during the first 24 hours after a video’s release, according to insiders. “Labels have always been about the first-week sales,” the digital marketer adds. “Now it’s about the first day.” 

The use of TrueView ads can be effective for boosting view counts. But even for an established artist, a TrueView campaign might not make you any money. YouTube is well known to have the smallest payouts of any streaming service — $.00074 per play, according to one recent estimate. Say an act spends $50,000 to make a video and then invests $30,000 in TrueView ads. To generate $80,000 in revenue, a video needs to amass nearly 110 million plays. 

Superstars routinely pass that threshold. But for most artists, “you’re not gonna break even on YouTube,” says the first Latin label source. “It’s a promotional bumper sticker.” 

“How can [an up-and-coming artist] go against a major [label] putting down $50,000 for a campaign in YouTube?”

For an artist who is already bringing in plenty of money through other avenues — shows, merchandise — it might still be worth it to pay for TrueView ads. But several people in the Latin music industry worry that its obsession with views has distorted the landscape for young talent. 

The second label employee says that the reliance on these ads to raise view-counts is “putting a huge financial toll on these up-and-coming artists.” “How can you go against a major putting down $50,000 for a campaign in YouTube?” he continues. “Can an up-and-coming artist do that? No fucking way.” 

“It becomes another vicious cycle like all these promo things in the music industry,” the executive adds. Instead of evaluating artists according to their talent, “it becomes: who spends more?” 

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