This drops yet another competitor into the Western music market’s increasingly crowded short-form video space — albeit one whose relevance to the music industry has already been established. YouTube Global Head of Music Lyor Cohen, who built up decades of industry influence himself while at Def Jam, Warner Music, and 300 Entertainment, tells Rolling Stone that YouTube decided to enter the short-form video space because it has brought discovery and opportunities for artists to “levels that we’ve never seen before,” though the format itself is not new.
Cohen’s YouTube Music team worked directly with Todd Sherman, the product lead on YouTube Shorts, in developing the new feature. The Alphabet-owned YouTube has partnered with major music companies to further develop Shorts, Cohen says, including Universal, Sony, and Warner’s recording and publishing divisions.
Music has taken center stage in short-form video, as songs find viral success by soundtracking snappy clips. TikTok’s platform in particular has been instrumental in music marketing and artist discovery in the music business: Hundreds of songs, fro undiscovered artists to established stars alike, have exploded on the app through dance trends or lip sync videos. Many of TikTok’s biggest songs last year topped the Rolling Stone 100 songs chart, and TikTok said in its 2020 music report that over 70 emerging artists landed major record deals from TikTok. But Tiktok has faced increased competition from the likes of Triller, which bought Timbaland and Swizz Beats’ popular livestreaming franchise Verzuz this month, and Instagram, which unveiled its competing Reels feature last year with Miley Cyrus teasing new music there right after its launch. Snapchat has begun integrating music too, having closed licensing deals with several music companies in recent months to allow its creators to use songs in short-form videos on the platform, Billboard reported.
YouTube knows that a mere TikTok clone likely won’t cut it. As it relates to music, A key selling point of YouTube Shorts is its integration in the wider YouTube ecosystem, which boasts a much bigger listening audience than audio-only streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music.
“Fans don’t have to jump apps, and the music industry can leverage this creator base and more directly tether it to a song and go right to their official music video, whether it be on our subscription business or pay with your eyeball business,” Cohen says. “The scale and the ability to have it all in one place is to me an incredible opportunity for the industry, and that’s what’s resonated with the artist community and music industry.”
Creators’ Shorts will live on YouTube rather than on a separate application. In the coming months, creators will be able take sound snippets from the billions of videos on YouTube — though the original video creators have to allow it as well — including from artists’ full music videos. Cohen hopes the direct linkage to artists’ videos and pages will boost streaming figures, and royalties, for musicians.
With so many new artists surfacing from TikTok, the conversation is beginning to shift toward how many of those acts will develop careers beyond their initial moment of virality. For now, only a few TikTok-grown acts, like Lil Nas X and 24kGoldn, have made a second or third hit song. Cohen hopes bringing Shorts into YouTube will allow better interaction between listeners and artists to create longer-term fans, rather than capitalizing on a trending song in isolation.
“Context is what’s missing in the other part of this trend,” Cohen says. “It’s laddering up to the premium music video or the song, it’s all about the process of developing a song to work for an artist. [Short-form video] is the foot in the door, and now you have to stay in the party. I’m excited about the fact that we can ladder this up to a premium music video, and for people to understand who the artist is and fall in love with the artist and see more of their songs.”