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Penny Fractions: The Oddities of YouTube's Content ID System

Hello, I hope that y’all are doing this well as the year inches towards a close. I hold one small req
Penny Fractions
Penny Fractions: The Oddities of YouTube's Content ID System
By David Turner • Issue #58 • View online
Hello, I hope that y’all are doing this well as the year inches towards a close. I hold one small request this week: Recommend the newsletter to someone. Sorry to sound like a public radio host during pledge week—hello WNYC and WFAE—but a simple tweet, Facebook post, forwarded email, or even text to a freind would be great and super appreciated. Maybe you’ve already maxed out potential fans you know and if so thank you so much and enjoy this week’s sprawling thought on YouTube’s Content ID system.

In early 2016 Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert began receiving more attention for his clothes and on-and-off again romance than his pop punk inspired rap. Though he did have a Twitter account, the rapper’s primary medium for fan interaction was Instagram. Even if his musical discography lived more completely on SoundCloud, the rapper would play unreleased songs in his Instagram posts and in live videos, which fans in turn would quickly upload to YouTube. The act of preserving this yet-to-be-released music provided semi-permanence to what was intended to be ephemeral fan-first content.
Lil Uzi Vert kept up this activity, except for when he went on social media pauses, so YouTube right now is litter with these song snippet compilations. The end result is that if you remember a Lil Uzi Vert song preview from an Instagram live, then there is a rather good chance it’s still online in some form.
This isn’t a particular new development. Tons of Lil Wayne songs leaked out in the mid-2000s and bootleg culture extends well before the MP3’s creation. Still, I distinctly remember multiple versions of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” leaking online where you could hear West constantly adjusting the drums in the recording, which foreshadowed much of how Kanye approached the production and release of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo. Years ago Lex Luger, the producer who helped define the current “trap” sound, would livestream himself smoking blunts and cycling through numerous unreleased beats. Chief Keef even did the same in the mid-2010s where fans would be anxiously awaiting for songs to drop because they already heard early versions either on Instagram or Snapchat.
Earlier this summer I decided to watch a few of these compilation videos that featured all of these Lil Uzi Vert unreleased tracks because even if I’ve heard the song a hundred times, I wanted to return to the source text that made me fall in love with his music. Once I finally clicked on the videos and I started to notice in the description a long string of content ID tags, which is the system YouTube uses to identify copyrighted material.
I kept scrolling down these videos and was a little surprised to see how many different songs were getting claimed on these fan made compilations. One video called “Lil Uzi Vert Best Snippets That Released!!!!” featured five songs tagged through Content ID, but one stuck out to me.
There was a content ID for the song “Mood” a collaboration between Uzi and the Atlanta producer TM88, who did Uzi’s biggest hit “XO Tour Lif3.” What was odd about this tag is that the song wasn’t released until January 2018, while the video was uploaded in November 2016. This is YouTube’s Content ID system working as intended but truthfully it never occured to me that this system could effectively be used to monetize content that was uploaded prior to an official release. A few hypothetical questions jumped into my head about the ethics to this system and the ways there are interesting loop holes to examine.
What exactly happens if there is a major songwriting or production change between the unreleased demo and what the Content ID is collecting? What if another rapper hops on the song but the version being caught in the Content ID doesn’t include that rapper. These compilations for Lil Uzi Vert aren’t getting millions of plays, so it’s not like thousands of dollars potentially slipping through the cracks but it did raise interesting technological questions around user generated content. Another example is the Florida rapper Kodak Black, whose hoped in and out of jailed, played an early version of 2017 hit “Tunnel Vision” back in 2016, and this video here still got back tagged with a Content ID.
This might be why at this point artists, labels, and managers are more okay with songs leaking out if they arrive on a platform like YouTube. The initial videos might not be monetized but once the song is officially release the door then opens, which in a way makes sense as this isn’t an official product on the market, and the Content ID will effectively then monetize content from the pre-promotional cycle.
Last fall when I wrote about YouTube Music when it was still just a rumor I was already hedging my bets at what the service might be: “there are so many thing YouTube could do to make itself dominate from an artist perspective that I’ll be disappointed if their new service is just Spotify-lite.” Unfortunately I was right to have my reserves with YouTube Music when it launched didn’t even have a way to search by YouTube channels and instead Lyor Cohen’s vision was a top down label capitulation for music consumption, rather than one built up from YouTube’s organic community. I makes these observations about Content ID, because I’d be interested in a version of YouTube Music that centered not around mimicking Spotify but rather understood music from how fans use it and how YouTube actually profits from it.
That’s what initially excited me about Instagram stories stickers for music, because it opens a new and fairly unexplored way to not only make money through one’s work but also re-imagining how music distribution even works. Much in the same way video game makers with early access were able to sell incomplete games to fans that wanted to experience a game early. Now to be critical that models of early access offloads what should be paid labor like Q&A testing onto consumers, but also potentially helps break the idea of a video or song being a single static product, rather than an every changing work.
Again with Content ID, I’ll admit I don’t like the constant surveillance state around this form of music consumption. Yet, if we’re going to live in a world of endless data tracking then I do think there is a lot of space to think about a platform like YouTube. There is more to YouTube videos than traditional lyric videos or even high budget music videos and the quirks of the Content ID system offer a bit of insight into what that world or service could become.
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My newsletter a few weeks back outed myself as not paying for Spotify’s premium version, because I use Apple Music and SoundCloud. Though I’ll admit I may get a trial and see what this looks like, because I really enjoyed doing those UI posts and wonder if this is enough to justify such a post.
I can’t say how much SoundCloud’s recent deals that are with DJing software and platforms are going to mean for the company in the long term; however in the short term I like seeing SoundCloud further distance itself from streaming catalog model favored by Apple Music and Spotify.
I’ll be glib. Sound about right.
There is always music piracy news and often I don’t post it here but I wanted to just mention this one if in case people don’t closely follow these lawsuits. My only other point is that YouTube Rippers are certain “bad” but also offer value in pulling audio from recording that truthfully only list on YouTube, so just wanted to mention that.
I’m putting this here to ask a question. Is anyone reading this a member of the SAG-AFTRA or know anyone in it / would be to discuss what this deal fully means? I’m just going to blatant in asking, because this is a topic I find interesting for a number of reasons and wanted to throw some bait if anyone could help.
I understand that cross industry solidarity is especially hard to come by in non-unionized fields. Still I’d like to point out that the music industry’s long butted heads with police and the prison industrial complex, so you know maybe ask your Amazon Music rep why their bosses want to further the police state.

The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). The Penny Fractions artwork was done by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. Any comments or concerns can be sent to pennyfractions@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter send to a friend, co-worker, or a former Vine star if you know any,
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David Turner

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