Though they take different approaches to video programming, Warner Music Group and Maker Studios are showing how YouTube's original channels can transform older businesses and build new ones.
WMG's YouTube channel, the Warner Sound, allows the company to experiment with original content while adhering to the way it typically releases music - like testing new tires without reinventing the wheel. For every three-minute, studio-polished song, an artist can make an official video, a lyric video, numerous in-concert clips, acoustic versions, interview segments and behind-the-scenes videos.
Producing original video programming isn't new to the record business, but digital distribution was expected to change how people recorded and released music. The unbundling of the album was going to kill the format. Artists would heed consumers' demands for bite-sized releases by releasing a never-ending stream of singles and EPs. Labels would sell consumers subscriptions to a variety of content.
Instead, consumers are subscribing to YouTube channels while audio continues to be released in familiar forms. The practice of releasing one or more digital tracks before an album's debut has become commonplace. The delivery of a few bonus tracks is common for EPs or retailer exclusives, yet all of those singles and EPs are still built around the release of conventional albums.
The Warner Sound is ostensibly about experimentation and artist development. "That's one of the fun things about working on YouTube: We can try lots of different stuff," GM Ocean MacAdams says. "The opportunity to really experiment exists online now and not so much in the television world, where everything has less time and space."
The channel has a constant flow of original entertainment, including official videos, artist interviews, a daily show called "The Sound Off" and concert footage. Upcoming programs and segments include a movie built around Atlantic artist Milo Greene's new album; "Cee Lo Green Presents ManTazia," an experimental film series by Green and filmmaker Mikael Colombu; a documentary series featuring Warner acts produced by actor Michael Rapaport; and "Staged," a series of scripted dramas built on Warner song lyrics.
It seems fitting for Warner to toy around with online video given its history of creative risk-taking. The label allowed the Flaming Lips to release their highly experimental 1997 four-CD set "Zaireeka" (all four discs are played simultaneously) while album sales were declining. In 2005, the company tried - and failed -to release a DVD-only album by rock band the Sun. And it's letting Green Day put out three new albums in an eight-month span.
Like every effort at a major label, however, the Warner Sound is about hits as much as pure creativity. Warner's official videos are the real reason the channel is successful. The channel has only six official videos, but they account for 82% of its views. The other 150-plus clips attract viewers about as well as EPs attract music buyers. Nearly three in four views on the channel come from a single video, "Whistle" by Flo Rida. Nearly nine in 10 views come from just 32 videos by four acts: Flo Rida, Cody Simpson, Linkin Park and Ed Sheeran. The channel tops Ad Age's rankings of original YouTube channels.
Warner could look like Maker Studios in a few years. Founded in 2009 and backed by $4 million in venture funding from Greycroft Partners and GRP Partners, Maker is a full-service video production studio that gives its artists the infrastructure and distribution to build careers on YouTube.
The key is flexibility and nimbleness. CEO Danny Zappin says Maker will launch a new channel by piloting a few episodes in different formats. "If [audience] reaction is good, we'll double down and put more resources into it," he says. "If it doesn't seem like it's resonating, we'll pull it out and try something new."
Maker's studio creates more than 300 original videos each month that get 110 million unique viewers and 1.2 billion views per month. Maker claims its 1,000 or so channels have some 90 million subscribers. While Warner uses its YouTube channel to promote its own artists and releases, Maker is "a testing ground for what's going to help build channels and audiences within YouTube," Zappin says.
Warner could stumble upon a winning formula or two as well. "We're really happy with the results so far," MacAdams says. "We've got a lot of great stuff coming out over the next couple of months."