The first Youtube Music Awards, held Nov. 3, 2013, were a radical experiment for the longtime leader in online streaming content: Would an audience accustomed to destination viewing on TV do the same on YouTube if the likes of Eminem, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire all filmed live music videos directed by Spike Jonze and the renegade team at Vice?
Although the answer was a resounding "no" for the live stream (the initial view count topped out at 873,000), the 55 million views that the clips have since accumulated marked the way forward for Vivien Lewit, YouTube head of artist and label relations. For the awards' show-less second iteration on March 23, winners were announced in advance, and the format switched to digital-only premieres of 13 exclusive clips from such acts as Charli XCX, FKA Twigs and Ed Sheeran with Rudimental, among others.
Previously an attorney with Rudolph & Beer, the firm founded by Britney Spears' longtime manager Larry Rudolph, Lewit, 44, assumed her current role in 2011. Since then, the Brooklyn Law School grad has been instrumental in bringing festival partners like Coachella to the platform, as well as shepherding the introduction of some 100 premium-content channels with more than $100 million in funding from Google. And since YouTube's backbone is still user-generated content, she has helped encourage the use of licensed music in amateur clips (e.g., 2013's "Harlem Shake" meme) via the company's Content ID tool, which has paid out $1 billion to rights-holders since its introduction in 2007.
But increased competition in streaming music and video platforms means YouTube -- which marked its 10th anniversary in March -- must adapt more quickly than ever, with the recent debut of subscription service Music Key, and a separate video on-demand offering rumored to be in the pipeline. And Lewit, who lives in New York with her husband and two kids, ages 13 and 10 (she briefly paused this interview to take a FaceTime call from her daughter), is at the center of the platform's evolution.
YouTube for Artists, which was announced March 16, offers analytics and insight tools for creators. Why is now the right time to introduce this product?
From the artists' perspective, it's a challenging time for everybody. I know that artists need more ways to be discovered, they need more promotion, and they need more money -- those are the challenges we're hard at work trying to solve. I also see some of our biggest challenges as simultaneously continuing to grow opportunities for our partners across the board, beyond music, to keep people entertained. That's why we're launching products like YouTube for Artists and our subscription service Music Key.
What was the impetus for switching to an on-demand format?
It's sort of consistent with what YouTube is: People create and iterate. When we began to conceive the YouTube Music Awards, it was never about a format that would stick for 20 years, because we want to create and iterate also. Spike did an incredible job of creating music in front of a live audience, and this year the shift had no other intent behind it than, "Let's still create something really innovative and deliver it to the community in a way that they're more used to consuming."
Irving Azoff has threatened to pull some 20,000 of his artists' videos from YouTube, and Charles Caldas of indie-label consortium Merlin has said he considers YouTube a "high- consumption, low-value" music service. How are you addressing those concerns?
The perception across the board is that subscriptions are really important to grow the revenue base in the music industry, which is why we have launched our first subscription service. While we continue to grow our ad-supported Partner revenue 50 percent year over year, we recognize the need to augment that with additional streams for income coming from individual fans and people that consume music. It's about providing more options.
What do you think of the rapid rise of an app like Meerkat and the renewed interest in mobile live streaming?
I think live continues to have incredible potential that I have looked after for many years here at YouTube -- we'll be live-streaming Coachella again, for example. But I also know the YouTube audience quite well, and while that audience in many instances will gather around a live moment, it is used to viewing content when it wants to.
What was it like working with Larry Rudolph as an attorney in the mid-'90s?
It was a completely different industry back then. I was working on record contracts or producer deals from 8 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night, and then I was going out to see music, because music attorneys play a huge role in the curation of unsigned talent looking for managers and labels. Also, there were six majors with multiple sub-labels, so there was a lot more activity at the level of getting deals for talent. Larry and I worked together for a very long time, and he was my mentor.
You're on the advisory board of Women, Inspiration and Enterprise, a leadership and empowerment network. Why is it important to you?
I graduated from law school in 1995: I was interning at TVT Records and with Larry for a time, then I joined his firm. I found my way and made my moves on my own, for the most part -- I was a little scrappy. There were women's groups, sure, but I never felt like I had any female role models that were mentoring or guiding my career. Women are challenged by so many different things -- like [the FaceTime chat] you just saw. Women have to make a decision between their career and their children; when to move different directions in a career; when to have a child; when to handle your aging parents ... Not that men don't face these challenges, but I think it's important -- for young women, particularly -- to know they can carve a path for themselves in this business world in whatever career they may choose. Inspiring young female leaders is an extremely important role to play.
Tech firms are notoriously male-dominated. Should they take extra steps to inspire or promote women?
I think all businesses need to take steps to inspire women leaders. There was a New York Times article a couple of weeks ago titled "Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John." I think that's very indicative of the fact that whether it's a technology business or a consultancy business or a hedge fund or an old-school manufacturing business, women need to play a bigger role.
This story originally appeared in the April 4th issue of Billboard.