Big Freedia, Blackalicious and James Blake Empower Marginalized in New YouTube Music Campaign

A scene from "Afsa’s Theme" by YouTube Music.
Courtesy of YouTube

A scene from "Afsa’s Theme" by YouTube Music.

YouTube Music launches a provocative national marketing campaign called “It’s Who We Are.”

YouTube Music has launched a provocative national marketing campaign with a compelling series of five short video clips. Directed by Lance Acord with creative by Anomaly, the controversial spots, which notably drop on opening day ( July 18) of the Republican National Convention, feature real life Americans from divergent backgrounds who are sometimes discriminated against or marginalized in society. While all five characters are seen using the YouTube Music app, which launched last November, the real stars of the campaign are the inspired track choices these wordless and complex individuals are empowered by before the campaign's tagline flashes across the screen: "It's not just what we listen to. It's who we are."  

In one evocative video a teenager in a rural town is seen dressing up in women's clothing to the banging booty bass sound of Elliphant and Big Freedia's "Club Now Skunk";  in another, a hijabi Muslim woman walks though a high school spitting rapid fire rhymes along to Blackalicious; elsewhere a female parolee picks up trash along a dusty highway and signs forms with law enforcement officials before warmly greeting her baby set to the rocksteady riddim of Machet's "Naturally." 

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"We did a bunch of segmentation around our users and found this set of users who is really our key target market who finds and defines themselves by music," says Danielle Tiedt, YouTube's chief marketing officer, "We kind of leaned into characters where you really saw that  juxtaposition of the way music is with you at really critical moments in your life and how it helps define you and bring these characters to life in the same way we're also highlighting this incredible diversity of users and the music we have on the platform."

While Tiedt declined to give any figures around the campaign's spend, she did note that the 8-week initiative is YouTube's "biggest campaign we'll run this year." The spots will be featured nationally on various digital platforms and in movie theaters and on billboards in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

YouTube is well aware of the provocative nature of the campaign and the issues they raise during these times of heightened global violence and tension and the fact that they will run during the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

"There's no doubt that they will cause controversy," says Tiedt, "These are exactly the kind of lightening rod identity politics that are going crazy in the world right now. One of the reasons why we're kind of leaning into that a little bit is because at YouTube we have such commitment to this idea that everyone should have the freedom to belong. It's really, really a core part of our mission and  how we run our business and that's part of why we're sticking strong to characters like this because if not us, who?"

While highly original, these YouTube Music clips are not without precedent. "These feel to me to be very much part of the movement away from heavy 'selling' and towards creating content that people want to watch," says Gabe McDonough, an executive producer at Music and Strategy who mentioned Vice's branded content, RedBull's music focused videos and Target's Gwen Stefani live video during the Grammy Awards.  "I mean a girl crying on a plane [featured in one of the clips while James Blake and Bon Iver's "I Need a Forest Fire" plays] with no explicit explanation of why couldn't be further from what traditionally constitutes an 'ad,' but it's awesome. All of these are simply beautiful, musical, short films."

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While Tiedt declined to reveal any user data for either the YouTube Music app or YouTube Red she noted that it's been less than a year since it launched and they are currently "focused on growing awareness" but did say that YouTube is "super happy with how it's doing" and that "it's beating all our goals."

While the new campaign obviously fails to address the larger complaint heard throughout the music industry of the "value gap" in how YouTube compensates rights holders, ultimately if this campaign is successful in upselling users on a YouTube Red subscription then to some degree everyone wins.

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