With TikTok’s Future Uncertain, Artists Test YouTube Shorts
YouTube rolled out new statistics pointing to Shorts' power to "vastly increase the reach of an artist."
The first life of Justine Skye‘s “Collide” was that of a minor radio hit: It peaked at No. 38 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. The single was rediscovered last fall, when hordes of TikTok users started to upload videos incorporating an altered version of the track — a sped-up remix that transformed the chilly, brooding single into something giddy and urgent.
TikTok trends were once believed to ensure streaming success; as the platform has expanded rapidly and splintered into niche communities, that is no longer the case. “More often than not, these records on TikTok tend to be insulated,” says Drew De Leon, president and partner at MPR Global, a marketing and distribution company. “One of the goals is always to take it off platform.” Part of De Leon’s mission was to push “Collide” on YouTube Shorts, the video streamer’s own short-form destination.
Skye’s other social media platforms were “more curated — her Instagram is more about her personality,” De Leon explains. “So our strategy approaching Shorts was to highlight all the fan content.” Starting in December, De Leon’s team, which includes JR McKee and Jasmine Elizabeth, uploaded seven clips a day to shorts, repurposing fan dance videos and iced beverage how-to’s. The deluge paid off: Skye had accumulated 263,000 YouTube subscribers between starting her channel in 2010 and December of 2022. In the next four months, her subscriber count nearly doubled, rising to 515,000. All the interest on various short-form video platforms helped drive streams to “Collide,” which earned a Gold certification in March, close to nine years after its release.
YouTube launched Shorts globally in the summer of 2021; music marketers have been trying to determine its value for pushing music ever since. As TikTok has become increasingly saturated with all kinds of promotion — not just from music labels but from deep-pocketed brands and Hollywood studios — it has become harder for artists and their songs to get attention, making it more important for marketers to identify viable alternatives.
On top of that, it usually pays to be an early adopter because there is less competition and YouTube is heavily invested in marketing the platform. “There’s this level of organic reach that you’re going to have for a limited amount of time,” says Brendan Kennedy, a digital marketer for Cinematic Music Group. The thinking is, “Let’s really ramp up, pump out content with a good strategy, and take advantage of this opportunity.”
YouTube unveiled a blizzard of statistics on Thursday (March 30) pointing to Shorts’ effectiveness as a marketing tool. Shorts are racking up more than 50 billion views a day (as of December); clips made by fans increased the average artist’s unique viewer total by more than 80% (in January); and artists who post Shorts weekly or more saw those posts drive more than 50% of their new subscriptions (also in January).
“We’re really seeing Shorts vastly increase the reach of an artist on the platform,” says Vivien Lewit, YouTube’s global head of artist partnerships. “We’re seeing it as an integral driver of audience growth.” YouTube also announced that it updated its “Analytics for Artists” tools to incorporate Shorts uploaded by fans in addition to clips uploaded by artists themselves.
Marketers are testing an assortment of strategies on the platform. While De Leon focused on highlighting user content — “fans wanted to see themselves participating,” in a trend, he says, and have that participation acknowledged by the artist whose music soundtracks that trend — Cinematic has also experimented with “repurposing the artist’s long form videos.”
“If an artist is putting out a music video, we’ll chop down the best parts of that, use them as Shorts, and stagger those uploads after the actual music video comes out,” explains Michael Epstein, another member of Cinematic’s digital marketing team. “We do the same with interviews. Just keep bringing people back. We’ve definitely seen that Shorts are one of the biggest drivers of actual artist channel growth,” spurring listeners to subscribe. (“A subscriber becomes a stickier fan,” Lewit notes.)
Cinematic is also “trying to build relationships with the emerging YouTube channels that are focusing on Shorts content,” Epstein continues. YouTube channels’ role in bringing new ears to music has never gotten the same level of attention as Spotify editorial playlisting or TikTok mega-influencers. But Epstein says “we’ve seen direct correlations with streaming consumption and growth just based on those uploads.”
Shorts doesn’t yet have the slam-dunk breakout artist story. But now that TikTok faces an uncertain future, with a bipartisan government coalition pushing for a ban or a sale, understanding the nuances of Shorts has taken on a new urgency. “Needless to say, we’re pushing all of our artists to start playing with it now just in case,” says one label executive. “If the TikTok ban happens, you’re really only going to have YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and potentially Snapchat as the places that have that high level of short-form content to discover,” Kennedy adds.
In a blog post on Thursday, global head of music Lyor Cohen highlighted the platform’s role in helping two massive hits — Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down” and Oliver Tree and Robin Schulz’s “Miss You” — spread around the globe. In addition to Skye’s Shorts-boosted subscriber growth, Cinematic has seen Shorts drive listeners to rapper That Mexican OT.
“It has the potential to become a powerful feature,” Epstein says.