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Vevo could have been ‘an existential threat’ to YouTube, but YouTube won in the end

The music business thought about building its own YouTube competitor. Instead, it’s letting YouTube do what YouTube always wanted to do.

Cardi B’s “Be Careful” video, via YouTube
Cardi B’s “Be Careful” video, via YouTube
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Vevo, the music industry’s attempt to create its own video hub, isn’t dead. But it doesn’t look very healthy for the company, which launched nine years ago.

A series of moves over the past few months have removed most of Vevo’s reason to exist, capped off with the news today that it’s not going to run its own site or apps anymore.

In essence, Vevo is going to stop pretending that it is anything other than a shell company that delivers videos from the big music labels to YouTube.

Vevo’s not-quite-but-eventual demise isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the labels. Some people in the music industry, including some current and former Vevo employees, will tell you that the labels blew their chance to build a big, valuable video asset based on their videos, which wouldn’t be dependent on YouTube and Google.

But building a big, valuable digital video asset that wouldn’t be dependent on YouTube and Google would be a tough thing for any company, in any circumstance. Let alone a joint venture between Sony and Universal, two of the world’s biggest music labels.*

Now the labels are essentially accepting the fact that they’re better off putting almost all of their eggs in YouTube’s basket, and letting the company’s 15,000-strong salesforce figure out how to sell those eggs/videos. (Probably not a coincidence: YouTube is also making another push to sell subscriptions to those videos, as well).

Which, again, makes plenty of sense: Vevo, which sold ads for the labels’ videos, lost money. But the labels made plenty of money from those sales. Eventually, they’ll move to stop the losses altogether.

Meanwhile, this is the outcome YouTube has always wanted. It knows music videos are incredibly valuable to its users and advertisers, so it wanted to make sure they stayed on YouTube. But execs there have always resented having to cut deals with Vevo instead of working with the labels directly. Which is why YouTube and Vevo have always had strained relationships.**

Of course, no one from the labels or YouTube or Vevo will say any of this on the record. And some of them continue to insist, off the record, that things are groovy. But eventually you can get a candid take that spells it all out.

Like this note a former YouTube exec sent me today. Consider it an anonymous victory dance:

The entire hope for Vevo from YouTube’s perspective, when it launched, was that it would be successful enough to keep the labels from taking down their music and launching a competitor, but not so successful that it ultimately was a better destination than YouTube.

Huge huge success for YouTube

This was an existential threat that was prevented via smart [business development].

YouTube needed Vevo to exist for just long enough to become so popular that the labels had no leverage anymore.

* If you are keeping track of Other Big Media Joint Ventures Created In The Last Decade: Next Issue Media, the magazine industry’s version of this, fizzled along with the hopes that the iPad would reboot that industry and has been sold off to Apple; Hulu, the TV guys’ attempt, was nearly sold twice and zigzagged for years, but now seems to be growing for real. But the Disney/Fox/Comcast fight puts its future in question, again.

** At one point, former Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff was minutes away from taking YouTube to court.

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