Motherboard

Why YouTube Is Auto-Generating Music Videos for Songs Not on YouTube

The biggest video hosting site makes its own content.

by Ben Richmond
Mar 24 2015, 6:40pm

YouTube is big enough that someone can use it every day and still be surprised—not just in terms of content like "Turkish Man Yelling 'Meow' at an Egg," but the service itself. For instance, not only does YouTube host user-generated videos, it's also apparently capable of generating them itself.

Motherboard EIC Derek Mead noticed that the Michigan producer 14KT's album was up on YouTube in its entirety, with very specific, cable-TV-music-station-like artwork. The "About" section said the video was "Auto-generated by YouTube."

Google's support page explains that YouTube creates "auto-generated channels" via algorithms in order "to collect trending and popular videos by topic." The tell-tale sign of an auto-generated channel is that the name begins with a "#," so in this case, "#14KT."

"If you think about a topic like wingsuit flying, there are lots of different channels and videos about it, so when there's enough content around a topic we auto-generate a channel to help more people easily find those videos," a YouTube spokesperson told me via email, as an example. "If you think about any other sport or topic that you'd likely see in Wikipedia you'll probably find a channel for it."

That makes sense. YouTube is always just queueing up a related video, so it seems easy enough to just loop a bunch of tags together and call it a channel. But YouTube is also automatically making music videos just for the site.

"As part of our deals with the music industry, we've licensed their other music that wasn't yet on YouTube or didn't have a music video," the spokesperson said. "When we did that, we created auto-generated videos for them to bring their music easily to YouTube viewers everywhere. That's what you're looking at with this link you sent."

The value of YouTube automatically creating videos for a musician's back catalog is an interesting question for artists. Any vaguely savvy artist knows that YouTube is how people listen to music, so it seems like in many cases it's be a deliberate choice if an artist has kept something off the site— like, for instance, they're trying to make money selling mp3s on iTunes. You don't have to scan Google's support page for long before you come across someone trying to take down an auto-generated video.

That's what YouTube's Content ID system was supposed to do—allow artists whose work has been posted by someone else to either issue takedown notices or get some sweet ad revenue. In theory, auto-generated music videos should work the same way, assuming the artist has access to their Content ID, although sometimes labels are the ones doing this policing for the artists. I asked how takedowns work in these cases.

"For music artists this is all done through the organizations who own the rights to their content," the spokesperson said.

It's easy to see how the ability to algorithmically create music videos—regardless of whether the music has been put on YouTube—makes something like YouTube's Music Key subscription service possible and far more valuable. The deeper the catalog, the better the service.

While the exact specifics may differ, YouTube's licensing deals with record labels allows it to dive through back catalogs in the aim of bringing more music online. The labels have an incentive to make sure their artists (and the labels themselves) make money, which is why they signed the agreement with YouTube in the first place. At the very least, getting that music online with auto-generated videos is faster than doing it by hand.

If you have Elon Musk-levels of paranoia about AI taking over, I'm not sure YouTube generating its own videos is good news or bad news. On the one hand, all YouTube needs to do is somehow watch the videos, to close the loop and render people entirely superfluous. On the other hand, if AI is anything like me, having access to YouTube is really going to put a dent in their productivity, delaying the robo-uprising perhaps indefinitely.