Is YouTube The Home Of The New Pirate Radio StationIf you know what your’re doing, a trick of YouTube’s algorithms could lead to your own pirate radio station. But beware of the consequences.
There is a reason they’re called pirate radio stations.
In the past two years, a particular kind of YouTube channel has begun to achieve widespread popularity. Hundreds of independently run channels have started to stream music nonstop, with videos that combine playlists with hundreds of songs and short, looped animations, often taken from anime films without copyright permission.
That begs the question, will performance royalties levied on smaller channels create a new class of pirate radio operators?
Since early 2016, music royalty rates for small internet radio webcasters skyrocketed with the expiration of the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009. The next question became would some webcasters choose to keep on broadcasting online without paying royalties, hoping to avoid detection by SoundExchange, which collects digital performance royalties on behalf of artists in the United States.
The New York Times recently turned a spotlight on a new class of internet radio stations using YouTube’s live streaming service. The article reports that the channels routinely play music without proper permission from copyright holders, which is why they’re called “pirate radio stations.”
The stations highlighted in the article originate from the U.K., France, and the Netherlands, which means they wouldn’t be subject to American royalty laws (although there are parallel rules in those countries).
Pirate radio stations have a long and fabled history, dating back to the 1960s, especially in the United Kingdom. The end game is the same; broadcast without the proper license, stay below the radar (hide your operation), and try not to get busted. Watch the video below.
It isn’t easy to find any pirate radio YouTube stations that are so obvious that you can tell they originate from the United States.
For the most part, these pirate radio stations seem to focus on niche electronic and rock music subgenres that lie somewhat outside the rock and pop mainstream, often featuring many independent and underground artists.
This likely puts them further off the major labels’ radar than if they were routinely streaming Drake or Cardi B.
These channels usually include a copyright disclaimer, although no reputable attorney would advise a client to post something like this on their YouTube live audio feed page:
For COPYRIGHT ISSUES, song or picture, please contact me on YouTube private messaging system, and your song will be removed immediately. Once I have received your message and determined you are the proper owner of this content I will have it removed, no drama at all.
As the Times article notes, YouTube disciplines and shuts down channels for copyright violations, but it seems that’s the only real risk these broadcasters face.
It’s unknown if the music rights agencies, like ASCAP or SoundExchange, have gone after any YouTube “pirates” for back royalties, or if they’re merely satisfied to have them shut down.
Just like the real broadcast pirate radio from another era, it’s certainly a game of cat-and-mouse.
When YouTube broadcasters have their channels shut down for violations, there’s little to stop them from creating new accounts and new channels. Now, they do lose their subscriber base; which in some cases can be a substantial loss, but that seems to be the most painful penalty.
It’s fascinating that YouTube, a video service, has become a dominant platform for streaming audio.
That’s likely because there is no similarly prominent free service for audio, especially not live audio streaming. YouTube is also very easy to use.
Click below for a taste of 24/7 live streaming on YouTube.
If we went back to 2005 and someone said this would be the case in 2018, it would have sounded ludicrous, because video requires much more costly bandwidth to distribute than audio.
But who would have known then, one of the world’s largest companies, The Big G, would decide to subsidize the lion’s share of video streaming on the internet.
At the same time, unless you’re playing your music or music that you’ve obtained artist permission for, streaming on YouTube is precarious and unlikely to be a reliable, long-term solution. Many channel operators may not care, at least initially, which is why it is pirate radio.
They may come to care more once a sizable audience is tuning in.
The Times article highlights two friends who started a YouTube channel together in 2014. The channel grew slowly over the next two years. Then the friends discovered 24/7 live streaming and created their first pirate radio channel in 2016.
The year before, in 2015, their channel had a modest 800 subscribers. A month after they began, they had more than 18,000. In April 2016, they had 98,000 subscribers, and as of last month, with three active live streams, they have more than triple that amount, with 334,000. They make about $5,000 a month from the streams.
With the lure of money every month as an incentive, it’s not difficult to see why pirate radio broadcasters pay little attention to paying artist royalties, which would cut deeply into their lucrative take.
But, even some veteran pirate radio operators have been popped for breaking the rules. YouTube often shuts down their streams for copyright violations, and it’s becoming more difficult to start over.
What seemed “too good to be true,” with little downside is developing risk. Some grass may grow up through the cracks in the sidewalk. But there’s often someone with weed killer not too far away.