Digital media may block MTV's return to music

Beyonce performs onstage during 'The Formation World Tour' at NRG Stadium on May 7, 2016, in Houston.
Larry Busacca | PW | WireImage | Getty Images

MTV's new president, Sean Atkins, announced at this year's upfront presentation for advertisers that it would "put the M back in MTV," ushering back the music programming that the 35-year-old network used to be known for.

But digital media companies like Vevo and Vice claim that even though MTV has forsaken music programming for years, youth interest never waned. It just went online. With music being the most popular category on YouTube and the global phenomenon of HBO's music-video style documentary "Lemonade" by Beyonce, they may be right.

"Music has never been dead," said Ciel Hunter, executive creative director for Vice. "The trick, and the need, was a different platform for it."

Now that digital media companies are the go-to place for music for today's youth, it may be difficult for MTV to take the mantle back.

In April, MTV announced upcoming shows that include a weekly live music program called "Wonderland" and a reboot of "MTV Unplugged." An untitled Mark Burnett project will allow hip-hop artists to perform in front of music executives for a chance to be signed. It's also developing "Studio 24," where top artists will be challenged to make a record in 24 hours with a guest collaborator, and "Year One," a look back at a breakthrough year in an artist's career. MTV declined to comment for this article.

Kanye West accepts the Video Vanguard Award at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, August 30, 2015.
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Part of what can make music programming so successful on TV and offline is the fact that it's relatively cheap to program against, said United Entertainment Group CEO and president Jarrod Moses. It's also a perennial category that attracts youth viewers, meaning its prime target for ad dollars.

"[Music programming] does incredibly well, but it's pivoted," Moses said. "It's changed from a game of selling albums and tracks. It's changed from a fan base to a follower base."

Moses explained that advertisers were having a hard time shifting to that change, which caused the TV networks to program less music. MTV moved away from music shows in the 2000s in lieu of more reality TV shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom," swapping its core audience for a monetizable one. However, that left a void in the ecosystem for music programming, which digital video began to fill.

"What it enables [digital platforms] to do now is to sell advertising time," Moses said. "They were the only — and now they are the only — go-to source for music for this younger demo."

Meanwhile, as MTV's demo ages out, advertisers are getting wary. Data firm SNL Kagan said ad revenue dropped from $795.6 million in 2013 to $639.2 million in 2015.

"(MTV) is not being proactive at all," Moses said. "They're actually reacting to being slow, or frankly not paying attention to music at all. Now they're coming back to their roots and using that as the news to secure advertisers."

Vevo CEO: It's all about the music
Vevo CEO: It's all about the music

Video hosting service Vevo, which puts its music videos on YouTube, said it gets 17.2 billion global monthly views on its content. Vevo — which is owned by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Google and Abu Dhabi Media — was created to standardize distribution of music videos and online revenue opportunities.

"If you think of the appetite and the tonnage, it's almost like music videos never went away," said Andrea Zapata, vice president of global research and analytics for Vevo. "The appetite was always there. It's just moved to digital."

Eighteen of the 24 YouTube videos that have amassed more than 1 billion views belong to Vevo's on-demand music videos. For comparison, the company's catalog only makes up .001 percent of YouTube's content. Nielsen data also shows that Vevo reaches more people in the U.S. under 50 than an entire day's worth of programming on NBC, CBS or ABC.

Zapata credits TV's aversion to music videos to the fact that as online video content rose, traditional networks found short-form content less appealing. Growing levels of music piracy and poor compensation models also worked against music videos until systems like Vevo were created, she said.

"In short, traditional TV fell behind and was never able to catch up with the needs of a younger, web-savvy demographic," Zapata said.

Since it is privately owned, Vevo does not disclose revenue. A spokesperson said it had record revenues in 2015, and has had a strong start in 2016. (However, Recode previously reported that because of revenue splitting with YouTube, Vevo actually operates on a loss.)

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Meanwhile, Vice has found great success online with Noisey, its music brand that launched in 2011 and now is in 16 countries and in 10 languages. It added Thump, an electronic music-focused brand, in 2013. The vertical is now in nine countries and in five different languages. Music content also weaves in throughout all its other topics. In addition, Vice was tapped to produce the YouTube music video awards in 2015.

Vice doesn't break out individual category traffic. According to its latest comScore numbers, all Vice-owned and operated sites reached 27.9 million unique visitors in March, 2015. This was its biggest month ever, accounting for 52.9 percent year-over-year growth.

When it came to picking the first show to air on its Viceland cable network, it chose music documentary series Noisey.

"Online just changed everything for music videos," said Vice's Hunter. "YouTube and other different consumption platforms just widened the audience again."

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As MTV enters the music programming fold, it will face stiff competition. Just on Tuesday, multichannel network StyleHaul announced a marketing deal with BMG where it will promote musicians on its video content.

UEG's Moses believes that the only way MTV's return to music will work is if they can score exclusive deals with digital brands like Spotify, Pandora and Tidal to promote their content. Still, platforms like YouTube that allow consumers to access music programming on demand and have a direct-to-consumer approach still have an upper hand.

"[MTV] needs to get back to their roots and create that exclusivity and proprietary platform they had in the past," he said.

As for Vevo, they're not worried about MTV's return to its music.

"MTV was a pioneer in music videos that helped introduce this medium to the mainstream," said Zapata. Indeed, those early music videos from Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls and Michael Jackson turned on a whole generation to their favorite artists in a new format.

"Over the last decade, the world has changed pretty dramatically and the people watch their music videos online, on-demand and want experiences that are increasingly personalized and curated to their tastes. The current generation of young people that are the largest consumers of music videos online aren't growing up on MTV. They're growing up on Vevo."

Disclosure: CNBC's parent NBC Universal is an investor in Recode's parent Revere Digital.