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YouTube, so long the home of free video content and a major player in streaming music, may finally be setting up for subscriptions.

Or at least a ‘pay to play’ portion of its enormously popular site, depending on your take.

The news that YouTube’s parent company Google will ramp up its funding for high-production original content is one leading indicator. Another is the looming ad-free music service, which is expected at some point this year and has riled the creative community as a result of anticipated lower rates for independent labels.

Both point to a drive by YouTube to become much more than the short snack video destination it currently represents (albeit a massively popular and rather profitable one).


A Tough Transition?

Original and exclusive content is clearly the next evolution of online entertainment.

Rarely does a week go by without a major player securing exclusive rights – this week it’s Hulu Plus and ‘South Park’ – or investing significant amounts in a new series all of their own. But while the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and even Amazon Prime have become known for these moves, YouTube’s place in this particular market is unclear.

Sure, there’s Vevo, which has carved out its own corner of YouTube as the easiest place to find legal music videos (as long as you’re willing to sit through an ad). And initiatives like YouTube Nation show a desire to bring some order to the vast pile of user-generated content on which it sits. As a brand, though, YouTube is most famous for cat clips and bootleg music, which is a tough base from which to build a polished, professional entertainment platform.

How YouTube handles the transition process will be crucial.

It is widely seen as a free platform for endless entertainment, not all of which is expected to be polished (or, in some case, not even legal). Convincing an audience who associates the site with free viewing, and who likely already spend money on other subscription services, could be tough.

What can’t be overlooked is the sheer volume of visitors that the platform attracts. With more than 1 billion unique users every month, YouTube will inevitably be able to funnel huge amounts of viewers in whichever direction it likes.

Will they be willing to pay when they get there? That’s another question entirely, and one that will require gradual persuasion and compelling content on the other side of whatever ‘pay to play’ set up the company adopts.