This is Ode To…, a weekly column where we share the stuff we’re really into in hopes that you’ll be really into it, too.
Echoing with the sounds of nature, the calls of birds and soft keys, suddenly popped up while I was listening to music on YouTube, something I tend to just leave on like the radio while working these days.
The album, which I’m now obsessed with, was produced by Japanese ambient musician Hiroshi Yoshimura. Designed to complement a fragrance for cosmetics company Shiseido back in 1984, the record was merely a gift with the perfume.
For that reason, “A I R (Air In Resort)” isn’t available on streaming services, and I’m puzzled to think where I would think to find it — if it didn’t just appear out of nowhere on YouTube.
Something similar happened when YouTube played The original track from 2004 stayed largely under the radar, but found new life through a remix by Canadian-Haitian producer Kaytranada nine years later. That remix of “Be Your Girl” was published on a music YouTube channel called Majestic Casual, which has 4.2 million subscribers.
You might not be immediately familiar with Majestic Casual but you may have come across the channel’s brand of laid-back, R&B-influenced music. These songs are coupled with Instagram-friendly, vintage photography in videos, which are slapped with the word “majestic” over the top.
YouTube channels like Majestic Casual are a continuation of the independent music blogs which became highly influential in the early-to-mid ‘00s. Throughout that era, became instant stars thanks to these hype-generating blogs, where a few low-quality MP3s and some nice words helped put one on the map.
In responding to criticisms about promoting harmful content, YouTube has been tweaking its recommendation algorithms to ensure questionable videos don’t get recommended as often. The flipside is that it feels like YouTube’s power in music discovery has lost some lustre. But there’s still a magical quality to it all, even among the dimmer spotlight.
Who’s behind the curtain?
Majestic Casual is one of the earliest YouTube channels to focus on music, which arrived after pioneers like and . Started in 2011, the channel began as a way for Berlin-based HP Nick, as he prefers to be known, to show all the “different music the internet had to offer” while pairing it with visuals he liked.
“I was never really into the music the majority of my friends were listening to … A lot of the music that my friends were listening [to], or the radio was playing, was too repetitive for me,” Nick said via email.
It’s now a full-time job for Nick, who stopped studying to focus on Majestic Casual, which has grown its staff to 10 over the span of five years. The channel has turned into a label, which has done shows around the world, and with Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.
One of the artists who has been featured on Majestic Casual is David Ansari, one half of Sydney-based duo Vallis Alps, alongside bandmate Parissa Tosif. The channel posted a song from their first release Vallis Alps EP,
“When we first put out our first EP, the first big channel to get it was Majestic, and at the time and even still now, Majestic was probably the biggest tastemaker in the indie-pop world that we were in,” Ansari said.
“This was in early 2015, and that was the second day that the EP was out, it got picked up and that really helped push us, especially on YouTube … since then, I think a lot of people have found us through YouTube’s related videos or Majestic playlists.”
Ansari said being featured on Majestic Casual meant the band had “kinda accidentally” found an audience right off the bat, helping to make the decision to remain independent an easier one. That means they can maintain creative control and keep most of their income, something you can’t do when signed to a label.
“I remember we kinda woke up to the Majestic upload and we didn’t know it was gonna happen,” he said.
“There was one point where we [were] like, ‘hmm, should we reach out to [Majestic Casual]?’ This was also two days into us being musicians, we kinda didn’t know what the process was even like to reach out to somebody like that.
“I guess, looking back, it was so crucial for us that it would’ve been crazy for us to tell him to take it down or to try to squeeze a few bucks out of them. It just didn’t really make sense.”
The lax attitude to rights on Majestic Casual ran the channel into trouble , when the entire account was terminated due to multiple copyright infringements. The channel, however, returned shortly after in December. At the beginning, Nick didn’t want to only share music pre-approved by labels, and he didn’t know a lot about copyright laws.
“Majestic Casual was never intended to be a business. Once it became influential, people were kind of upset about it. After these copyright issues, I restricted myself to post only music that was legally approved by artists and labels,” he said.
Grégoire Baraize, from Paris, France, is behind another music YouTube channel called . He started it in 2016 and posts primarily house music. The channel was created after friends started asking him about the music he was finding online, and it was a way for him to share new music which he found on the platform.
“YouTube was my main tool for digging new music,” he told me over email. “You can find anything you want on YouTube which isn’t on the other platforms.”
“You can find anything you want on YouTube which isn’t on the other platforms.”
With just a tick over 200,000 subscribers, Baraize is often approached by artists and labels to promote their work. At 3.8 million views, one of the most listened-to tracks on Houseum is “The Way I Feel” by Australian-Polish producer Subjoi. The track was signed to a small French label called Pulse MSC, which then released it on vinyl and gave the premiere to Houseum.
“That track was part of a set of tunes I had made before Pulse MSC hit me up for a release,” Subjoi, whose real name is Jakub Fidos, said via email. “I never really rated the track to be honest, but guys from Pulse did and the rest is history.”
As a newer artist, Fidos said it can be hard to get a following on SoundCloud initially, and so music-focused YouTube channels are a useful medium for upcoming producers to get noticed.
While “The Way I Feel” has plenty of views, it was a track from a year earlier, “Love Shy,” which changed the course of Fidos’ career. “It really opened up a lot of opportunities for me as it got a million or so views in a couple months,” he said.
“Without that it would have been hard to get my music on vinyl at the start as it’s a big investment for a label due to the high upfront costs, especially with someone fairly unknown that is not going to drive sales by themselves.”
The algorithm mystery
Forever a mystery, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is ultimately built to maximize the amount of time users spend on the site. While beneficial to discovery in the past, this recently has led YouTube to play the same songs to people, repeatedly.
“When ‘Love Shy’ and ‘The Way I Feel’ were uploaded, Slav [another YouTube channel] and Houseum weren’t the huge channels they are now. The algorithm definitely plays a big part in a track getting huge on YouTube and sometimes it gets a bit too crazy with recommending the same bunch of tracks over and over,” Fidos explained.
Baraize said he used to use the algorithm to search for tracks he’d never heard before by searching for a song, then looking at the related videos to find something he’d like. Not so much anymore.
“Now the video suggestions often show the same videos every time, so it is good for the concerned artists or channels like me, but can be annoying for the listeners,” he said.
It’s an issue which the company acknowledged , when it said it would change the algorithm to recommend videos from a wider set of interests. That would help get users out of the web of music they’ve listened to already — or the rantings of a far-right provocateur.
While there seems to be more music-focused channels popping up on YouTube, Baraize and Nick said they don’t feel like they’re in competition with similar channels on the platform. However, when artists or labels want a track to be posted on Baraize’s channel, he’ll only do it if he gets the exclusive. He won’t post a song that’s also getting play on multiple channels.
“Sometimes labels try to have two uploads for the same track on different channels which is for me not really fair. They just want to have the maximum exposure but don’t they really respect our work,” he said.
While these music-focused YouTube channels are perhaps ideal for getting your name out at the start, it’s unsurprisingly not financially beneficial for the artist. For Vallis Alps, they get streaming income from Spotify — and now, Ansari says most people are finding them through there, too.
“When other blogs upload it on YouTube, it’s great from an exposure standpoint, but 90 percent of them don’t reach out to us, and so, we never end up getting paid for that,” he said.
“It’s a win some, lose some situation.”
“It’s a win some, lose some situation, because it’s really good for us, but it just means that places like Spotify are just super helpful because we’re the ones who upload that, we’re the ones to collect from that.”
Fidos doesn’t receive any money from the YouTube uploads on music-curation channels, but he doesn’t mind — and isn’t looking to capitalise on an existing audience by creating his own channel, where his music can reside.
“Having my own channel on YouTube is not something I ever wanted or want to do. The channels out there now are run by people who have dedicated a lot of time to get where they are now,” Fidos said. “It’s just easier and better promotion for a label or myself to submit music to them instead of uploading it ourselves.”
As the likes of Spotify playlists to each user’s listening habits, for a large majority of music listeners, it’s foreseeable that streaming services will become — or already are — the primary source for music discovery, . Instagram is emerging at a music discovery tool, too. Fans help popularize their favorite artists by sharing their songs on Instagram Stories, where Spotify links can be embedded.
Within easy reach on every streaming service is an algorithmically curated playlist of new music: On Apple Music it’s “New Music Mix,” there’s “SoundCloud Weekly” on SoundCloud, while on Spotify it’s “Discover Weekly” — plus the endless mood-related playlists that figure out you’re some variation of sad right now.
Despite the promise that these playlists have been created just for me, they just don’t quite hit the mark.
As music critic Ben Ratliff of new music in The Guardian: “I am being given an ongoing accessory for someone of my type. Often I hate the results, even if I like half the songs: I feel intensely frustrated by what it has reduced me to. I want not to be pandered to by genre, or era, or a reduced, sellable version of a mood.”
For myself, there’s an immense appeal in the still somewhat human element of YouTube, in that there are tastemakers spending time uploading and curating music for their channel, and I’m able to flick through the comments of listeners who are also enjoying it.
At least for the time being, spending time in the YouTube music rabbit hole feels somewhere in between a streaming service and a record store. It’s a very online experience dictated by a mysterious algorithm, but it still feels like there’s someone holding your hand through it all.