The date was October 8th 2014, Article19 published a piece entitled "Swimming with Sharks". That particular essay concerned itself with Arts Council England handing over £1.8Million in hard cash to a company called Rightster (stop laughing at the back) to create a "Multi Channel Network" on Google's video platform YoutTube. This platform, called Canvas, was going to propel the arts into the stratosphere with millions of video views and advertising revenue to match. Lots of other people were making money from YouTube so why couldn't arts people make money from YouTube?
Rightster, at the time, had zero experience of making arts related content. In fact, it wasn't at all clear what Rightster actually did, apart from running some terrible YouTube channels full of questionable content. Adding fuel to the burning fires of scepticism in the arts at large was the news that ACE's very own chairman, Peter Bazalgette, had a financial stake in a company called Base79, a company owned by Rightster.
So, here we are 16 months later, Canvas launched in the spring of 2015, and the YouTube channel has managed to gather just 898 subscribers. That's not 898,000 subscribers, that's 898, as in, less than a 1,000. Looking through the content on offer, it's not hard to see why. As you might expect all of the videos are very short, usually less than two minutes, with a lot of the content attempting to tap into popular YouTube tropes, as illustrated by the video below of Jacob Collier telling you what's in his music room.
In case you don't know, a popular thing on this particular video sharing website is the "room tour" video where people literally show you what's in a specific room (no, seriously). Most of them however usually involve computer setups featuring lots of LED lighting that are a lot neater and more stylish that what Mr Collier has to offer. That probably has something to do with most YouTube(rs) being more concerned with aesthetics and boasting about their expensive computer gear than actually doing something for a living, but we digress.
Another video called "It's Not Possible It's Real" concerns itself with animated cheese triangles covered with stickers that say "Paper Tiger". This piece of art was specially commissioned by Canvas for reasons that are, at the time of writing, unknown.
We know that sometimes the arts are going to be weird and sometime the arts are going to be completely obnoxious towards any potential audience, real or imagined, but these animated cheese triangles on YouTube are so terrible they don't even rise to the level of ironically bad. The only reason for its inclusion on Canvas is that they commissioned it in the first place and it's less than 2 minutes long. The 2-minute parameter was probably decided in a meeting full of people dressed in Gap™ shirts where phrases like "virality matrix" and "user engagement parameters" were flowing freely. Rightster is a company that uses statements like "Reach your online audience through expert influencer marketing and campaign management" on its own website, they basically just satirise themselves.
Apparently, If the video is longer than 2 minutes then it can't go viral and people won't engage with it, they probably said, while missing the point completely that people won't engage with or share videos that are crap, pointless or both.
Missing The Mark
Some YouTube channels do actually manage to make themselves useful and some YouTube(rs) do take the time to make useful content but Canvas, Rightster and ACE have missed the simple, guiding principal of a successful channel by a very wide mark. Popular channels, if we count subscriber numbers as a measure of popularity, are built around disposable banality and that usually involves something that appeals to computer/gaming/technology geeks around the world, of which there are many millions, with lots of spare time to waste.
You can take things out of boxes, build computers, play videos games and scream, make the aforementioned room setup videos , or tell everybody what you think is wrong with feature films. The essential ingredient however is taking one idea and then repeating it for ever so you can release at least one video every day of every week of every month. The videos on Canvas are, to be blunt, dull and patronising. Rightster and ACE think that arts folk will flock to the channel simply because it is, apparently, about art but they forgot that people who are interested in the arts probably think a little deeper than your average teenage boy who wants to learn about cable management on his latest PC gaming rig.
YouTube is not the home of thoughtful content, it is the home of content churn, where the only thing that matters are the numbers. More viewers leads to more ad-revenue for Google and more revenue share for the channels operators. As we have said before, most YouTube(rs) don't care if you pay attention to or actually like their content. They just need you to stick around long enough to register a view so they can get the advertising money, hoping that you click the subscriber button while you are at it.
If the people responsible for Canvas really wanted to tap into YouTube then making an actual arts show would have been a better way to go. A daily 10 minute programme fronted by two presenters, with discernible personalities, feeding the arts interested folk of the world with news, reviews and mini-interviews 5 days a week might actually be able to get some traction, if it was funny. Given the colossal £1.8Million budget you could spend £100,000 per year on production and keep the whole thing running for 15 years, allowing for inflation and production investment over time. Of course, such a show could also be completely terrible.
What we have though, at a time when arts funding is being squeezed to death, is £1.8Million of investment that is producing no meaningful, positive results for the arts and is leaving a trail of dismal content in its wake. The pathetic subscriber numbers connected to this largesse alone are embarrassing and damning for all concerned.