Why Vevo Will Fail

It makes sense that Vevo, the music video site that launched as a joint venture between Universal Music and Sony Music yesterday, is trying to cast itself as MTV meets Hulu. An unlikely underdog when it entered the scene back in early 2007, Hulu — a video platform backed by major broadcasters — sounded to many like a recipe for disaster. We gleefully ridiculed the venture, calling it names and predicting its imminent demise.

Boy were we wrong. At least in the U.S., Hulu has become practically synonymous with watching TV online. The site served an astonishing 856 million streams in October alone, according to comScore, and a few missteps along the way haven’t managed to substantially hurt the venture. Clearly, Vevo would like to follow Hulu’s rise to fame. I just don’t think it will happen. Vevo, in its current form, is doomed to fail.

It’s not even the ownership that’s bugging me, even though there is much to be bugged by. Vevo is jointly owned by Sony Music and the Universal Music Group, with an investment coming from the Abu Dhabi Media Group. This isn’t the first time Sony and Universal have tried to cook up something together; they formed an online music joint venture called Pressplay back in the heydays of Napster.

Pressplay was supposed to be “on the leading edge of music” by offering pricey, DRM-laden subscription packages to people used to free downloads. EMI was wise enough not to join the venture, thought it ended up licensing its music. But while Pressplay went nowhere, the very same ownership and licensing structure is now in place with Vevo.

Nor is it the fact that Vevo.com has been struggling for the better part of yesterday and today, serving up 503 error messages and at times even going completely blank, that leads me to believe it will fail. Even though that’s pretty embarrassing for a site backed by two major labels and sitting atop Google’s infrastructure.

No, what really bothers me is the fact that Hulu for music videos is a fundamentally misguided idea, one that ignores key differences between music and TV programming. TV is for the most part still a lean-back medium. Sure, we love to surf the web and send out tweets while we watch the latest Heroes episode, but we’re not interacting with the show in the same way that we would with a song, or even a music video. Not to be too poetic here, but one could argue that we create our own music videos every time we listen to music. The same can’t be said of TV shows. I don’t really act out too many Heroes episodes in my head.

But music videos have become a participatory medium. Cases in point: The tens of thoudsands of OK GO music videos from high schools and bored teens all around the world, the JK Wedding Entry Dance and the thousands of wedding dance clips it inspired, never mind the countless uploads of fan-filmed live shows and remixes. Heck, if I search for Bono on Vevo, all I get is a handful of clips. Do the same search on YouTube, and you’ll get the official footage, plus dozens of live gigs from all around the world.

The idea is not to separate music videos from all these user contributions, but to embrace them, much in the same way Warner Sony did with the JK wedding video, which helped to propel the Chris Brown song used in the video to the top of various download charts. In other words, if you want to have a Hulu-like success story for music videos, you shouldn’t build another Hulu, but something with an upload button.

Of course, there’s already a site that offers music videos, fan remixes and participation that goes far beyond leaving a comment or rating a video: YouTube. Trying to build a separate location for content that’s such an integral part of YouTube without tapping into its user-generated content — that’s a recipe for failure.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.