Emma Chamberlain is a chronic song repeater. Though she’s one of the most famous teenagers on the planet, a YouTuber with nearly 8.5 million subscribers, for years she’s elected to soundtrack her meticulously edited vlogs with a selection of instrumentals and sound effects provided, often for free, from iMovie or royalty-free sites. These scores aren’t just background; they have become an identifiable player in her videos, an incidental music that highlights the emotional depth in a confession or plays up humor in a cringe-y moment. Her fans recognize her vlogs by her unique editing style, but they’re also intimately familiar with how a Chamberlain video sounds. She has all but popularized a vlog version of a leitmotif.
Chamberlain isn’t alone in her ample usage of supposedly copyright-free music. Amidst the constant content-churn of the YouTube ecosystem, creators don’t have enough time—or for those without million-dollar brand deals, money—to license or commission backing soundtracks for every video they post. So they resort to stock music, made up of short benign clips that when edited creatively can feel specific to a particular video. (Chamberlain did not respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment.)
Ideally, this usage provides unknown composers a certain level of recognition. In fact, there are many videos dedicated solely to identifying Chamberlain’s song selection, allowing curious viewers to actively search for the artists behind their passive listening habits. In the same way that a theme song from a childhood TV show buries its way into the brains of diehards, fans love the sound of Chamberlain’s vlogs and want to listen to the tracks on repeat. The difference, of course, is that these aren’t songs a composer has written specifically for Chamberlain’s videos. More often than not, they are unaware of her use, and aren’t compensated for their work. Instead, their music is treated like those sounds found in iMovie—common denominator music designed to fit the broadest array of people—instrumentals just vague enough to appear personal.
As YouTube, the most popular site for on-demand music streaming, continues to grow and get more corporate (according to Business Insider, as of May 2018, YouTube saw 1.8 billion monthly users, and those are just the people who logged in), the demand for copyright-free music will continue to grow. Getting permission to use a commercial song is expensive and time-consuming, and ripping music from a popular artist is no longer acceptable when creators are working with big advertisers. So YouTubers look elsewhere. Theoretically, having a song appear in a popular vlog might mean important exposure for an emerging composer, but for the indie artists whose songs are synched without compensation, the reality feels more dystopian. It assigns a value to their work: Nothing.
Many of the songs Chamberlain and other vloggers use in their videos are pulled from artists who’ve built careers out of composing music specifically for YouTube videos. They are independent acts who’ve come to accept that their music will be used with or without their permission, so some decide to give in and grant permission. In the YouTube-specific category, one of the names that pops up most frequently is Swedish producer Joakim Karud. (Chamberlain used his song “Love Mode” in the outro of approximately 86 videos, from July 2017 to February 2018.)
According to his Spotify bio, Karud’s compositions are heard in “600-800 new YouTube videos daily,” and are regularly used by YouTube stars like “Casey Neistat, Shonduras, and Mark Rober.” On his website, he specifies that anyone can use and download his music for free, as long as they follow a few simple rules: Credit him, and ask for approval of music that pops up anywhere other than YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram. I find it to be incredibly depressing, but he can do whatever he wants with his music—including gifting it to someone who allegedly makes $6,000 a day from videos. (Karud did not respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment.)
Another producer’s work appears frequently in Chamberlain’s vlogs: tomppabeats, a beat maker from Finland. She’s used his song “Far Away” in the outro of approximately 46 videos, spanning February 2018 to January 2019. When I wrote to ask him if he had been compensated for the videos, he expressed surprise. He said he was “not at all aware of Emma, nor her videos,” and mentioned receiving “tons of emails” from YouTubers asking for permission to use his music, so many that he told me that he had given up responding to them.
“People will use my music regardless, even if I tell them no,” he said. “Nor can I spend hours writing copyright claims on a bunch of videos that have clogged up [over] the years.”
He doesn’t seem particularly upset. “I do believe the Internet should be this wild west of zeroes and ones of freely usable information, data, and even movies and music,” he said. When I asked him why people would give away their music for free, he told me that he didn’t judge them, but he didn’t understand it. “If people want to brand their music as a product that people can just slap into the background and forget about it, they can.”
In one of Chamberlain’s more recent vlogs, “TAKING MY OWN INSTAGRAM PHOTOS *embarrassing*,” posted in September 2019, she begins to sing a song before cutting herself off and laughing, “No, I’m going to get copyrighted if I sing that.” It’s a hiccup, a joke, and a move that is commonplace on YouTube. Many vloggers make light of the ever-looming threat of a copyright claim, to the point where their viewers are familiar with the law: If a copyright owner objects to their song’s use in a vlog, the YouTuber receives a notice and the video is removed. If an account receives three copyright strikes, it is subject to termination.
While it might not be easy for an independent artist to find out who is attempting to use their song, among major labels and music publishers new technology makes it easier to track unlicensed uses. Specifically, as Jacqueline Charlesworth, a copyright attorney who helped develop the 2018 Music Modernization Act, told Jezebel, a system called ContentID allows copyright owners to know when their song is being used and make their own decision on how to proceed. They can even monetize the use of the song in those videos and take a percentage of the YouTuber’s ad revenues.
Because some YouTubers choose not to spend money licensing the popular songs they love, the royalty-free music they use becomes a part of the work they create. Call it resourcefulness, or borrowed valor. I only wish the musicians who YouTubers are clearly benefitting from were getting what seems like a fair cut.