In 2010, MrSuicideSheep, a video-streaming channel, launched on YouTube. Created as a passion project by a still-anonymous individual, the account only posts songs that he or she likes—a scope that encompasses everything from up-and-coming hits to obscure SoundCloud uploads. The page’s popularity is enormous. Currently, it’s gathered almost nine million subscribers and three-and-a-half billion views.
The channel is not an anomaly. Proximity, another music-only YouTube account that specializes in posting mainstream EDM tracks, boasts over six million subscribers and two-and-a-half billion views. Trap Nation, SwagyTracks, and Tasty have another 23 million followers between them.
These channels command vast international influence. With their dedicated community of subscribers, they form some of the largest distribution networks in the world—and the music industry has taken note. YouTube sites are launching artists, and major labels, indie imprints, and self-published musicians are all clamouring to ink deals with channel curators. New contracts are being drawn up around debuting singles on streaming platforms, and performers have already been catapulted to fame on the back of a well-placed video. Very quietly, these YouTube tastemakers are transforming how music is discovered.
The channel curators, though, haven’t shaped that change alone.
Josh Carr-Hilton, a Vancouver entrepreneur and founder of the District—a company that helps buzzworthy accounts grow their audience—was one of the first to recognize how social platforms would revolutionize the music business. Beginning his career by licensing video-game trailers on YouTube, he saw how content creators were building vibrant social hubs around subcategories of games. Working with those individuals to develop their communities, he helped to manage their output. Next, he applied that expertise to music channels.
“I noticed that streaming was becoming a bigger component of music,” he tells the Straight at his downtown office. “Platforms were building, and these kids who have a really sound taste in music were nurturing these communities and communicating at a really large scale. At that time the subscriber count was low—there were maybe 100,000 people listening. But they were creating these little cultural tribes around their curation, and that starting pulling people in.”
Those early channels grew rapidly. Gaining an almost cultlike status among their devotees, they soon became as influential as personal vlogs, and had the numbers to match. That attention, however, raised red flags at YouTube. Many accounts were run by high-school kids with no knowledge of negotiating royalty payments when posting songs—an error that occasionally led to their brand being suspended. Carr-Hilton provided the solution.
“At the start, I worked with YouTube channels on the outskirts of influence,” he remembers. “They didn’t have connections to the music industry, they didn’t understand the legalities of copyright, and they didn’t understand the process that went into working with big companies. They were only kids who loved music, who wanted to share that music with other people. I started thinking of the idea to build a template that would let them post their favourite tracks legally, and bring lots of different channels together to form a collective community. That’s when we created the District.”
Since he formed the company four years ago, Carr-Hilton has signed on 143 branded channels—including MrSuicideSheep, Proximity, and Trap Nation—and manages them all under the District’s umbrella. The organization’s aims are simple. As well as helping music curators pay independent artists, record labels, and major rights holders all over the world, it assists in developing its accounts’ offline revenue streams, creating everything from tank tops to colouring books for fans. Currently, the District’s channels share music with just shy of 90 million subscribers, and generate more than one-and-a-half billion monthly streams for artists. As a collective, the Vancouver-based company is one of the largest global platforms in music broadcasting, and—by numbers alone—boasts more followers than streaming giants like Tidal.
What makes the District unique, Carr-Hilton suggests, is that its channels build community with a human touch.
“Every decision for every account is made by a person,” he says. “It’s always guided in terms of what somebody thinks someone else is going to love, and they can justify it. The subscribers trust the brand to give them something of quality. It’s that little gift they come back every day to receive, and it’s not something that’s picked by an algorithm. We are also very careful who we choose to join our collective. We tell our channels that if they accept money directly from record labels, or let anything other than their own taste direct their choices, we won’t work with them anymore. We’re very strict on that.
“Our channels have a presence on Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud as well, but YouTube is a pretty unique platform for creating an ecosystem where people can have conversations, and we can communicate back to them,” he continues. “The accounts build that rapport with their fanbase every day, and people start coming back and finding it as a home. We have individuals or other channels who are always the first to comment on videos, and do something unique and funny. Then fans start latching on to them, and if they don’t post, there’ll be hundreds of comments asking where that guy went.”
A staunch Vancouverite, Carr-Hilton feels the reason that the District has become so successful so quickly is its geographical location. Not tied to the bias and old-school music-industry processes of an L.A., New York, or London, he sees the city as the perfect place to reimagine how music distribution should work in the digital age.
“When I visit those places, I can see how the decisions they make—and the processes that come from it—are very different from ours,” he says. “Being in Vancouver with a little bit of a bubble and the mountains around it, we’ve been able to do our own thing for so long. We’ve been able to scale. Now people in those hubs are looking at us and saying, ‘How the hell are you doing this?’ We’re just playing around with YouTube videos and building communities, and we have an organic approach to everything we do. For them, it’s so foreign, because their process has been so different for so long—they choose priority artists, and force things down the pipeline. For us, we’re putting hundreds of thousands of artists out there, and letting consumers decide who’s worth it. The power is always with the people.”
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays