What place is there for the traditional awards show in the digital future? These gaudy schedule-hogging extravaganzas have been one of the more reliable “water cooler” genres over the years, but is it a format that can translate to online?
YouTube had a good try at finding out with the inaugural YouTube Music Awards in New York on 3 November. The event, directed by indie cinema favourite Spike Jonze and hosted by hip actor Jason Schwartzman, followed many of the same beats as a traditional Oscars or Brits broadcast, but made some notable concessions to its digital platform as it live-streamed across the internet rather than beaming through the airwaves.
YouTube opted to stick with just six awards, each chosen by the same popularity metrics that drive social media.
Most notably, the event had surprisingly few awards to hand out. No doubt conscious of the viewer fatigue that sets in as more established ceremonies work their way through technical achievements of interest only to industry watchers, YouTube instead opted to stick with just six awards, each chosen not by an unseen cabal of self-proclaimed tastemakers but by the same popularity metrics that drive social media. Views, likes and shares all played a part in crowning Eminem the Artist of the Year, while Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” video was declared 2013’s YouTube Phenomenon and Korean pop group Girls Generation won Video of the Year for “I Got A Boy”.
It didn’t go without comment that all three of those recipients are already mainstream successes, and YouTube’s vocal community was quick to point out that the awards often overlooked the grass roots artists who found viral exposure via the site. Even the remaining winners, who can genuinely be considered YouTube success stories – Macklemore, DeStorm and Lindsey Sterling – all are arguably already past their breakout phase and have been recognised by the wider mainstream media.
In terms of format, however, there was much the awards got right. The decision to ditch a script and allow Schwartzman and his co-presenters to improvise their way through sketches and challenges was presumably meant to generate viral moments that would set social media alight, although nothing happened that was startling or controversial enough to create a Twitterstorm.
Yet when the show worked, typically whenever it ditched the back-slapping cameos and goofy stunts to concentrate on the music, it offered a tantalising glimpse of what a truly multimedia digital awards ceremony could be like. Transforming live performances into real-time video shoots, “documented” by Spike Jonze, resulted in the evening’s most memorable and unique moments.
When the show worked, it offered a tantalising glimpse of what a truly multimedia digital awards ceremony could be like.
It’s unclear by what criteria YouTube would have considered the event a success but with just 872,952 views for the live-stream it seems to have struggled to distinguish itself as a live event. Yet highlights of the show, broken out into their own highlights channel, performed phenomenally. YouTube’s own official standalone video of Lady Gaga’s performance clocked over 14 million views in the week following the awards themselves, suggesting that even in the swirling digital soup, viewers have habits and those habits are hard to break.
At just 80 minutes long, the awards were brisk and concise compared to the sprawl of existing ceremony broadcasts, yet even that may have been too much for an audience used to getting what it wants in five minutes or less. Short and sweet clearly remains the key to online hits, a mantra that clashes awkwardly with the existing awards show model.
But then award shows are always a curious beast to tame and nobody expected YouTube to get it exactly right first time out of the gate. There’s no doubt that online is now where pop’s pulse is most keenly felt. YouTube just needs to make sure that its awards reflect that in 2014.