| 06 Feb 2023
Hit YouTube channel Last Cigarette suspended over copyright issues

MUMBAI: YouTube channel, Last Cigarette was terminated owing to receiving three copyright strikes last week that curated Hindi rock and indie music from the subcontinent. Active for more than two years, Last Cigarette was run anonymously, curating Indian and Pakistani rock and folk-pop songs by uploading the audio alongside photos, lyrics and poetry stories, according to the research.

With over 3,74,000 subscribers and amassing hundreds of thousands (and even in the millions) of views for music by artists like The Local Train, Ankur Tewari, Dream Note and Bharat Chauhan, Last Cigarette seemed to represent a surprisingly large community of active followers of Indian indie. The channel ran into trouble, however, when it came to the issue of monetizing the content uploaded on the channel, which meant eating into streaming royalties owed to artists.

Pakistani label Rearts, whose artists Bayaan, Kashmir, Naseer Afridi and more had their music on Last Cigarette, claimed that the channel – through monetising – was “profiting off of the work of our artists after illegally uploading” copyrighted content. Despite some communication and offers to collaborate and work out a deal, Rearts and Last Cigarette didn’t reach an agreement, which led to the label putting out copyright claims.

According to YouTube policy, channels are given three ‘strikes’ as warnings about copyright infringement. On April 20, the host of Last Cigarette posted a message to fans confirming that they had received the third copyright strike and were about to be terminated. “Yes, I am the guilty party here. I used someones (sic) art without their concern and used it for my own benefit, greedy me,” one comment from the channel owner read.

Artists like Deepak Rathore, Bharat Chauhan and Umer Farooq reached out to the page to express their concerns. Over a text chat on Facebook, Last Cigarette’s page admin says the channel had never received a copyright strike before. “I never really saw anything like this coming so fast but it just happened and now I am just trying to deal with it... I am still discussing some things, maybe possible collaborations...something like that… It’s all vague right now,” the page owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, says.

While music distributors and aggregators often set a song’s “fingerprint” into YouTube that allows them to automatically (and often instantly) claim copyright over any uploaded content, any change to the audio component allows it to slip through the algorithms. Digital music platform OKListen’s founder Vijay Basrur explains that artists or aggregators then manually claim copyright on videos. “They have two ways of handling it – they can be okay with the claim. If they’re monetising it, the audio component of the monetisation will be routed to us and we give it to the artist. He can continue to monetise, but the audio component’s copyright is given to the artist.” When the claim is disputed by the channel, then Basrur says there’s a “bit of back and forth” and depending on the supporting proof of copyright infringement, the content can get struck down.

Sort of like the musical equivalent to art curation page Berlin ArtParasites, the idea of curating a music channel wasn’t new by any means, as seen in the global success of channels such as MrSuicideSleep, which has 12 million subscribers and over five billion views for electronic and chill music.

Even as a few other copycat channels have come up with similar content, the loss of Last Cigarette raises questions about copyright, monetisation and the idea of music curators on YouTube. Last Cigarette also has a Spotify channel with about 1464 followers but clearly YouTube was their forte and also a means of generating revenue, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The page owner says they weren’t “making any money” for a year after a change in YouTube’s policy, but Rearts’ claimed for compensation for licensing fees and royalties owed for at least 12 songs.

Understandably, the music community of thousands weren’t going to sit idly while a regular source of music was about to be cut off. While there were plenty of messages of support and pleas for resolve toward Last Cigarette, Rearts says they received threats and insults for filing the claim. Where the YouTube channel perhaps went wrong was in never seeking active permission and consent from artists or labels for using the music. Both Basrur and The Local Train’s frontman Raman Negi agree that Last Cigarette was providing a big boost in terms of discovery and listening numbers for India’s independent artists.

Basrur says, “A lot of musicians are okay with it, they take it as a badge of honor. It probably helped. One thing is that he has a good curation capability for sure.” Negi adds, “We’re here talking about it (this channel) because it was important. It’s unfortunate that it’s been taken down. I wish they’d reached an agreement. I think it was a decent community.”