MTV Bumps Vevo as Top Online Music Destination, Igniting a Web Video Flame War

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Did Universal Music Group make a mistake? Last month, the world's largest record label announced that MTV.com would no longer be carrying its artists' music videos; instead, the label would broadcast on Vevo, the Hulu-for-music-video platform that has been growing in popularity with help from YouTube. Vevo recently became the No. 1 online destination for music entertainment. But today, a new report from comScore shows that MTV has knocked Vevo from the top spot.

According to the report, MTV received more than 53 million unique visitors in August, a 165% uptick in traffic year-over-year. Vevo, on the other hand, garnered 49 million visitors last month.

"Amen, brother," exclaims Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks' music group. "It all seems to be clicking."

What's remarkable about these figures isn't the difference in unique visitors, but more so how much MTV has climbed in such a short span. In February, when Vevo became the No. 1 music-entertainment network, MTV sat in fourth place behind MySpace and AOL Music. Since then, they've more than doubled their Web traffic, rocketing past all frontrunners. Vevo has certainly continued to grow, but with syndication from YouTube, it's surprising they weren't able to maintain their top spot.

Of course, the battle for online music-video supremacy is far from over. And it's important to remember that while MTV received more visitors than Vevo, not all of the network's content is devoted to music. Visitors might be more interested in, say, watching Jersey Shore's The Situation hook up with grenades than watching music videos (sadly, there's no real video for The Situation's rap song on either site--MTV posted a YouTube clip of the audio, though). Vevo, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to music videos, a platform aimed at luring more advertisers with higher viewer engagement.

"We're 100% music-video and music-programming content--and MTV is not," says David Kohl, VP of sales and operations at Vevo. "If someone is truly looking for original music content, Vevo is by far still No. 1."

But 53 million unique visitors is a big loss of potential impressions for Universal, regardless of whether users only stumbled across an artist or music video accidentally while on MTV's online properties. After all, that's the same reason Vevo partners with YouTube--to gain access to the video site's huge user-base.

"There is music on every page of our site, and music comes in many different forms," explains Toffler. "MTV is much more than just music videos: It's performances, live streams, B-rolls, interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff." Tofler also points out that MTV benefits from its expansive network: Viewers of its TV channels (MTV, VH1, and CMT) head to MTV's digital networks for music and more.

"OK Go was seen a gazillion times on YouTube on the treadmill," he argues. "But when they came on the VMAs on MTV, that's when they took off and sold records."

For Universal, MTV's increasing popularity at the very least indicates that the label may have acted too soon in choosing sides: While they've gained from partnering with Vevo, they've no doubt also suffered losses through cutting ties with MTV.com.

Asked whether the decision was looking like a mistake, a spokesperson for Universal declined to comment on the record.

"Look at the fact that Taylor Swift, a Universal artist, came to us to promote her video exclusively," says MTV's Tofler. "I can't speak to the wisdom behind Universal and Vevo's business plan, but I can speak to the fact that artists and managers realize there's real value to being on MTV, VH1, CMT, and our online sites."

"It's apples to oranges," argues Kohl, referring to the comparison between MTV Networks' unique visitors and Vevo's music-specific audience. Kohl said a report coming next week would paint a more accurate portrait of Vevo's business.

"They didn't say that in February," retorts Toffler, noting that Vevo never raised objections to the very same "apples to oranges" comScore comparison when it was the top music-entertainment site. "There's no denying the fact that the MTV Networks is now the No. 1 music site online."

Meanwhile, Warner Music Group, which has been unable to strike a deal with Vevo, recently became full-fledged partners with MTV. In WMG's last earnings call, chair Edgar Bronfman told investors that the company had signed a deal with MTV to sell ads for the label's music videos across the network's digital and mobile platforms. "MTV Networks allows us to monetize this strategy," he said. Bronfman also stressed that MTV would help the label increase artist visibility online.

"We're continually in conversations with Warner Music Group," explains Kohl, of a potential partnership between Vevo and WMG. "I'm not sure why they chose MTV."

Tofler sure knows why.

"If they want to break an artist like Bruno Mars, they want the advantage of coming to MTV, putting him on the VMAs, and promoting his music online at the No. 1 site," he explains.

Although labels more and more are taking sides in the Vevo-MTV battle, it's still unclear who will come out on top. But MTV's surge in traffic these past few months certainly indicates it's becoming a worthy competitor.

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