Aural sex: why is Pornhub becoming a fringe music destination?

Are artists collaborating for the free membership, or is there another reason for the site's unlikely musical expansion?

In the grand scheme of things, this last week has marked a notably horny week for the music world. A couple of days ago, for instance, Paul McCartney shared a particularly harrowing story about how he used to masturbate with The Beatles (try to forget that particular mental image next time he performs ‘Hey Jude’ in front of the Queen) dismissing the whole thing a “raunchy” form of band bonding. How wholesome. The very innocence of life itself might’ve been shattered by that unnecessary insight, but at least we may be a little closer to learning the true inspiration behind the band’s hit single ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Still, ol’ Paul’s not the only musician with a metaphorical box of Kleenex next to the bed this last week. In another equally puzzling turn of events, Kanye West acted as the creative director at this year’s Pornhub awards last Friday. As well as designing the room and styling the presenters, he also designed some phallic trophies. According to an official press release, they “represent imagined alien sex toys”. At the ceremony Yeezy also debuted a new song featuring (no sniggering at the back) Lil Pump, while the acclaimed Spike Jonze directed a video for the track.

West isn’t the first well-known artist to use pornography as a platform, either. At the end of last month Brooke Candy collaborated on I Love You, describing it to Dazed as “erotic film” inspired by “Deep Throat meets Holy Mountain”. And elsewhere, artists ranging from Mykki Blanco through to American band Xiu Xiu have worked on various films with the site. Oddly – or perhaps logically, when you consider the relative freedom of the website when it comes to NSFW content – Pornhub has also become a home for the dril music videos which were banned and removed by YouTube earlier this year amid police claiming they glamourise violence. It’s a strange shift for a slightly sleazy destination that has long been associated with one of young Macca’s extracurricular pastimes (yep, we still can’t shake that mental image) but the question is – why are so many experimental artists and left-field creators flocking there in the first place?

For those reading who may be unacquainted with Pornhub (or else, those of you who prefer to pretend you’re unacquainted – hiya!), the Canadian-founded company is the biggest pornography website in the world. Last year, the site racked up 28.5 billion visitors; anyone can see that’s a very tempting prospect for an artist looking for a new audience. In recent years, Pornhub has been branching out into some other unexpected territories, and in one particular ecological move which probably won’t solve the world’s fossil fuel shortage (but at least they’re trying), Pornhub introduced a product named the WankBand; a wrist-mounted energy generator which responds well to repetitive up-and-down movements. You can probably connect the dots with how that one works. They’ve also campaigned for breast cancer awareness, and ran a tree-planting campaign in 2014 called ‘Pornhub Gives America Wood’. They also, for some reason, have a record label, and recently launched a new project called the Pornhub Visionaries Director’s Club. Along with Brooke Candy, Young M.A has also directed an adult film as part of the project. Its goal, according to the site is “diversity porn production”.

For a long time the imaginatively named Pornhub Records remained virtually unused, and after two years of quiet, the company denied that it was shutting down.  Speculation arrived after a rumoured bid to sign jaded rapper Coolio fell limp. “If I want to see porn, I’ll put a mirror next to my bed,” Coolio later told Rolling Stone – good one!

However, it seems that the site has a longer term plan, and with Kanye West easily being their biggest endorsement to date, the appeal held for alternative musicians happy to subvert with their art and exploit the opportunities offered by less mainstream outlets is understandable.  “When artists premiere videos on our platform, they open up additional avenues through which they garner exposure and visibility,” vice president Corey Price told The Guardian two years ago. “However, maybe even more important than that, is that they are now a part of our family, and they become part of the evolving conversation surrounding sexuality and its presence in the mainstream.”

And it’s certainly true that the content artists are creating in collaboration with Pornhub isn’t necessarily pornographic at all. A few frustrated commenters on the site might be disgruntled about that one, sure, but it’s clear that funding for ambitious visual work is a large motivator for some collaborators. Many queer performers are also finding an unhindered platform here after years of battling draconian censorship on the mainstream sites more commonly used for watching music videos.

Take Mykki Blanco’s video for ‘Loner’ as one example. Created in collaboration with Pornhub and the fashion label Nicopanda – it’s more like high art than anything else, and feels like the opposite of a creative compromise. Instead, it depicts a world of loners caressing themselves suggestively while wearing virtual reality headsets and leather harnesses. Currently available on YouTube with an age warning, the platform previously tried to remove it on the grounds of violating guidelines. To be honest, there’s probably just as much sexual content in the video for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, and meanwhile there’s no such danger of the same censorship here. Perhaps, at the end of it all, artists are gravitating towards the platform because they’re fed up of being blacklisted for using a naughty word or flashing a nip on YouTube. Either that, or they’re there for the complimentary lifetime membership.