Peter Kafka

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Vevo–aka “YouTube Music”–Gets a CEO: Universal Digital Boss Rio Caraeff

caraeff-rioThere are plenty of question marks surrounding Vevo, Universal Music Group’s new music video site that’s scheduled to launch later this year with a big assist from Google’s YouTube. But here’s one answer: The venture will be run by Rio Caraeff, who currently oversees UMG’s digital business.

Caraeff is already heading up Vevo on an interim basis, but right now he’s still holding down his old job as executive vice president of UMG’s eLabs unit. At some point later this year, he is “99.99 percent certain” to be named president of the video site, according to someone familiar with Universal’s thinking. No word on who will get his old job.

That’s a good start for Vevo, which you can think of as either a “Hulu for music,” or more practically, “YouTube Music,” since the project will move videos at the world’s biggest music company from the world’s biggest video site and onto the new venture.

Running a start-up will be a new role for Caraeff, but at least he knows digital music and UMG specifically–he’s been working there since 2005. Prior to that, he ran wireless for Sony’s (SNE) movie arm.

Just as important, the appointment means Vevo will at least have cleared one hurdle that tripped up News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace, which announced its plans to start a music site in the April 2008 but couldn’t land a CEO for the venture until MTV vet Courtney Holt took the gig in November–a couple months after the site launched.

There’s plenty for Caraeff to do: In addition to overseeing the launch of the site itself, he’ll need to staff it–while Google (GOOG) is helping Universal build and power the site, Caraeff will need to hire a “couple dozen people,” says a source familiar with his plan. A big priority: Assembling a sales force to sell the video clips.

And then? Plenty of other questions, which I raised a month ago when the deal was first announced. Forgive me, but I’m just going to quote myself here:

And even if Google’s technical expertise makes it easier for UMG to get a decent site up and running, neither company has a real track record when it comes to getting big brands to pony up for video ads, which is supposedly the whole point of the site.

Lots of people made similarly disparaging remarks about Hulu, of course. There was no way that GE’s (GE) NBC and News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox were going to be able to launch a decent site, let alone provide a challenge to YouTube. But they did, and they are. So the Vevo folks have that example to inspire them. (News Corp. is the owner of Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)

But even if UMG gets the site off the ground, there is a considerable risk for both the label and for Google. Because if it works, Vevo will be diverting a lot of eyeballs away from YouTube–yesterday’s press release boasted that UMG’s YouTube channel has racked up 3.5 billion views.

The idea is to provide advertisers with a clean, well-lit space that will make them feel comfortable enough to spend money. But part of YouTube’s appeal is that is a riot of  the good, the bad and the WTF? You may start out watching a U2 video, and 20 minutes later end up watching a clip of a doped-up seven-year-old after a visit to the dentist. If you end up at Vevo, you’re going to have be very interested in music videos–and, at least for now, just the ones that Universal owns.

Are there enough video watchers out there to justify a business with some 50+ employees, which is the number I’ve heard Vevo/Universal is looking at? And can Universal figure out how to turn those eyeballs into more money than they’d generate on YouTube itself? Got me. Can’t wait to find out.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo