As a musician, one of the most valuable online tools at my disposal is YouTube. I play with a lot of different people, several of which in cover-band outfits (think bar bands, not tribute bands for the love of God), and if I have to learn some obscure Eagles tune to play on a Friday night at the local watering hole, the easiest way for me to get the chord changes and harmonies down is to check out a live version on the video-sharing site. This accomplishes two goals: first, I can learn the chords by sight instead of trying to decode some wannabe rock star’s barely-decipherable tabulature; second, I don’t have to illegally download or otherwise purchase the song to learn by ear. This is to say nothing of the fact that I’ve found some really awesome bootlegged footage of great live performances…I don’t think any artist fully duplicates a live show, so it’s fantastic to see a unique and truly special moment in time captured on film.
YouTube is also a fantastic proliferation tool; that is to say, I can start (and have started) my own channel and upload videos of live shows, home-recorded covers, whatever I want. I can also interact with other up-and-coming musicians doing the same thing, which is a great way to get exposure and develop a community of like-minded performers in your area and beyond.
(She is awesome)
It’s not just musicians who benefit from this service either – aspiring filmmakers, poets, animators, and a host of other artists can use YouTube to expose their work to a wider audience. In fact, that was YouTube’s original purpose: to provide an easy-to-understand venue for user-generated content. Granted, what constitutes user-generated content is pretty broad. Technically speaking, anything uploaded to a computer and then to the site by an individual could be considered “user-generated”, but when I first read YouTube’s tag line, I assumed they were referring to video content created by users. Of course, not every user is artistically inclined, so I assumed (despite my personal preferences) a lot of user-generated content would wind up being home movies: kittens performing typically cute activities like playing with string, babies taking their first steps, amateur footage of sporting events, and lots and lots of people falling down, getting scared and being kicked in the jewels.
And, predictably, I was right. But those early videos opened the floodgates for a host of pseudo-intellectuals who use every available resource to forward their personal opinions on everything from 9/11 to the moon landing to the Zionist Conspiracy. For years these people were relegated to the cultural wasteland of early blog sites (LiveJournal was particularly bad for this) but thanks to basic editing software, YouTube handed these amateur historians and social commentators the keys to the metaphorical kingdom. I can still buy into this, though: as I’ve said in many previous articles, we’re supposed to be living in a democracy, which means everybody gets a say, no matter how uninformed and ignorant that say might be.
The other effect YouTube had on media was the ability to upload and proliferate all manner of movie trailers, music videos, television shows and even full films, which allowed viewers to watch everything from old Simpsons reruns to DVD rips of unreleased movies to that stupid goddamn Rick Astley video, all for free.
YouTube took a reasonably strong stance against those practices, among others: the terms of service prohibits the uploading of videos containing copyrighted material as well as pornographic, criminal or defamatory content. Initially it was pretty difficult for YouTube staffers to hunt down and remove all content meeting these criteria; they relied heavily on the user community to flag copyrighted material in order to bring it to the attention of the censoring team. A number of infringement complaints were leveled against the site in the early to mid-2000s by angry parties, most notably media giant Viacom (the parent company for almost everything, in case you didn’t know) who threatened to sue YouTube and its owner, Google, for a billion dollars as a result of what their lawyers estimated to be over 160,000 counts of copyright infringement.
Here’s where it gets a little interesting. In retribution for the infringements, Viacom requested log-in ID names, IP addresses, and a host of other information regarding what was being watched by whom on YouTube. Predictably, this caused quite an uproar – what Viacom asked for (and received, thanks to District Court Judge Louis Stanton) constituted a pretty huge invasion of user privacy. As a result, there was a huge culling of YouTube videos that were attached to Viacom, and the privacy issue went largely undiscussed.
Here’s my thing. As an artist I’m not a particularly big fan of the idea of my work being used without my permission, anywhere, for any reason. I put a lot of effort into the music I make, and it would burn my ass something fierce to see someone else profit from that work. That said, ever since YouTube was taken over by Google, it’s hardly been anything resembling “profitable”. I came across this article today detailing what Google is calling the five myths about YouTube, one of which is that only 3-5% of the site is monetized. According to Google,
“This oft-cited statistic is old and wrong, and continues to raise much speculation. Monetized views have more than tripled in the past year, as we’re adding partner content very quickly and doing a better job of promoting their videos across the site.”
Translation: user-generated content doesn’t make them any money (i.e. they aren’t profiting from any live performance videos I might upload) so they’re going elsewhere to try and improve the cash flow of the site. I understand this; it’s good business.
However, what does that do to a website whose original mission statement was to provide a venue for user-generated content? If Google makes this move towards “partnering” with major corporations to provide them a venue for advertising, HD trailers and the like, YouTube stops being YouTube and becomes ThemTube. Granted, I’ll occasionally search for the latest Inglorious Basterds (sic, goddamn it) trailer or a clip from an old Star Trek episode or something, but by and large – believe it or not – I’m much more interested in finding other artists like me covering a favourite song or, even better, producing something original. Hell, I’d sooner watch the “guy getting kicked in the crotch” videos, or that idiot over at Loose Change waxing poetic about the World Trade Center, if it means YouTube stays firmly in the hands of the users, as opposed to the greedy mitts of multi-billion dollar conglomerates looking to turn it into just another television substitute.
Consider this as well – the root of advertising is content control. The more power Google and YouTube give to these “partners” of theirs, the more you’re going to see serious censorship of user content. Noted internet personality Maddox is firmly against the idea of monetizing his site with advertising, despite the fact that he would stand to make a mint from it. In a 2003 article on his site, he discusses why he’s so opposed to opening his extremely successful website to advertisers.
“Nowhere on this site will you find any banners or pop-ups. This site gets more traffic than most commercial sites, and I don’t make a cent off of it. I don’t even have a lame PayPal donation link begging for money. Money has never been the goal of this site, and that’s why even as I get upwards of 60,000-100,000 hits per day, I still refuse to sell advertisements. I could be rich off of advertisements, and I could even quit my job, but I refuse to sell ads.
Why? Because selling advertisements gives people an incentive to lie and because it takes power away from the author. The reason this site doesn’t have advertisements on it is because I want to say whatever I want to without having to worry about offending advertisers. People who sell ads essentially have to censor themselves to do it; if they ever want to talk about something controversial, they have to look over their shoulders to make sure they’re not going to piss anyone off. By not selling ads, nobody can ever force me to change my content by threatening to cut off my advertising revenue because there is none.”
Well done, you hairy, outspoken pirate.
This is the point, my friends. YouTube is bought and paid for, and now you’re going to see it start whoring itself out to corporate interests because one of the most successful web-based businesses in history finally blundered into a fiscal sinkhole – with the YouTube thing, they saw the potential to make money hand over fist, but they failed to take into account the fact that in so doing, they’d kill the very thing that made YouTube cool – or at least democratic – to begin with.
For my part, if I start seeing YouTube’s censors start removing more than just audio tracks to copyrighted material (which is still their right and in that I support them) and start dictating what user-generated content can and can’t be posted beyond the realm of basic decency and common sense, I’ll be the first to pull all my material from that page, delete it from my browser, and never venture there again.
Because I refuse to have my mouth taped shut by a corporate interest – and so should you.
To paraphrase the French philosopher Voltaire,
“I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Post Scriptum: If you’re really, really interested, you can check out my YouTube page here. (I couldn’t let an opportunity for shameless self-promotion pass me by.)