Only a few short years ago while I was researching my book, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, the only accessible source in New York of archival film and video of theatre was Lincoln Center’s Theater on Film and Tape Collection (TOFT). YouTube was born February 2005, three months after my book was published, and I would have killed to have had free access to so much privileged material. No, I’m not talking about the Britneyana and reality videotrash that populates 99 percent of YouTube. I’m talking rare film footage of John Barrymore soliloquizing as Richard III, of Gertrude Lawrence singing in 1932, of Eddie Cantor, Harry Richman, Helen Morgan, even Blossom Seeley, famous to theater historians as being the supposed vocal model for Ethel Merman: now I’ve been able to judge this for myself by watching Seeley on YouTube! And pre-1935 vaudeville is reborn on YouTube: jugglers, ukulele players, animal acts, crudely offensive ethnic comedians, and even the team of Clark and McCullough (Groucho Marx stole Bobby Clark’s painted-on glasses and Phil Silvers stole his wisecracking persona for Sergeant Bilko). And, too, there are scenes galore from Broadway musicals of the 1940s reproduced by their original performers on 1950s television: Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in Kiss Me, Kate, for example.
You used to have to go to the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House of Photography in Rochester, or Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française in Paris to have a prayer of seeing stuff like this, or hope that some of it turned up on Classic Arts Showcase on cable TV. Now you can sit at your desktop and, for the cost of your monthly ISP bill, mouse-click on priceless cultural history. Of course there’s also footage of Toscanini, Furtwangler, and many classical and jazz pianists, violinists, and singers of yore, but I’m most struck by the obscure musical theater stuff, because theater is the ultimate ephemeral medium. Because the camera in very early sound films was not yet mobile, these films resemble contemporary videography in their stationariness and thus are actually more like filmed live performances. I wrote in my book that the 15-20 hours of theater sound recordings extant from 1890 to 1920 tell us how the singers sang better than contemporaneous accounts. Now I’ll have to update my book: YouTube’s videos tell us even more about how forgotten performers sang, moved, and acted. A talking picture is worth a thousand words, and a slew of 78s.
But not all is peachy with this situation. YouTube is a fence for stolen intellectual property. Well, not literally; many of these early films probably are out of copyright. But de facto? What will this do to museums’ ability to traffic in rare archival video materials? Clearly many of the uploads have been pirated; you can tell from the third-and-fourth generation print quality. But YouTube may not merely subvert museums’ abilities to amass more of this real stuff. When bootlegging is made legit by internet video sites, you undercut not only the art and collectibles markets, but the ability of the little guy to earn his just deserts from the fruits of his work.
Twenty-five years ago I spent time and trouble seeking out a famous pianist’s son to view a rare film of his father’s playing and to get permission to show it in a private lecture at the Juilliard School (I was not the person originally responsible for discovering the film.) Now, a good part of that film is available at the click of a mouse on YouTube. I also spent time—and my own money—synchronizing a sound recording of pianist Percy Grainger with a silent film of Grainger playing the same piece on the sound recording. Now that video is also freely available on YouTube. Is this fair?
Worse: Last year, a videographed live performance I didn’t like of my string quartet was uploaded on a website without my permission or knowledge (I wasn’t even notified of the performance by the performers, even though it took place at a well-known church venue in Manhattan), so the webcasting was completely illegal. The church’s solution: delete only the first movement of my quartet, leaving my name off. So the second movement of the performance is still online, the composer “anonymous”! Think of it this way: if you were a novelist whose manuscripts washed up in bottles on the shores of some far-flung continent, without your byline, free for the taking, would you be happy?
Despite good faith intentions, virality of video is uncheckable in our contemporary culture (unless you’re a corporate giant with limitless litigation resources), and it is defeating the intellectual property rights that ASCAP and BMI, among other groups, were founded to protect. So I both exult in and cringe at the goodies YouTube enables me to watch/steal.