Unknown YouTube: CyberLouvre of Lost Music/Theatre Treasures

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.

4 thoughts on “Unknown YouTube: CyberLouvre of Lost Music/Theatre Treasures

  1. rtanaka

    I gave up on the idea of receiving any substantial compensation for recorded mediums years ago. Having grown up with the internet and all, it seemed that piracy had become way too easy of a task for any group or organization to really put a lid on it. It’s part of the reason why I turned to performing my own music.

    I used to put a lot of effort into making nice recordings too, but nowadays the only thing I use it for is for press kits that gives the manager or audience of the particular venue an idea of what the music sounds like. You figure that it’s supposed to be just a sample, so if the short bits catch their interest, then they’ll make an effort to come see the live shows, which is something that can’t really be codified on many levels.

    From an economic standpoint, an infinitely duplicable product just isn’t really worth very much because of its abundance in supply. Recordings haven’t been around for very long, and the idea that one could make a living selling records is I think a very recent phenomenon. (Which of course, very few people are able to accomplish.) It made a good run through national media monopolies in the past, though now that the power of duplication is available to the average consumer, maybe the idea itself is now obsolete.

    It seems like there should now be more of an emphasis on commissions rather than depending on royalty checks since the latter is probably going to prove itself to be unreliable in the near future. If composers are compensated on a per-project basis, then there shouldn’t be any problems with people “pirating” their stuff since everything is already paid for. Who knows, maybe it’s a good thing…keeps musicians on their toes instead of living fat off of previously done works.

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  2. MarkNGrant

    Ryan, what you’re proposing is not just wholesale abolition of royalty income, but the abolition of centuries of copyright law, and that cannot possibly, and should not ever, be realized. That artists have a protected right to profit from the sale of their wares is a canon of law. It’s called intellectual property law. Yes, painters and sculptors sell their art products outright, but they are creating physical objects that can appreciate (or depreciate) on open markets, frequently for prices that are astronomically larger than what even successful composers can command. (As Ned Rorem noted in one of his books, Stravinsky’s estate was worth a few million, Picasso’s was valuated closer to a billion.) Composers and writers don’t traffic in physical objects that can be traded on bourses, they create value that inheres in “intellectual property” that can be physically reproduced, and the law has recognized this essential difference from painters for well over a hundred years. Thus writers and composers are legally entitled to royalty income from resale of their work. Since the time composers have first been published by the likes of Breitkopf, they have received royalties, just as Hemingway and James Joyce did (and as their posthumous estates continue to do). The man who almost single-handedly founded ASCAP in 1914 to protect these rights was Victor Herbert, who in the early 1910s was at the same time America’s leading classical music composer and leading popular music composer (imagine that).

    I have published books and composed music on both a royalty and a commission/work-for-hire basis. Did you know that Amazon.com sells books still in print to online customers at a reduced rate of resale, but that these resales do not go into either the publishers’ or the authors’ pockets? In other words, the same physical copy of a book is sold twice, but the author gets a royalty only on the first “legitimate” sale. The second time, only the online reseller profits. But because a stable number of copies of the book are thereby kept in (re)circulation, the book publisher has no incentive to reprint the book. So the internet is effectively depriving the author of his rightful potential for future income from the demand for his book. Do you imagine that this hasn’t caused outrage among the book author community? Well, it has, and that’s the same point I was trying to make about online piracy of music and video.

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  3. rtanaka

    Well, I can sympathize with the frustrations involved in having your work taken and used without permission and I’m not advocating that there’s anything moral about the infringements that are happening right now. I’m just speculating some possible ways for musicians and music institutions to work their way around the problem until someone can come up with a workable solution.

    One thing that might help is if this decision gets overturned some time in the future, although it may be a hard sell to try to count downloads as a “performance” since the idea seems so counter-intuitive. Right now there’s so much music and musicians out there that performing rights organizations don’t have the capacity to keep up with what’s going on. A well-written tracking and registration program, perhaps, could automate the process to some degree and ensure that the right compensation goes to the right place. It could feasibly happen, once TV and film become fully integrated with internet services, who knows.

    I dunno, I just think that it might simplify a lot of things if the bulk of the compensation were done upfront instead of having to go through all the hassles of tracking down who played what when where for what purpose, etc. There’s something new and exciting about doing commissions and I wouldn’t mind if compensation came more upfront in that manner. I’ve been getting my hands into ASCAP systems as of the late, but man, it’s so much work considering how little returns you usually get.

    Some business practices lump the royalty costs with the costs of the composition (like commercial jingles) where the composer gets paid a large sum all in the beginning in exchange for letting the client do whatever they want with the product thereafter. This might also work for some composers, although I have no idea where the money is going to come from. (Government?) I’m just thinking out loud, I guess…

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  4. MarkNGrant

    Accidental deletion restored to my post
    A few important words were accidentally deleted from my original post at the top. In reference to my uploaded string quartet, the sentence as I originally posted it read, “The piece was registered and licensed by BMI, so the webcasting was completely illegal.” The italicized portion was accidentally deleted. It’s the BMI registration that was the critical issue in the illegality of the webcast.

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