Tuesday, October 10, 2006

WhoseTube? ArtsTube!

YouTube is shaping the future of fine-arts video on demand
September 30, 2006

NEW YORK -- Everybody's talking about YouTube -- and not always nicely, either. Doug Morris, who runs Universal Music, gave a speech the other day in which he proclaimed that the 19-month-old online video-sharing Web site owes his conglomerate "tens of millions of dollars" for allowing copyrighted music videos to be posted without permission. Mr. Morris's shot across the bow was quickly followed by the announcement that Warner Music, Universal's smarter competitor, has struck a deal allowing YouTube, which receives 100 million hits a day, to show its videos in return for a chunk of ad revenue. Says Warner Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr.: "Consumer-empowering destinations like YouTube have created a two-way dialogue that will transform entertainment and media."

Such heated talk will doubtless puzzle casual visitors to www.youtube.com who have yet to find anything there other than pirated videos, home movies and amateur porn. But YouTube, like the other new Web-based media, is a common carrier, a means to whatever ends its millions of users choose, be they good, bad, dumb or ugly. You can use it to watch mindless junk -- or some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century.

In recent months, jazz-loving friends have been sending me YouTube links to videos by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other celebrated artists, most of them drawn from films of the '30s and '40s and TV shows of the '50s and '60s. Some of this material is available on DVD, but most of it lingered in limbo until Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTube's co-founders, made it possible for anyone with a computer to post and view video clips at will. Fascinated by the links unearthed by my friends, I spent the better part of a long weekend trolling through YouTube in search of similar material. When I was done, I'd found hundreds of videos, some extremely rare and all compulsively watchable, posted by collectors from all over the world.

I discovered along the way that using YouTube's literal-minded search engine to track down high-culture links -- or anything else -- can be a tricky business. (It doesn't help that so many YouTube users are poor spellers.) To ease the way for first-timers, I posted the fruits of my labors at www.terryteachout.com, where you'll find a list of links to performances by Armstrong, Ellington, Count Basie, Pablo Casals, the King Cole Trio, Miles Davis, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Benny Goodman, Jascha Heifetz, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Andrés Segovia, Bessie Smith, Arturo Toscanini and numerous other musicians of comparable significance. All can be viewed free, whenever you want.

Seeing these artists, most of whom are now known to us only through their recordings, is an awe-inspiring experience. To watch Art Tatum rippling through a bristlingly virtuosic version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," or Richard Strauss conducting his tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel" with a cool detachment that borders on the blasé, is to learn something about the essence of their art that no verbal description, however insightful or evocative, can supply.

By posting this list of links, I have, in effect, created a Web-based fine-arts video-on-demand site. The irony is that I did so just as network TV was getting out of the culture business. Not only have PBS and its affiliates cut back sharply on classical music, jazz and dance, but cable channels like A&E and Bravo that used to specialize in the fine arts are now opting instead to show "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." This abdication of cultural responsibility has created an opening for entrepreneurs who grasp the new media's unrivaled capacity for niche marketing.

Might YouTube, or something like it, become the salvation of culture-hungry TV viewers? I hasten to point out that nobody's making any money off my little experiment. But it would be perfectly feasible for Classic Arts Showcase, the foundation-supported outfit that makes fine-arts videos available via satellite to any TV station that cares to air them, or Ovation, the last remaining high-culture cable network of any seriousness, to team up with iTunes and launch a professional video-on-demand service. If they don't, somebody else will.

In the meantime, fine-arts fans are using YouTube to build their own makeshift "network." It's far from perfect: The technical quality of the videos is wildly variable, and you have to watch them on a computer. What's more, many are protected by copyright, and some of the copyright holders are requesting that their videos be pulled from YouTube. (I just lost two terrific Bill Evans clips that way.) I understand their concerns, but I think they're being as short-sighted as the paranoid executives at Universal Music.

As any economist can tell you, supply creates its own demand. Disseminating high-culture TV and radio programming for free via the Web is among the simplest and most cost-effective ways to expand the audience for the fine arts. Every time a Web surfer in South Dakota or South Africa views a YouTube video by Louis Armstrong or Arturo Toscanini, he's making a discovery that could change his life -- not to mention his concert-going and record-buying habits. I can't think of a better bargain.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.

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