The price of free music

YouTube: to love it, or not to love it? It’s a marvellous teaching tool–I show my cello students videos of Miklos Perenyi’s supremely fluid left-hand shifting technique at least once a week, for example–and a great free music resource that I would have adored in my poor and hungry student days. (Let us not speak of the untold hours we also spend looking at videos of baby animals doing amusing things.)

But what is it that we’re really getting for free? Many musicians post YouTube videos of themselves–I’m no exception–for the exposure and the free publicity, but it’s pretty obvious that thousands of videos directly violate copyright.

I used to think that this was an oversight on YouTube’s part, and that if someone informed their management that a video wasn’t strictly legal, they’d take it down.

That was until I entered a dispute with them recently. If you go to YouTube and type “Miranda Wilson cello” into the search box, some of the first things that come up are old, low-quality recordings of my former quartet. These videos were posted without our permission by the University of Colorado’s new music concert series administrators during our long-ago residency there.

When, some time ago, I first discovered these videos on YouTube, I wrote to the director of the concert series, stipulating that we had not given permission for them to be on YouTube, and requesting that they be removed. I added that the performances were not at a standard that represented how we wished to be known. The reply was terse: all resident quartets are required, on taking up their residency, to sign a waiver allowing the University of Colorado to broadcast recordings of them online as they saw fit.

I replied that we had refused to sign the waiver, with the agreement of the administrators of the music department. There was no response to this e-mail, even though I wrote back several times.

So I took the matter to YouTube, in a back-and-forth that has consumed much of my time. I told them that the video had been posted without performer permission, but YouTube was only interested in the composer’s copyright. It wrote back informing me that I had no grounds to request the removal of the videos.

If the person who posted the video won’t listen to me and YouTube doesn’t think I have a leg to stand on, where does this leave my current relationship with YouTube’s services? It goes without saying that I’m exceedingly cross, and with this in mind, might it not be ethically consistent to stop using YouTube altogether? This would be inconvenient, since I regularly upload videos of my students’ lessons and recitals on the “unlisted” setting for educational purposes. I will, however, stop viewing videos that have clearly been posted without the performers’ consent.

In any case, this problem offers a discomfiting view of the changing music industry. The work that used to pay the rent–the sale of recordings–now isn’t expected to make us a dime, particularly since Spotify doesn’t pay artists anything much and YouTube doesn’t pay them at all. If performers’ rights are now meaningless, what have we left that does belong to us?

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