Sometime in May, the Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan—always canny with new media—noticed several videos of his performances strewn across YouTube. He figured that he could simply create a channel for himself, and pulled those videos into his channel. He didn’t stop there; he dug into his own stash of VCDs of his concerts, edited them with iMovie, and uploaded those on YouTube as well.
Recently, therefore, when I wanted to listen to some new music on a slow afternoon, I headed without thinking to YouTube.com/SanjaySub. Which was when it struck me: While YouTube has rightly been lauded for providing us with unlimited footage of yawning cats and burping babies, it is too often passed over, in favour of iTunes and Pandora, in discussions of how the Internet has changed the experience of music.
On tap: George C. Gershwin.
Most obviously, YouTube now functions as a free song-on-demand service. For better or for worse, thousands of pieces of music have eluded the gimlet eyes of copyright patrol and made it on to the site, some as music or concert videos, others playing over cheesy image montages or even a single still.
When, after watching the Wes Anderson short film Hotel Chevalier, I wanted to track down Peter Sarstedt’s haunting track Where Do You Go To (My Lovely), I didn’t search for freely downloadable versions online, and I didn’t even think of springing 99 cents (around Rs45) for an iTunes download. Instead, I looped the song on YouTube until I grew predictably sick of it.
In the world of online music criticism, YouTube helps to show, not tell. Writing about music, it was once memorably said, is like dancing about architecture, so it improves matters no end when critics embed clips to illuminate their arguments. YouTube has thus loosened up the best critics considerably, expanded their reach, and kept them relevant. On his blog, titled The Rest is Noise after his marvellous book, the music critic Alex Ross posts clips that follow the news faithfully; when the Italian opera singer Cesare Siepi died, Ross excavated an 8-minute snippet of Siepi singing Don Giovanni at Salzburg—in 1954! Terry Teachout, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, features a weekly series of videos on his blog, About Last Night (this 4 July, Teachout posted a clip of John Philip Sousa introducing his band’s rousing rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever).
The visceral appeal of YouTube—proving that music aficionados are more visual creatures than they’d like to believe—lies in watching performers we have only heard or heard about. In theory, video shouldn’t be important, and the music should be everything—and yet watching M.D. Ramanathan sing in his thought-filled, deliberate way explains his style by putting a personality behind it.
My favourite such example featured recently on Teachout’s blog—a 1931 clip of George Gershwin playing I Got Rhythm for a furious minute and 14 seconds, “the only surviving sound film,” Teachout writes, “of Gershwin at the piano.” Gershwin plays at blinding speed, his right hand pounding out the melody, his left bouncing artfully off the keys, the jauntiness of the song made clearly out of the jauntiness of the man. His very body, thrilled at making its music, seems to cry out the refrain: “Who could ask for anything more?”
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org