THE beautiful thing about a machine like YouTube, the video-hosting virtual megalopolis named "invention of the year" by Time magazine (though its birth dates from 2005), is its fundamental neutrality, the way the website wraps itself around the user and becomes a reflection of his interests. My particular YouTube, where I have been spending perhaps a little too much time lately -- the trick in these things always is knowing when to stop -- is a window onto a world of music: specifically, live performance.
As to the homemade comedy sketches, video blogs and fake video blogs, anime clips, soccer goals, self-destructing-celebrities-caught-on-cellphone clips, advertisements disguised as grass-roots viral videos, attempts to get famous because some other guy got famous on YouTube, and endless stupid human and pet tricks that seem to occupy most of the server space, I see that they are there, but they make no impression. Like canned fruit in a supermarket aisle, I pass them by.
Here in the Western world, we live defined by media: We are what we watch, what we listen to. (A few of us are still the papers we read.) And because this identification is so strong and thoroughgoing, one can feel that anything that has ever been recorded or taped or filmed should be available to hear or see, and that there is even something heroic, in a Promethean way, about those who arrange to make this happen. In earlier days, this fire-stealing manifested itself as the bootleg-record industry, whose High Baroque period, marked by expensive and often beautifully designed boxed sets, was cut dead by the Internet, where such fast and efficient file-sharing technologies as bit torrent have created vast networks dedicated to getting the music and pictures of the music out for free.
One vision of the Net maintains that it ought to be controlled and owned and exploited, farmed and ranched and arranged in such a way that nothing moves without the owner (which is not necessarily to say the creator) getting his cut. The other -- the Wikipedia, OpenOffice, open-source way of no-business -- holds that it is common ground, free and open, a place built and shaped by the people who use it, where sharing is the ultimate good.
Both approaches are manifest in YouTube, which is at once a commercial enterprise, now cutting revenue-sharing deals with major labels to legally show their videos, and a tool for moving around other people's intellectual property. ("Intellectual property is theft," some might say.) A comment left by one user (referring to a clip of the band Monsoon) sums it up well: "Copyright issues notwithstanding (!), thanks for putting this on. Can't find it anywhere for legitimate download, and have always loved it."
That's the gray area many of us live in. The question of who isn't getting a royalty when I click on a YouTube clip evaporates in the terrific excitement I feel knowing that with a click of the mouse, the 1968 Pentangle, or Superchunk at this year's SXSW conference, will appear on my computer screen.
One click leads to another: the YouTube experience is half treasure hunt, half trip down the rabbit hole. I go looking for things I haven't seen before, and did not suspect existed, and could not otherwise see, unless by remote happenstance. I do not have time in my life to monitor VH1 Classic or sit up all night with the Classic Arts Showcase.
Once I depended on the occasional largesse of well-connected, tape-trading friends to fuel this small obsession. But YouTube is like having that friend a thousand times over, always available. The material comes from all over the world, and from many sources: from television or stripped from (not always) out-of-print commercial tapes or DVDs; from "liberated" unofficial, never-for-broadcast outtakes or rehearsal footage; from concerts captured by the posters themselves on digital cameras or cellphones.
In recent days I've seen Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, at her peak, singing "Angel Eyes" in Amsterdam; the Penguin Cafe Orchestra on Britain's "South Bank Show"; Bob Dylan sound-checking for his 1984 "Letterman" appearance backed by members of the Plugz; Fela Kuti jamming with Ian Anderson and Jack Bruce on German TV in 1983; the Stooges in 1970; Funkadelic in 1979; Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn singing "Easy Loving"; the prelapsarian Mothers of Invention performing "King Kong"; pre-paralyzed Robert Wyatt in the Soft Machine; the KLF on "Top of the Pops" with Tammy Wynette; Liberace playing "Flight of the Bumblebee"; Eddie Cochran playing "Summertime Blues"; the Dada-pop Bonzo Dog Band, in their '60s prime and on a reunion tour last month; cerebral bluesman John Fahey live in 1978; Tom Waits on "Fernwood 2Nite"; the Incredible String Band at Woodstock; footage of Tom Verlaine teaching Richard Hell how to play "Venus" when Hell was still the bass player in Television; a fierce PJ Harvey at some unnamed pop festival; the Lou Reed/John Cale/Nico semi-reunion from Le Bataclan in Paris in 1972; John Zorn's Naked City (with Bill Frisell and Fred Frith), live in New York in 1992; Yoko Ono dolphin-chirping "Don't Worry, Kyoko" at the 2005 Arthurfest at Barnsdall Park; Ornette Coleman on Italian television in 1974; Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore, Algerian rai singer Khaled, Argentine accordionist Chango Spasiuk, Yo La Tengo, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Delgados and a whole lot of French pop, from Charles Trenet to Francoiz Breut.
With tens of thousands of clips uploaded daily to YouTube, this library will get only deeper. Yet I wonder if this isn't a dawn but a twilight; it seems too good to last, and given the copyright issues (and sundry lawsuits), it seems possible that this will go the way of all Napsters, reined in and gated.
I don't claim the moral right, only the deep desire. Meanwhile, I get it while I can.