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Music Video Today: Vevo and the YouTube Symphony

Last week, Universal Music and Youtube announced a new joint venture: a video channel showing Universal’s entire catalogue of 10,000 videos, called

I didn’t blog about this when it was announced because, frankly, these things are repeatedly rolled out with fanfare and then turn to nothing. (Remember Urge?) And this smacks to me of one of those desperation moves cloaked as a business plan that we’re seeing a lot of as our familiar media avenues implode around us.

To wit: Record labels like Universal are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant in an age when everyone expects to get music for free and is finding ways to do it. And YouTube, for all its massive success, is reportedly still searching for a way to monetize its business. At least, a Credit Suisse analyst recently estimated that the company will lose $470 million this year.

Joining forces to compensate for each other’s weaknesses might make sense – if it had been conclusively demonstrated that music videos were a money-making proposition. The idea is that the two companies will split the income from ad revenue, and that it will be easier for a YouTube-like channel to sell advertising when its content is professionally produced rather than primarily user-generated. (Universal will own the channel, and YouTube will provide the technology.) But it seems to me that the overwhelming evidence in every field is that it’s hard to monetize your content on ad revenue alone. And didn’t the idea of a channel showing only music videos have its day in the 1980s, and end up morphing into something that showed hardly any music videos at all?

Obviously, I'm not a business reporter, just a classical music critic. But one reason I’m writing about this now is that I've been focused this week on one way that YouTube’s music videos can be productively used in real-world applications that make no money at all. This week sees the culmination of the YouTube Symphony project, and nearly 100 musicians from around the world, chosen from videos submitted through YouTube, have descended on New York for rehearsals and, tonight (Wednesday), a concert at Carnegie Hall under Michael Tilson Thomas (a.k.a. MTT)

I’ll be reporting on all of this in greater detail. But at the very least, all the musicians - who represent 30-odd countries and a wide range of experience - are working hard and seem to be getting a kick out of the whole thing. Last night there was an open mic event hosted at Le Poisson Rouge, New York’s new(ish) downtown club for alt-classical music.

So here's a use for music video. Nina Perlove, a flutist in Ohio who's in the YouTube Symphony, sent music for a flute and guitar duet to another YouTube Symphony player, Celso Garcia, a guitarist in Spain. Garcia posted a video to YouTube of himself playing the guitar part, and Perlove replied with a video of herself playing along with him. Last night, they played the duet together live at the Poisson Rouge. Small potatoes, perhaps; but possibly a more useful kind of collaboration.

Now I'm curious: how much do you, as a classical music listener, use YouTube, and how do you use it?

Edited to add: Obviously I'm not a videographer either, but here, in the spirit of YouTube, is some footage of open-mic night at the Poisson Rouge. After an introduction by Ed Sanders of YouTube, performers include the cellist Joshua Roman (an acclaimed soloist who is appearing with the orchestra), the clarinetist Marco Antonio Mazzini Herrera, from Peru, the flutist Nina Perlove, from Ohio, and the guitarist Celso Garcia Blanco, from Spain.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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I go back to the 78 era, and I'm used to hearing music without seeing it, and when I do see it the occasion is almost always a live concert. I make exceptions for the likes of the DVDs of Bernstein's VPO Mahler, and for the occasional concert or opera of interest on PBS, but videos don't do much for me.

The only time I seek out classical music on YouTube is when I can't find the composition or performance in other places. I pretty much ignore the video portion. The last thing I heard over YouTube was a performance of Taktakishvili's second piano concerto. (The first is on a CD of which I own a copy. It's now OP but available used on Amazon.) The audio's pretty awful by today's standards, but as best I can discover it's the only game in town.

I watch other stuff on YouTube, like snippets of The Two Ronnies and various videos recommended by friends, but for classical music it's only a last resort.

For non-video, there is an embarrassment of riches online, of which the Naxos web-site, with thousands of recordings available for about $25 a year (including, speaking as we were of Britten, a Pears "Les Illiminations", is particularly valuable.

Posted by: BobL | April 15, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

I often use YouTube when I want to have a glimpse into the great artists of the past, most often conductors. There are fascinating clips, plus lots of rarities such as Richard Tauber conducting (that's right, conducting) - wonderfully, may I say - the overture to Die Fledermaus. Really, the possibilities are endless.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 15, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

How do I use YouTube for classical music? I don't.

If I want to see music being made, I go to concerts (virtual or actual - God bless the internet). But staring at some grainy image in the middle of my laptop screen is more likely to give me a headache than an enjoyable listening/viewing experience.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for using modern technologies to bring classical music to new audiences. I just don't think YouTube (in its current form) is the right medium to help achieve this.

Classical music reviews & resources

Posted by: Kuhlau | April 15, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I use YouTube as an education tool with students. They frequently seek out performances of repertoire they're exploring on their own and share it back to me. The depth and breadth of great performers on video is astounding. The degree to which young performers benefit from sharing what they find with each other and with their teachers is both useful and fun.

Posted by: mk3738 | April 15, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

The dyspeptics who have prior posts seem to have contrary thoughts: for recordings visuals are bad, live performance OK. It ought to be obvious that the visual portion of a live concert enhances the experience - why not have access to the same enhancement for recordings? Also, prior to recordings music always had a visual component, so it is somewhat artificial that we can listen without seeing anything.

As a amateur pianist, I hope to post some videos of my performances and then email the urls to all my family, friends for them to enjoy.

Finally, all technologies should (and will) be used to perpetuate the classical music heritage by making it available to younger people in formats they can relate to. If it only happens in concert halls played by people in penguin suits they get turned off. (And rightly so, I might add.)


Posted by: kashe | April 15, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I suspect I am roughly 30 years younger than previous commenters, so my perspective is perhaps a little different.

Basically, I love Youtube. I'm not an addict by any means and loathe all the 3 YRS OLD PIANO PRODIGY!!!!!!! type efforts but the archive footage is exceptional and as mk3738 mentioned, you would be hard pressed not to find any versions of what you're after.

The other great thing about Youtube is the comments. For the most part, they are completely inane and therefore endlessly amusing with most taking the form of:

I play X instrument at X middle school, so I should know.

Classical music doesn't do proper music videos as a rule anyway, so I doubt this new Vevo endeavour will change anything for our little slice of the music world.

Posted by: MissMussel | April 15, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I concur with BobL's first post and I encourage attitudes like Patrick's above.

I use youtube all the time, for two reasons.

First to find out what a lot of contemporary pieces sound like. You read lots of reviews for all kinds of new pieces that commentators and reviewers find interesting, but good luck actually trying to hear any of these unrecorded pieces yourself. Youtube has been helpful here upon occasion.

Second, to find out what some younger and more under-recorded opera singers sound like. Most opera singers don't have major recording contracts, so it's hard to know what they sound like in the absence of recordings like those on youtube.

The best part of youtube is the comments section. Many will post things like, "If you like this video, have you ever heard of X?" Then you'll look up "X," and maybe enjoy something else you've never heard before. This is probably more likely to happen when you're watching pop music than classical, but it does happen in the classical and avant-garde realms too.


Posted by: j_v_ | April 15, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Symphony orchestras and opera companies are using YouTube and video production as promotional tools. Whether it's successful or not is open to debate, but here are a couple examples.

Washington National Opera has a YouTube channel where they post trailers for their productions. Each production has between several hundred and several thousand views, so somebody must be paying attention. Some of the straight footage isn't so interesting, but I especially liked their trailer for Peter Grimes, which sort of tells the story of the opera:

The Baltimore Symphony also has gorgeous videos on YouTube and on their website, with their music director previewing concerts. Each has a few hundred views:

As an classical music manager myself, I'd be interested to know whether patrons care about these kinds of extras. Do they spur interest, prompt a ticket purchase, or do viewers not really care? I'm a classical music and computer nerd, so these multimedia options are right up my alley, but since I probably don't fit the target demographic, I'd be interested to know whether regular concertgoers care about these video features.

Great topic.

Posted by: OperaLove | April 15, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

To respond to OperaLove's question, I rarely use YouTube for previews to concerts. Rarely but not never - an example is that of Enescu's Oedipe in Toulouse. Sometimes I watch the videos directly on the orchestra's site, as it happened last year for the Baltimore Symphony, or recently for the New York Philharmonic's Handel concert under Nicholas McGegan.

However my frustration with this kind of promotional material is that it's dumbed down (OK, maybe this is too strong, but certainly "marketed" to the general public), and that it rarely offers the insights that a seasoned music lover would want. An exception from that was an interview with Ivan Fischer that I saw last year on the National Symphony's web site.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 16, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

And I should add one more thing: that this "dumbing down" is not only an American phenomenon. Look at the Oedipe video from Toulouse: very little of interest to the seasoned music lover:

A little more insight, but again still something made "with the large public in mind" is this interview with the conductor from Toulouse, Pinchas Steinberg (he's William Steinberg's son!); it's in Italian:

However, a France Musique program broadcast around the date of the premiere in which the conductor was guest was really interesting and insightful.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 16, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

OK, one more thing. What I really find interesting are the discussions with the artists that the National Symphony offers after selected concerts. That, of course, depends on the questions asks by the audience, but I am fascinated generally by Ivan Fischer's answers.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 16, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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