“Happy 5th birthday, YouTube!” chirruped the internet en masse on Valentine’s Day – though it was a peculiarly geeky definition of ‘birthday’. The video site didn’t actually produce any content until December 2005. 14 February was simply the date the domain name was registered. Woo! Way to administrate! Break out the streamers!
Still, only an insanely contrarian choad could deny that the site - bought by Google in 2006 for $1.6 billion – has transformed the media profoundly, and in a startlingly short space of time. YouTube now serves upwards of a billion video views a day; an astonishing figure (even if roughly 999 million of those depict sneezing pandas/talking cats/death metal roosters).
But let’s not mock. Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about a site whose top-ranking videos are:
1. A baby biting a toddler’s finger (160 million views).
2. A bald bloke dancing badly (137 million).
3. An arse-wretched Miley Cyrus track (110).
4. An irritating baby being made to gurgle by a simpleton (107).
5. A sub-Bernard Manning, racist ventriloquist act (106).
In order to flourish on YouTube, a clip needs to cut across barriers of age, nationality, and language – which means you end up with a moronic lingua franca, an idiot’s Esperanto, an endless global You’ve Been Framed, in which the aggregated sum of human endeavour basically boils down to a poodle on a skateboard, postscripted by the word ROFLMAO!!!x
Libertarians trumpet the notion that the internet has brought the planet together, obliterating the historical boundaries that have alienated man from man. Unfortunately, the fact that almost 90 million people have gawped at this on YouTube leads you to suspect that your fellow man is possibly a bit of a dick.
And yet… there’s one field in which YouTube’s impact on culture has been genuinely revolutionary and liberating, and that’s music. For music fans, the site is a magic portal into a near-limitless universe of delights. Can you now imagine a world in which you couldn’t access history’s most thrilling live performances in seconds? It’s worth remembering the sheer jolt of excitement you felt, the first night you stayed up far too late, sifting through YouTube.
“You mean everything’s on here? Manic Street Preachers doing 'Faster' on TOTP? Unreleased Radiohead masterpieces? Bruce Springsteen in his early ‘80s live pomp? Every band I’ve ever liked? Brilliant! And this is all… legal, is it?”
Er, yes, well. In making content freely embeddable, YouTube has facilitated – you could argue – the greatest collective act of copyright theft ever. Legally, it's the greyest of grey areas. There have been many attempts to regulate the flow of content: Warner pulled their music videos from the site in 2008, and a PRS dispute led to thousands of clips being deleted the following year.
But it’s essentially one giant, futile game of Whack-A-Mole. Delete one video, and someone somewhere will just upload it again. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. YouTube, and the free-for-all content-grab era it ushered in, are here to stay. Here are five more ways the site has transformed music.
1. The end of ownership
We’ve all read think-pieces about how sites like Spotify and We7 herald the end of the age of downloading, and the “dawn” of the cloud-based streaming era. This is news to those of us who’ve been streaming music via YouTube since 2005.
In a few years’ time, when MP3s seem just as quaint and outdated as vinyl does today, we’ll be able to thank/blame YouTube for kick-starting that profound shift.
2. The rise of the Dad-Rock reunion
On YouTube, generational boundaries don’t exist. A clip of Fleetwood Mac playing ‘Tusk’ has equal weight as The xx. Hence the explosion in heritage rock in the past few years.
By capturing classic live performances, YouTube gives every band a second life, in which they are forever young, forever at their peak. This in turn ratchets up the demand for endless reunions. These days, bands never stay split up for long, because the internet doesn’t allow their memory to fade.
3. The tearable web
For many of us, YouTube videos were our first experience of embeddable content. In that sense the site was an early pioneer of our modern tear-it-and-share-it web culture, foreshadowing the, ahem, widgetization of media.
In less wanky terms: before YouTube, websites tended to be walled gardens, joined only by links. Post-YouTube, the internet is a looser, less rigid place. Like Soundcloud? You don’t visit Soundcloud, you embed it on your own blog.
4. It’s vastly increased the audience for music videos…
For bands, YouTube is the greatest promotional tool ever. Even a (relatively) modest-sized act such as Mumford And Sons can rack up over two million views for a video like this one. Two million!
5. …but driven the quality down
YouTube has made the music promo more ubiquitous than ever – but it’s also made it weirdly disposable. It’s ironic that the golden age of big-budget videos – Hype Williams’ mindbendingly innovative late 90s/early ‘00s promos for Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, for example – pre-dated YouTube by several years.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see ‘event’ videos like those ever again. Post-YouTube, we think of the music clip as a powerful promotional weapon. We’re less inclined to think of it as an art form in its own right.
So happy "birthday", YouTube. It's been emotional. 'Evolution Of Dance' is still fucking rubbish though.