Embedded Together: Artists and Audiences and YouTube
by Kyle Stedman — Rockford University
March 10, 2017 – 12:27
One day, a buddy recommends Stereo Hideout’s mashup videos on YouTube. Each combines a symphonic classic with Radiohead, Coldplay, Björk.
My jaw drops when I hear them; I don’t usually leave comments on videos, but this time I do:
I listen especially repeatedly to a 48-minute mashup of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Bon Iver’s music.
I can’t get enough. YouTube knows this and starts reminding me in the sidebar to watch it even more. I click it every time.
I want to tell a couple of stories about how YouTube intersects with the lives of today’s musicians and listeners.
Think about it: YouTube is embedded in our lives in complicated ways that demand the attention of today’s content-creators. Yes, embedded: I like the metaphor of a YouTube video, hosted elsewhere but sticking its head through the digital skin of any/every website imaginable. It wants you to watch.
Can’t you hear this one whispering for you to click play, letting it play as you continue reading?
My friend Ian Scarfe, a classical concert pianist from San Francisco, describes himself as “a modern day bard, traveling and playing shows that are a combination of classical and contemporary music, woven together with storytelling and a charismatic stage presence.” He also runs The Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, which combines outdoor adventures with classical chamber music.
I asked him about the role of the digital for artists today, and he went straight to YouTube. It’s on his mind. It’s embedded.
Ian describes YouTube as “the alpha and the omega in terms of publicity—replacing everything from our business cards to demo CDs.” He knows that in his field, people he meets are likely to punch his name into a YouTube search.
Which means that ideally, he’ll have preview videos available for every concert, video journals with behind-the-scenes insight, and much more.
Which means that if he’s doing everything that he could do on YouTube, he wouldn’t have time to make art at all.
I have a plane to catch. I try to buy the Copland/Bon Iver mashup so I can listen in airplane mode, but it’s not for sale.
You have to understand, though, that this is the music I need right now. My trip will be emotionally exhausting: my brother is in the hospital; I’m fighting with my parents. The music I need is this exact performance.
So I download a low-fi mp3 straight from YouTube, breaking their terms of service. To feel better about myself, I click the video’s opening ad a few times.
In my emails with Ian, he eventually boils it down to this:
We [professional musicians] went to fancy graduate programs that taught us we were Artistes. They helped us plumb the mysterious depths of Beethoven and find the lyrical voices of Schubert and Debussy. We learned to appreciate the thorny and difficult modern works that most people can't stand.
BUT THEY NEVER TAUGHT US THAT WE NEED TO RUN OURSELVES LIKE A BUSINESS.
He’s specific about what that kind of training would mean, today: courses in video-editing, grant writing, doing self-employment taxes, using Facebook like a pro, maybe even photography and sound mixing. Yes, there are academic programs that teach these things, either with or without the artiste part. But he regrets that those things aren’t taught more often, as a standard part of the 21st-century Professional Musician’s Education.
I’m no expert in that world, but it seems to me that Ian is doing pretty well on the digital front. The videos he makes move me; I’ve live-streamed his concerts; he recently made this video about playing Bach in the forest.
So I don’t think Ian is complaining about the changing face of art that forces him to compose in areas beyond his training; he says he’s “not particularly annoyed” and “not alarmed” at all this businessy, YouTubey stuff—just “mildly vexed that [he] can't just sit at home and be an Artiste all day.”
I recently made a video about the 2016 changes to MLA style. It's been successful; I often get nice emails from people (usually librarians) who want to know if they can use it at their schools. But my professional training never explicitly taught me how to create, distribute, or market this work.
I'm a writing professor with a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. Some days (like Ian), I’m vexed that my job is more than simply reading, writing, and teaching; part of my professional life is composing work that creates a personal, digital brand—through videos, podcasts, tweets, and posts like this. Those aren’t necessarily compositions I was explicitly taught to make in graduate school, but they’re part of me, just as Ian’s videos are part of who he is. Our work and our selves are embedded in digital spaces.
And really, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that my training really did prepare me for these new digital spaces—just not in the ways I might have at first expected. Think about it: I made my MLA video to help students and teachers understand a complex topic I happen to love; to increase my online presence in writing-related work, both scholarly and not; for the fun and challenge of it; to play around with online ad revenue; and to learn MLA better through teaching it. Those are the kinds of things we ask students to do all the time. By making this video, I was teaching myself.
That Copland/Bon Iver mashup? It’s full of links to detailed “closer look” videos about composer/remixer/conductor Steve Hackman’s process (e.g.). We’re invited, through YouTube, to experience his composing process in beautifully complex ways.
I love that. But I hope Hackman, whom I don’t know personally, is taking care of himself. I hope his next project (Tchaikovsky v. Drake!!) goes well. I hope he feels like he was able to put the time into the composition that he wanted, that his artistic quality is high, that he maybe even has a team to help with all this YouTube stuff, unless he really loves it.
Because now, expectations are high. And in a weirdly active way, we’re all embedded in this together.