It sometimes seems as if those of us who enjoy good quality music-making delivered to us in the finest quality sound to be listened to in the ease and comfort of our own homes are not so much in the minority as on the very brink of extinction. The morass of tenth-rate performances in twentieth-rate sound on YouTube (and its imitators) has become such a widespread phenomenon that it has put a whole new meaning on the term “dumbing down”. We do not merely accept the lowest possible standards in performance and audio, we positively make a virtue out of them.
Running a class in which I asked students to give a presentation on an opera of their choice, all except one had downloaded grotty sub-standard (and mostly pirated) videos from YouTube. These students were potential professional musicians whose livelihoods will evolve around getting the public to accept the highest possible standards of performance and may well strive to have their performance immortalised on CD – the only existing medium which can effectively be used as a musician’s calling-card – yet they seemed to accept the sub-standard as not so much the norm as the ideal.
And when one of my longest and dearest friends confessed that he had been listening to some performances on YouTube, I realised that the end was nigh. If so died-in-the-wool musical and aural perfectionist as he had succumbed to the lure of the dismal, what hope the rest of us? I told him as much. “But you are missing the point”, was his response, “I watch all these awful videos on YouTube and then post anonymous rude comments. It’s great fun!”
I know what he means. Everybody likes to be a critic – just look at the ubiquitous “Write a Review” injunction on just about every download and online shop site – and the great thing is anonymity is standard practice. How lovely to say what you think without having to answer for it or to respond to those who disagree. What bliss to write reams of words or pithy one-liners without the Damoclesian Sword of an editor or legal advisers hanging over your head. Word counts, reasoned argument, considered opinion, balanced views and facts can be forgotten about in favour of ignorant prejudice and baseless personal taste.
And with what results? Here are the two “reviews” of a performance posted on YouTube by a 7-year-old Thai pianist: “Wow....” (written by the clearly perceptive “robertu07”), while, if that needed more fleshing out, “AndThePincers” gives us a bit more, admittedly with some idiosyncratic spelling; “Ryhthm is off at parts, and it's not very ‘polished’.” Another performance from a 12-year-old Malaysian got this pair of reviews; “u are AMAZING!!!! Like Lang Lang and Mitsoko Uchida in 1!!!!” (“missyc02”) and “hey kid, who u kidding? 20 years and you might play this shit” (“ “bogmailer”). Pretty helpful and perceptive stuff, eh? So much better than the superficial and ill-considered judgements of those who unashamedly adorn their reviews with their own names in the established press, don’t you think? Commenting on a YouTube performance might alleviate inner stress and allow the expression of true, unfettered feelings, but beyond the mere selfish private relief it offers, it serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
I am minded of the hotel I stayed at in Chiang Mai some months ago. Checking into the most primitive and ill-equipped room imaginable in a dirty, dusty and distinctly unfriendly hotel, I was soon on the phone to those who had booked it for me. “But that can’t be”, I was told, “It got Highly Recommended on Trip Advisor”. (Interesting that direct personal experience is immediately questioned in the light of an anonymous online review.) Urged to read for myself the reviews, I quickly saw the sheaves of glowing testimonials, all written in a suspiciously similar style, all dated around the same time and all, of course, anonymous. Surely hotel proprietors aren’t so unethical as to write glowing reviews of their own properties merely to boost bookings?
It is often said of YouTube that it gives access to so much more music than you could find in even the most comprehensive of CD collections. That is true, and I myself have used it to listen to obscure pieces which I can’t find anywhere else. But is easy accessibility really a good thing? Do we appreciate great art all the more because we can download copies of magnificent paintings which we could never see without, say, a trip to the Louvre and a long queue for the admission ticket? I suspect not. In fact, I am inclined to think that the opposite prevails. Because great art is so readily accessible in, what we might call, condensed form, we not only do not then bother to see it in its original guise and in a properly sympathetic setting, but we take it all for granted and forget the sheer hard work involved. When you see the brushstrokes up close, you begin to appreciate the effort involved. So it is with music. If I can hear a couple of bars of Hammerklavier at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen, why bother to pay to hear it performed properly. Computer speakers and white-wired ear phones cannot differentiate between bad and good recordings, so why bother with the good?
If every YouTube hit represents another nail in the coffin of the professionally produced CD, it also represents another nail in the coffin of proper musical criticism and, as such, it must be resisted by all true music lovers.