The YouTube Effect: How Digital Access to Musical Theatre is Changing the Industry

“Why would I spend $100 to see a Broadway show, when I can see it on YouTube for free?”

“Yes, I have seen WICKED.”

“Oh – where did you see it?”

“On YouTube.”

These are conversations and comments I have heard more times that I can count. Let’s be honest – most of us have. The debate over the pros and cons of the accessibility of the LIVE experience is nothing new – but still seems to divide artists, theatregoers, and playwrights regularly. On the flip side, there are a multitude of artists whose work would never be seen, known, or performed were it not for YouTube. I openly admit to falling into a musical theatre YouTube rabbit hole more than once. In breaking down the debate, it seems – as in theater itself – there are two sides to every story:

NEW MUSICALS GAIN UNPRECEDENTED EXPOSURE VIA YOUTUBE. Here is an experiment for you. YouTube search any musical theater show/song and count the number of performances (professional, amateur, covers, etc). I imagine you will be hard pressed to find less than five at minimum of any given song. Some of these are sanctioned and some are not. However, very few are copyright policed in any real way. For up-and-coming writers, this is a goldmine. Once an “emerging artist” hits it even semi-big, this can be a headache that is nearly unstoppable. The question becomes how does a writer balance the priceless exposure YouTube provides and still control the product – all the while earning appropriate fees for services rendered? This is not an easy solution.

NEW AUDIENCES FIND THEIR WAY TO THE WORK. It is safe to say that there are audiences who find themselves attracted to musical theatre SOLELY because of what they have seen on YouTube. It is also safe to say that there are a fair number of audience members who would not buy a ticket to see a musical unless they had some first exposure somewhere else – somewhere free – somewhere like YouTube. However, how this exposure translates into ticket sales and sheet music/audio purchases is unknown.

COPYRIGHT AND COMPENSATION ARE NEAR-IMPOSSIBLE TO REGULATE. It’s already hard enough to earn revenue from the videos on your own YouTube channel – videos of your songs on other channels can deny writers compensation and, in the case of unsanctioned videos, even ignore writers’ rights. There has been a battle for some time about the rights of writers, especially in recent years. Jason Robert Brown and some of the NMT writers have bravely led that charge against some fairly staunch opposition. If the writers will not fight for compensation of their work, then no organization can effectively do it for them. This is exactly why great organizations like the Dramatists Guild exist. MT writers must band together to ensure the art form is honored as it should be.

“NEW WRITERS SHOULD BE HAPPY SOMEONE WANTS TO PERFORM THEIR WORK.” I have heard this weak argument for not wanting to pay for sheet music time and again. And while digital piracy affects many facets of the industry, it’s especially relevant in the YouTube space. YouTube exposure is critical for finding new audiences, but it doesn’t have a built-in way to compensate writers – and if sheet music is taken out of the equation too, it’s hard to say that the exposure is necessarily worth it. So when I hear this argument quoted to me, I respond that it misses the most important element – ownership. The best fight here is to say that all other professions who produce product are paid appropriately and acknowledged accordingly. The same should ring true of musical theatre writers. I cannot show a screening of The Martian at my home and charge attendees a fee  – that violates the law. And whether we like it or not, I also cannot perform Grease in my high school without paying the appropriate royalties. At the very least, express permission from writers and their representatives is a must.  Simply “liking said artist’s material” does not give you ownership over it.

This conversation is far from over. The next step is to put processes into place – organizations, leagues, etc (or utilize the ones that already exist) to support the future life of writers and artists. YouTube (and the like) are instrumental in the future of the art form – especially as ticket prices continue to skyrocket. There needs to be give and take on both sides.

What solutions do YOU propose?

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