I saw what you did

Chris JonesThe first time I saw the Osborne Brothers perform was at Hugo, Oklahoma, in the mid-70s (I’ll spare you the “I was 2 years old at the time” joke). Before the M.C. brought them on, he said, “MCA Records has asked that all tape recorders be turned off for this next act.” Some did and some didn’t adhere to the request, but the fact that at the time it was believed that you could actually control unauthorized live recordings makes this story now seem so quaint, like something out of a Rockwell painting: “Son, when I was a boy, I walked eight miles to school while your grandma churned the butter, and you could still keep people from recording your live shows and distributing them all over kingdom come.” Yes, those were the days.

Now everybody alive has some kind of audio and/or video recording device, usually small enough to be a prop in a spy movie. Plus, it’s now just assumed that all of those homemade recordings they capture are not just for personal use.

We live in the YouTube era now, which is both a blessing and a curse. We all love looking up snippets of past episodes of sitcoms we used to watch, seeing our local news anchor or congressman caught drunk, watching flying cats or jumping goats, and yes, finding live performances of our favorite musicians that were no doubt posted without his or her permission. That last one on the list is, alas, the down side: anything we do on stage or virtually anywhere else is now in the public domain.

People still come up occasionally and ask if I’ll permit them to do a video recording of our show, or someone who has already recorded the show might ask for my blessing to put it up on YouTube. It’s really very nice of them to ask, and now I wouldn’t dream of saying no to them. How unfair it would be to turn down the person courteous enough to ask permission, when several other people are going to do it anyway, with or without my  blessing.

I suppose it’s a positive thing that we all have video of ourselves readily available, and we no longer have to reproduce and send out DVDs, or struggle to get airplay on CMT, or one of the other television video outlets (remember them?). Unfortunately, even if you take the initiative to produce and post videos yourself and try to steer people towards video that you had some control over, there’s still going to be a video out there of you playing with that sub bass player who didn’t successfully negotiate a single chord change in Gold Rush.

And don’t even bother worrying about sound quality; expecting good sound quality in a YouTube video is like asking for clear reception during a cellphone conversation in a national forest. Our standards have had to be adjusted way down.

I guess we can take comfort in the fact that everybody, from Alison Krauss to the fledgling Lonesome Watershed are in the same position. There are simply going to be lots of wobbly, barely audible videos of them on an off night, available for all the world to see (and perhaps share on social media sites) any time they feel like it.

Here are a few things that you, as a professional bluegrass artist, used to get away with, but which you should now avoid in the YouTube era:

  1. Making noticeable mistakes (see bass player, above)
  2. Having spinach in your teeth (in case of the closeup shot)
  3. Using expletives, undeleted (i.e., cussing a blue streak)
  4. Wearing the same clothes for an entire tour (the old, pre-YouTube thinking: “we won’t see the same audience twice, will we? I’ll just pack one shirt.”)
  5. Maligning the audience from the previous gig (“It’s great to here with you all in Ohio! Anything’s got to be better than that Pennsylvania crowd we played for yesterday!”)
  6. Inhaling a moth during the second verse of He Took Your Place (I actually did this once)
  7. Sneezing in the middle of any song.
  8. Going on a drunken rant of any kind (unless it’s really entertaining).


Any of the above could become part of your recorded history forever if you’re not careful. It’s a brave new video-documented world out there. Better put on a clean shirt.

Next week, we’ll tackle the thorny issue of illegal sharing, streaming services, and CD sales. Eventually, I hope to make the audio version available as a free download.