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Laurie Niles

Rebecca Black vs. the Internet: Another Lesson for Young Musicians

March 29, 2011 at 6:35 PM

There's been a lot of noise lately on the Internet -- it's the sound of 13-year-olds making music videos.

You might think that I'm about to slam the heavy hand of musical judgment on them, but I'm not.

In the violin world we have some experience with prodigies -- those amazing individuals who seem to have been practicing for some time in another realm before they landed on earth, enabling them to play with all the technique, style and emotional maturity of a seasoned musician. Some examples include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, Midori. On the pop-culture side are people like Shirley Temple and Michael Jackson.

Before this strange season of universally available video dawned on humanity, it was only these top-notch youngsters that ever reached the attention of the masses. Even when their genius merited all this attention, even when they were met with critical acclaim, it was often difficult for those people to cope with their fame and the consequences of popularity. Many recognized years later that they had been exploited by parents and handlers.

The kids making music videos on the Internet today are -- for the most part -- not child prodigies. They are young people experimenting with their culture, and their output reflects their age and its inherent immaturity. Or, they are pushed by parents seeking fame through their children. In either case, their output can "go viral" and reach millions of people, and not always for the reasons they would like it to do so, as we can see from the Rebecca Black flap over the past few weeks.

While youngsters of a different generation might have put on a play for their parents or made a movie that was viewed by just a few friends and family, kids now put their experiments on the Internet, where it can collect the derision of literally the entire world and stay there to haunt them into adulthood, by which time they DO have the clarity, the judgment, the better-seasoned sense of what they are doing.

I'm a mother, educator and rather creative person. I encourage experimentation and I also know that performing on stage is one very strong way to learn what works and what does not. When you perform for a crowd, every mistake is magnified. You know exactly what you need to work on. Video is the language of a young generation, and I understand the need to share their experiments. Also, I understand the urge to share performances with friends and family, and the Internet provides a convenient way to do that.

But let's get back to Youtube. Youtube is not a supportive community of creative-types who are going to give you helpful and fair feedback. If you are going to use it as a tool to share a video with family and friends, you have to know that millions of people who are NOT your family or friends can potentially view your video. Youtube is completely unregulated and open to anonymous commenting, unless you aggressively control your settings to limit commenting and viewing. People -- especially young people and people new to the Internet -- are tempted to leave things open, either because they don't know better or because they actually like the idea of getting the most possible views and comments. It's a form of attention or popularity.

But as someone who has run a website for 15 years I can tell you that when people are given anonymity, they can and will say thoughtless and cruel things that they would never say to any human's face. Do you think you are up for that? I'll tell you something: you are not. When you allow anonymous commenting on Youtube, you are setting yourself up for some unexpected comment that strikes you to the core, something that defiles you, something that rips at your integrity, whether you are 13 or 30, whether you are an innocent amateur or a seasoned pro. Expect it.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Control your Youtube. Disallow comments, disable ratings, consider limiting viewers. Use Youtube to disseminate your work to colleagues, employers, to communicate with students, to share your child's performances with grandparents, etc. But exert every control available to you.

If your only goal is publicity at any expense, you can do what the adults around Rebecca Black did: put it out there, leave it open for comments, and keep the derision going. If you are using Youtube because you want the popularity and affirmation of countless anonymous strangers, you might examine your motives. With a therapist.

If you have some perspective, such as, "I'm 13 and probably I'll at some point do something better than this, but I'd like to put this up there to show people," then perhaps go the route of Zachary Freiman, whose video I'm Zack, is another teen experiment, or as his mother called it, a "fun family project." His mother, Allison Fine, spoke on an NPR radio show about what happened when his video was posted and went viral. When the abuse (which I would say was predictable, this is Youtube) started rolling in, they shut down the comments. It was a little late, but ultimately, they protected him.

No, he didn't get the 63 million views that his counterpart did, but he did get protect his integrity. He's wise to defer his 15 minutes -- I have a feeling he'll get them in due time, and for better reasons.

From Brian Hong
Posted on March 29, 2011 at 7:04 PM

 I see what you mean.  However, I keep my Youtube completely open; all my violin performance videos are up, and one of them (my Barber concerto from 2 years ago) got around 8.5k views and some good comments.

I think it boils down to how thick your skin is.  I can take a lot of "crap" from people, because over the years I've developed a really outgoing personality than can accept any kind of criticism.  If it's something that I think is hurtful and/or useless, I just throw it out the window.  However, I still keep comments up because they can help me in the future, or, at their lowest, offer me amusement.

From E. Smith
Posted on March 29, 2011 at 8:36 PM

 My daughter has a completely open YouTube channel with over 4 million total upload views and 237,000 channel views. It's all violin and string quartet music. She gets some hater comments, but mostly it's honest comments, some praise, and a little criticism. She deletes anything obscene, but the community is pretty much self-policing. If an obscenity (or often even a negative comment) gets posted, the community goes in and marks it as "spam" so the comment disappears unless she un-marks it. 

Maybe it's just the geeky nature of people who spend their time on YouTube watching violin videos, but the comments section seems worthwhile in her case. People have endless debates about vibrato in baroque music (sound familiar?) and some leave comments along the lines of "I've never listened to classical music before, but I happened on this and now I love Bach..." It's also fun to see comments coming in from all over the world. 

Sometimes there are flames from other violinists (sound familiar?) but one takes them with a grain of salt, just as one needs to take praise with a grain of salt. If you're a performer you need tough skin. You're going to get negative comments and cruel remarks throughout  your career, so you need to be immune to that. 

P.S. Unlike Brian's and my daughter's YouTubes, the videos made by Rebecca Black and the Bar Mitzvah kid (and here I thought Bar Mitzvah projects were supposed to be altruistic), were highly produced, flashy, attention-seeking pop videos aimed at as wide an audience as possible. YouTube is a tool that can be used many ways. I don't understand parents who rush to expose their children this way-- but I don't understand reality tv, either. Parents like this are unlikely to disable the comments from the get-go. The point seems to be to create as big a fuss as possible, which includes the reaction to the fuss, and the ensuing meta-fuss, at which point one disables the videos, making as wide as possible a public announcement.

From Stephen Colantonio
Posted on March 29, 2011 at 9:47 PM

 Rebecca Black signed up to make this video, it wasnt released with out her knowledge. She thought she was good, and in actuality she is terrible. end of story in my opinion 

From al ku
Posted on March 29, 2011 at 9:50 PM

laurie's concern is healthy.  but some aim to be provocative so they will get reactions.  reactions means page view and page view one day may translate into marketing dollars.

we do share our videos with family and friends, except that people who watch our videos, previously known ones and new ones are, in our opinions, friends.  we don't get many views in our videos, perhaps they are lame,, perhaps we don't try hard enough to formalize the production, but that is how we are.  we have made some online friends over the years and really, they are helpful with encouragement and tech suggestions.  i have not had any problem with inappropriate comments.  because they know i know where they live:)

i only quickly saw the first video with rebecca and will not bother with the second one.  i hate to point fingers at others since i myself is in the penalty box, but that production is something.

perhaps my aging process is accelerating, but it seems to me with pop culture, whatever does not make sense to me usually becomes very popular.  since the kadashine (sp?) sisters are getting cellulite on their thighs-i swear i saw a photo in the supermarket check out line- there may be a market for another brunette who admittedly loves to party and has a cross-cultural appeal.  

the only thing i hope, sincerely, is the aspiring stars of the pop culture delay news of run-ins with the law or substances to a later date.  like at charlie sheen's age.

From E. Smith
Posted on March 29, 2011 at 11:45 PM

 "It seems to me with pop culture, whatever does not make sense to me usually becomes very popular." -- Al Ku

Wonderful quote.

From Emily Liz
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 1:42 AM

"But as someone who has run a website for 15 years I can tell you that when people are given anonymity, they can and will say thoughtless and cruel things that they would never say to any human's face. Do you think you are up for that? I'll tell you something: you are not."

Laurie you know I love you and the site :) but I disagree with you on this one. Should we be careful with what we post? Especially when we're young and using our real names? Absolutely. But should every single musician disable their Youtube comments? I'm less convinced about that. There are absolutely some people who aren't up to hearing the anonymous hatred, and I don't blame them, but there are also those who understand the risks and want to take them in order to 1) get that rare pearl of helpful feedback, and 2) create buzz about their talents that might open some professional doors in the future. I definitely wouldn't criticize Brian Hong's or Miss Smith's abilities to make their own decisions about this, and I'd imagine (although correct me if I'm wrong) that their decision to link their real names with their Youtube accounts has paid real professional dividends, especially in terms of name recognition. I think the key to Youtube culture is to remember not to take any anonymous comments too seriously, but on the off chance that you are hurt, then don't be ashamed to turn off your comments. (But also remember the offender is likely some jealous jerk sitting in their basement, embittered about their lonely miserable lives.You can pick these losers out a mile away by navigating to their profile and seeing all the crap they've spewed recently. They never have videos of themselves. So judge the value of their input accordingly.)

From bill platt
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 2:40 AM

Crazy mixed-up world. Interesting reading. Provocation for sure with the Black thing. And MONEY. They are laffing all the way to the bank. Of course psychology is another thing. And Shirley Temple Black (coincidence) managed to  survive into adulthood and become an ambassador.

Youtube has generally calmed down compared to the 1st years. Back then, all you had to do was put anything up, and you were famous. A little cleavage, so much the better (the neanderthal gene is amazingly powerful). Examples: Julia Nunes (a ukulele singer); and the kicesie, the "Best Everrr" video that gets into every list.  Even my son's 1st videos got a lot of play, relative to today. Now when I put anything up, it gets maybe 7 views in 4 months. Unless I tell a few people. Then it gets 50. The old videos, some of them broke 1000. One of them had the same name as a Vanessa Mae release from the same time period (totally by accident). Still didn't get anywhere near 5000 even. I think maybe 2k or less.

For the Blacks to "go viral" is actually incredibly rare, astoundingly unlikely, and stratospherically lucky. It is like the statistics for the likelihood that a healthy 25 year old athlete will actually still be able to participate (at a senior level) in his sport, at age 85.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 2:32 PM


well, I don't know about youtube but one must be extremely careful with the net!  When I started to write on forums, I didn't have that notion that anyone is there and that what you write will be "your reputation". 

For one thing, I hadn't start career/university plans (they will check everything on you and who knows if they won't "google" you...)  Might as well be nice things under your name. 

For the other, I though, "cool it's a conversation with other people on a topic."  So, I though I could tell everything, every opinion just as I would tell them with friends talking in a huge livingroom (so to speak).  In fact, no... because when you talk with people in real life, even if you have strong opposite views, find x artist sucks or whatever, the heat will come down fairely quickly and everyone will leave with a smile.  But, on the net, that is all writen forever... 

It may just represent you at x moment of your life but people will think that's you as you always are!!!

Also, as you mature, you don't like to see what you told as an imature person.

Also, cultural differences.  I would not write the same on a 100%  Japanese forum than on a mostly American one (per example).  I would say the same things, but in a different way. 

So I now try to be extremely careful.  I still like to use humour sometimes : )  But no more strong  opinions on anything on forums!  I keep them for myself.  

I think that's appliable to youtube as well! imho

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 4:05 PM

 If I'm reading you right, though, Brian and Caeli take down the most offensive posts; they exercise the tool that allows you to approve comments, perhaps, or just take down things they notice are particularly obscene, offensive, etc. This is the kind of thing I would advocate: exercising a degree of control, though it's not always easy to do if you get a lot of videos up there, or if you are not familiar with the settings.

When people say things about Joshua Bell like "this guy sucks," that's just crazy, and it's frankly weird to go to one of his videos and see that. (Of course, in his case, people post illegally-made videos of him that he can't take down.) It's also jarring to go to a video of a young female violinist and the first thing your eye falls on is “The violinist may be thinking that to avoid being boring, she must be whoring...” I'm sorry, but you can't just let a comment like that stand; and those comments, likely made by some jealous anonymous loser who lives in a basement, have the potential to stand for years and years. I don't think it's necessary to create a toxic environment for yourself like that.

Used as a tool, Youtube can allow you to post your video all over the place. If you are going to use the "community" there to build a fan base, I think you have to go about the project in a directed and conscious way, knowing your settings, monitoring your comments, etc. If you go completely unregulated, you can probably maximize your views and comments, but there is a price.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 6:37 PM

 Enjoyed reading this, and the ensuing comments.  And finally I got to learn what's up with this Rebecca Black business. (Yes, I live under a rock. It's a nice rock. Quiet and soothing.)

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Laurie.

From Michael Pijoan
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 6:37 PM

 I think the main reason for the response to Rebecca Black was that people might have been afraid that it was The New Big Thing that was becoming popular, and they might have felt a need to try to stop it.  American pop culture has a way of being forced on people (it becomes this enveloping force (farce even!) that you can't escape. I saw this on youtube and I thought at first that it was this girl's "Big Break" and I feared that people weren't discerning enough to realize that it just wasn't good.  However I didn't say anything nasty about it because my faith in the ears of the public has already been dashed to pieces by the popularity of terribads like Kesha, Bieber, etc. etc.

I agree with Laurie that it is nasty that random people on the internet can be so mean and I'm not excusing the extreme comments she received (rumors of death threats?  SHEESH). However I have to say I understand why a lot of people criticized it and I don't blame them. American pop culture is aggressive and the need to defend good taste is understandable and in my opinion, forgivable. I put my playing on the internet and got some nasty comments, I rolled with the punches.  I don't care.  That's the internet and in my opinion, if you can't take the heat then get out of the kitchen.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 7:27 PM

 Certainly, the reason her video went viral was that despite the glossy veneer, the complete lack of spark in this song was unmistakable. The parodies are pretty entertaining, I must admit, and my kids were all over them. I'm not really saying that the whole business did not deserve criticism -- in a day when you can put a "high production" package on anything, it is kind of comforting to know that people won't be fooled. 

However, my point involves the fact that a number of people emerged and said they had "no idea" that if you post something, even something done by a kid, on Youtube, you might inspire a barrage of hateful vitriol that gets rather unmanageable. This is not a surprise, this is not new! 

One might think that she posted something bad, but if you post something good you will be more immune. Perhaps, to a degree. But the hatred, obscenity and insanity gets thrown at everyone. So be prudent, and protect yourself! 

From William Somach
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 9:52 PM

Laurie, thanks for the post.

It certainly provides a cautionary tale on exposure to communities like YouTube. I am reminded of another cautionary tale I heard last Summer at the Mark O'Connor String Camp relating to YouTube. It came from Mark O'Connor in his session on building and marketing one's career as a musician.

He told a story of a professional performing violinist (not identified) who performs on stage a lot. He said this is a very good professional player who had a nice career established. Evidently, this player had an off-night performing on stage one night, not playing very well, and that night somebody videotaped this concert and posted it on YouTube. Evidently it went viral and did terrible damage to the career of this violinist. Obviously there are many details about this that were not revealed. But Mark was making a point about how one needs to be extremely careful in how he/she uses YouTube. Basically, one has to be very careful about what one wants to go viral.

From al ku
Posted on March 30, 2011 at 11:07 PM

 "But Mark was making a point about how one needs to be extremely careful in how he/she uses YouTube. Basically, one has to be very careful about what one wants to go viral."   but in this case clearly it is beyond the control of the player, right?

what if the videotaper/youtuber simply put the concert on the net, actually to show how good the player is and truthfully had no idea that the player had an off night?

how about if a player senses the night is off, at the end of the concert, he requests and begs that everyone erases their tapings and does not put it on youtube?  will that work?

on the flip side, if an "on" night is caught on tape and goes viral on the net and brings in greater acclaim, to whom should the player be thankful?

isn't it the case that if one decides to be a public figure,  these types of things go with the territory?  meaning showing the public the way it is and let the public decides and judges, without any intention to slander or defame.

with the presence of such pressure, in general, will the standard of performance go higher and therefore benefit the audience?

From William Somach
Posted on March 31, 2011 at 12:26 AM

Al Ku,

Your points are all well taken.

I think everything you have said is right on.

It sounds like you also probably heard Mark's cautionary tale. I absolutely agree with your take on the point Mark was making. He was preaching caution about a performer's "purposeful" use of YouTube to get exposure. A performer does have to be extremely careful about what one "chooses" to put up on YouTube.

I think when you have a situation, such as I think was the case in Mark's cautionary tale, where the performer likely had no way of controlling the dissemination of the performance video to YouTube, it may never be possible to prevent such a dissemination from occurring in the future. The only thing I could see as a solution to such a situation is if somehow the performing artist could attach a note to the YouTube posting, or send a comment specifying that the video was not posted by  performing artist himself/herself, and as such no permission was sought or granted for the posting. That way, maybe any "damage" can be minimized.

As a professional musician myself who might, whether he likes it or not, eventually end up being posted on YouTube by someone else without notification, I would be very curious to find out from somebody more knowledgeable about dealing with YouTube than I am, how it would be best to deal with a scenario similar to Mark O'Connor's cautionary tale, should I be unfortunate enough to have to confront it.

From al ku
Posted on March 31, 2011 at 12:56 AM

 scott mcnealy of sun microsystem in the 90's said: you have zero privacy anyway,,,so get over it.  stephen manes of the forbes magazine responded: "he's right on the facts, wrong on the attitude.  Instead of 'getting over it', citizens need to demand clear rules on privacy, security, and confidentiality."  20 yrs later, where are we?

but with youtube, players' own use of youtube is at their own discretion.  even a 100 mil well orchestrated pepsi ad campaign can fail.   perlman uses youtube for q and a.  hh has an active channel.  i have yet to see a major artist self destroys.

what others do with youtube is another story.  people can say things on youtube about j bell, but people say things about j bell on as well!  sure, laurie has a good hand on things, but even with good moderation, i am sure not everything approved on about j bell is enjoyable to read by j bell.  

what can j bell do?  care less and make better music.   that is the only way.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 3, 2011 at 12:36 AM

@ Al, I basically agree with all your points, except for maybe one.  Does ever-increasing pressure on performers to meet ever-increasing standards really benefit the audience?  I don't think audiences, for the most part, expect (or even desire) perfection.  It can also become kind of a sterile exercise when the gulf between the audience and performer is too wide--the audience stops being able to identify with the performer.  While caring less and making better music are certainly good options, the "hypothetical" J Bell also has a third choice:  accepting, even embracing, imperfection.

From John Cadd
Posted on April 5, 2011 at 12:20 PM

After reading all the blog replies I watched the two videos. I can`t see the difference between them and all the other Pop singers. It all sounds the same to me.  Becoming immune to the knockers is as natural as fitting a lock on your door. Why do that?  Because we know people can`t be trusted any more. Modern life.

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