Top Artists Adjust to New World of YouTube Bootlegs

Metallica, Justin Bieber and more look the other way as full concert clips show up online

metallica woodstock 1999
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect
James Hetfield of Metallica performs during Woodstock '99 in Rome, New York.
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Plug "Metallica" and "full concert" into YouTube and dozens of incredible clips come up: a full, two-hour concert from earlier this year; a two-and-a-half hour 1989 show from Seattle; the band's complete set from the 1999 Woodstock festival, including a version of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page"; and the band's entire 40-minute "S&M" collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony in 1999. The same goes for almost any pop star, from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to Beyonce and Justin Bieber. Where artists once fought to stamp out illegal live bootlegs, now they encourage them or look the other way when they pop up on YouTube.

"I don't think any artist generally likes having representations of their art and their performance out there that's beyond their control," says agent David T. Viecelli, who reps top acts including Arcade Fire. "But everybody's accepted the new paradigm."

It's hard to trace exactly how each of these live treasures, which hardcore fans have cherished and fantasized about for years, landed on YouTube. Some are stripped from official DVDs; others are fully legal recordings from TV broadcasts or festival webcasts; a few are leaked by the artists themselves as promotional tools; and many, usually shorter clips, are posted by fans with cell-phone cameras. Some artists are notable exceptions to the new rules – the live YouTube footage from Prince, Joni Mitchell and Eminem, for instance, is sparse and low-quality compared to Metallica or Young – but their reps declined to explain why.

Full-length concert videos on YouTube became possible in 2010, when the site eliminated a 15-minute cap on the length of clips. (Reps for the Google-owned company weren't available for comment.) As a result, artists and their managers and attorneys – not to mention record labels and other content companies who own the rights to certain DVD releases – have had to decide how to respond. Artists, labels and publishers can work with YouTube to pull down videos, or allow the company to "monetize" the clips by festooning them with advertisements.

"Most of the artists have kind of conceded to it," says Josh Grier, attorney for Ryan Adams, Wilco and Fountains of Wayne, all of whom have live shows on YouTube. "Metallica might be inclined to take a stand, but it would be a serious legal expense, and just manpower. I expect that everybody, slowly but surely, is going to accept it – as a recording group, your live material is going to be up there. Or join the club and just see if you can get advertising attached to all of it and get revenue-share for everything."

Until recently, many major artists fiercely opposed the spread of any type of concert footage or audio. Springsteen famously criticized bootleggers throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Performers were historically concerned about losing creative control or having to live with gaffes or other spontaneous happenings – like when Paul McCartney fell on his face during a recent performance of "The End" in St. Louis, and footage appeared on YouTube within a week. They also were worried about bootleggers unfairly making money off their work.

But attitudes have changed, in part because the DVD market for live concerts has become less lucrative, with the exception of top-tier stars like Adele. "We tried to put out a Fountains of Wayne special edition recently – they made a lot of videos through the years that didn't get much play," Grier says. "Adam [Schlesinger, the band's co-songwriter] just said, 'They're all on YouTube.' And I looked, and yeah, they were."

As for shaky fan-camera footage, Grier says it's more of a curiosity than a threat to a band's revenue stream when people want to check out, say, Lou Reed performing the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" with Pete Townshend at a pub in 2007. Still, some acts, including Springsteen, ask ushers to police the audience to ensure nobody brings in cameras or even shoots cell-phone video. It's almost an impossible task. "The idea that someone is shooting with cameras at festivals – that's very, very hard to control," says John Peets, manager of the Black Keys. "It's a new world out there. Our concern is more, if we put this out, we need to make sure it's of a certain level. That's the line we're trying to control, more than slapping down people at a show."

The concert industry's general philosophy in recent years has evolved into "If you can't beat them, join them." Bonnaroo has been live-streaming the sets of top performers since roughly 2003, when its partner was AOL, and while the occasional headliner asks not to participate, most do. "You just can't stop it when everyone has a mobile device," says Jonathan Mayers, co-founder of Superfly Presents, the Manchester, Tennessee, festival's promoter. "If you can't control it, use it as a marketing device – go with it."

Many younger artists, who are themselves avid users of YouTube and Twitter, take this post-all-content philosophy to an extreme. Earlier this year, after Justin Bieber ran through a new "Boyfriend" dance step for a live television performance, he immediately sent out a short Viddy clip of it via Twitter. "His choreographer called me, all freaked out, and said, 'It's going to be our surprise!'" recalls Scooter Braun, who manages Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy. "I said, 'I think you're looking at this the wrong way.' Let's say you're sitting down to watch this TV show, you've watched this [online clip] 100 times, you jump up and do the dance, your entire family goes, 'How the hell did you know how to do that dance?' You know what that does for a fan? It draws fans closer."