When a Guitar Lesson Becomes Controversial
Rick Beato has amassed a massive following by teaching people to play classic hits — launching a heated debate over copyright law.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some of your favorite online creators could be forced out of business.
In the smartphone era, anyone who dreams of being a rock star can download instructional apps such as Yousician, ChordBank and Fender Play, or spin up any number of YouTube tutorials on how to cover the classics and look the part doing it.
And while these free, straight-to-camera lessons range from wobbly to accomplished, record producer Rick Beato (bee-YATO) has attracted more than a million subscribers with professional-looking segments combining a music teacher’s ear for detail, a mastery of multiple instruments and a bit of Anthony Bourdain swagger.
As host of the popular YouTube series What Makes This Song Great, Beato has now racked up 110 million views from a library of 700-plus educational videos and nearly 80 deconstructions of rock radio standards. But his illuminating and often inspirational videos are under constant threat.
An ongoing copyright fight has embroiled many YouTube content creators who feel they would be on firm legal ground with “fair use” protections, if only they could afford to mount a formal legal challenge. Still others stay mum out of concern YouTube will penalize them or de-platform their channels.
I’m basically creating free commercials for these songs.
Videos focused on the music of Radiohead and Fleetwood Mac, among others, have been removed by artists and record companies using YouTube’s own scanning software and the site’s manual claiming tool, which can trigger a takedown notice or claim a video creator’s portion of any pre-roll ad revenue.
“These blanket takedowns prevent [artists’] music from being discovered by a new generation and make their repertoire mostly music for old people,” Beato says. “I’m basically creating free commercials for these songs while I’m teaching music appreciation, music production, songwriting and arrangement.”
Beato’s online scholarship can be highly technical, but his insights into studio production, rock history and music theory are accessible even if fans’ knowledge of chord progressions is limited to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“I focus on important conventions,” says Beato, 57, who earned a master’s degree in jazz studies from Boston’s prestigious New England Conservatory in 1987. “So my core audience of musicians will say, ‘Oh! So that’s why my music teacher was talking to me about that!’”
Beato’s own inspiration came early on at Sunday family gatherings in Rochester, New York, where family members would play everything from contemporary pop to traditional Italian songs.
Today, the fun of Beato’s videos is that of watching an irreverent Mozart deconstruct Salieri as he plays in time with each song’s most recognizable riffs, beats and passages while including a bit of band lore.
These segments could be considered part of a modern nouvelle vague of online pop culture dissertations that includes the piano-focused Playground Sessions and the comedic, movie-themed Honest Trailers, Because Science and How It Should Have Ended.
Beato breaks down the “stems” that make up each song, showcasing individual band members’ contribution to the track and demystifying the process. He’s able to identify and trace some chord patterns even to antiquity: The Police’s 1981 hit “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is supported by an ascending Lydian bass line that was known in ancient Greece, possibly as far back as 500 B.C.
Clad in a simple black T-shirt and jeans in his Atlanta studio, looking like the cool uncle who might buy you your first beer, Beato explains why certain songs remain timeless, despite shifting tastes. He notes that songs like Toto’s “Africa,” the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and U2’s “With or Without You” are constructed from the same chord progressions. “The innovation is in the way it’s put together,” he says.
Beato says he, too, is building something new out of familiar elements, protected under the fair use exemption in copyright law that allows for the academic discussion, commentary, criticism or parody of copyrighted works.
From the music industry’s perspective, however, songs streamed on YouTube can function as an on-demand jukebox, eliminating the listener’s need to ever buy the music. “Music publishers have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to our songwriters to protect the value of their copyrights,” says Golnar Khosrowshahi, CEO of independent music publisher Reservoir. “We understand that the current systems, particularly in the digital arena, are not structured in a way that recognizes all creators fairly, and at Reservoir, we continue to advocate for changes that will benefit everyone.”
The global recorded music market has grown to just over $19 billion, according to industry figures, with users of paid streaming services accounting for 37 percent of total recorded music revenue — as physical album sales and individual download purchases decline.
For some in the music industry, the real issue is how little YouTube pays well-known recording artists for the use of their music on its site, meaning they need to be ever more zealous about copyrights. According to Digital Music News, YouTube pays artists $0.00074 per stream — less than Pandora and Spotify — adding up to $1,500 for every 2 million plays on the site.
For a massive company like Google, “it’s basically free,” says Ashlye M. Keaton, an attorney who co-founded The Ella Project, a nonprofit that provides legal resources to musicians and content creators across Louisiana. The tech giants, she says, avoid liability by using automated systems to take down anything that could potentially violate copyright law. Meanwhile, “the ‘little guy content creator’ arguing fair use does not have the same privileges and protections that big multinational firms have, so that hardly seems fair.”
In the face of criticism, YouTube — which did not reply to requests for comment — has said it is curtailing the use of manual claiming for “very short or unintentional uses of music.” But that wouldn’t apply to Beato, who showcases entire songs. Rather than dealing with legal hurdles, he has decided to simply post his enthusiastic videos and hope for the best.
However, with the growing popularity of his channel, some artists have started to embrace Beato’s show. Last year, he interviewed Peter Frampton in the singer’s home studio about how his iconic “Do You Feel Like I Do?” riff was originally overlooked by the improvisational guitarist himself.
As for where the road takes him from here, Beato plans to keep breaking down the chord progressions, odd time signatures and songwriting innovations underpinning rock’s most memorable moments — and hoping YouTube and the record labels let them stay up. “I don’t think I’ll run out of videos,” he says. “If I had to, I could probably name a thousand great songs off the top of my head.”