Magic is an interesting art form in that it is primarily based on live performance. There is a thriving magic publishing industry, but it is not targeted at the general public. Instead, it is focused on selling books and DVDs to other magicians. Magic media for the layperson is mostly confined to the occasional variety television show or magic special.

Very few magicians ever have a chance to build a large audience – television appearances and swanky casino gigs are few and far between. For most magicians, their audience will only ever be those who see them live. For modern artists, this is a very limiting reality.

On the Society Of American Magicians e-mail list, a recent post expressed concern about someone posting a video of one of his tricks to YouTube.

An artist, of course, has a moral and legal right to determine how his or her work is published and distributed. But should an artist worry too much about live performances being posted to public forums? And are the issues any different for magicians and musicians?

One might suggest the answer is yes, given that most magicians lack media to distribute to their audience. Doug Henning and David Blaine have managed to sell a few books intended for the layperson, Mac King sells magic kits at Toys R Us, and there was an Imax movie about Siegfried and Roy. But other than David Copperfield or Penn & Teller TV specials, magicians do not sell DVDs of their acts.

To an artist, media serves multiple purposes. Monetization is traditional, but magicians are not doing this now, so free distribution does not pose much of a danger. Another important one is publicity. And that brings us back to Cory Doctorow’s dandelion.

Fan-made YouTube videos are freebie publicity media that has a potential worldwide audience. If the artist and performance is good, and the clip goes viral, the publicity value can be invaluable. But even in less extreme circumstances, a fan video can make a fan who might pay to see a performance in the future.

In the future, some savvy magician might figure out a way to sell concert videos the way musicians or comedians do, but for now, fan videos on YouTube are the closest thing.

Magicians have a particular sensitivity to the secrecy of how they do things. Magic TV specials are shot in a very controlled manner so as to not give away any secrets. A spectator using a camera phone may not be so careful, which could result in exposure through no fault of the magician. This would be an understandable concern, but generally, the act should be designed such that no audience member should be able to shoot such a video.

Magicians are also protective of the way they do things. Specific elements of performance – such as jokes and performance style – are considered intellectual property. But these details cannot be kept secret while performing for an audience. YouTube videos may expose these details to a wider audience, increasing the risk. This risk is inherent with any increased audience, regardless of the source.


Even if there were real harm in allowing fan videos on YouTube, trying to stop the recording is a losing technological battle. Many venues have given up on trying to prevent people from bringing cameras. Just about every current cell phone has a high-resolution camera, and many have video cameras. Modern high-capacity flash memory is physically small, allowing full concert recording on cell phones, which have become so essential to everyday life that banning them from concert venues is unreasonable. The situation will only get worse as digital recording technology becomes more advanced – cameras will get smaller and harder to detect.

A couple weeks ago, I brought my digital SLR to a Decemberists show in Portland. They let me bring it in to the venue, but later asked me to stop taking photographs – their policy was to not allow cameras with interchangeable lenses. I’m sure they were trying to avoid potentially commercial-grade high-resolution images, but most of the newer point-and-shoot cameras have higher resolution sensors than my Nikon D40, so their distinction is largely pointless. (Yes, I still believe that my D40 will still take better picture, but many would follow the higher resolution equals better quality canard.)

Not being able to stop unauthorized recordings do not justify them if the artist is uncomfortable with them. But an artist who can take advantage of them could do well.

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