YouTube is often lauded as an innovation that revolutionized the distribution system for contemporary music videos. But, it also functions in another, largely unheralded capacity: it facilitates the discovery of old artists by new generations.

[Image via Virgin Media]

Popular music of all stripes has always built the foundation of its business on mythology—whether that's the hard-living reputation of the '30s bluesmen or the squeaky clean image of '50s pop singers—and as music artists of bygone days fade into the past, contemporary generations often repurpose old music and its mythology as a kind of recontextualized pop folklore. For example, if you're a fan of classic rock, that's probably at least partly because the romanticism of the music's larger historical narrative has captured your imagination.

Whether that means you're obsessed with Bob Dylan's snotty abandon of acoustic folk, The Beatles' long slide from straightforward skiffle to druggy studio psychedelia, or the Rolling Stones' carefully crafted bad boy cocaine-and-sex-capades, the point is that the story of the music can be equally as compelling as the music itself. The Dave Clark Five pumped out about as many killer rock 'n roll hits in the '60s as the Rolling Stones did, but, outside of a coterie of music geeks, few remember them today, largely, I would argue, because they were never attached to a narrative as compelling as Mick and Keith's never-ending bacchanalia.

For years, these narratives were passed down from older sibling to younger sibling and kept alive through iconic events embedded in the monoculture as well as smaller moments trafficked through the bootleg circuit run by ardent fans of the music. But, with the dawn of YouTube, these narratives started being perpetuated by the instant, free accessibility of archival footage. This is content that, until YouTube came along, had no real place in media besides the occasional kitschy or overly reverent clip show. In the past, if you wanted to experience that iconic moment in which Dylan muttered "play it fuckin' loud" in response to the man who cried "Judas," you had to track down a bootleg. Now, all you have to do is fire up your browser:

[Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" via YouTube]

YouTube not only serves as a repository of the footage that documents the iconic events that comprise contemporary pop music mythology, it also keeps the memory of bands' most vital performances alive. Many people found The Who's performance at Superbowl XLIV to be lackluster:

[The Who's "Pinball Wizard" and "Baba O'Riley" via YouTube]

But, all it takes is a couple of clicks and you can experience the full visual splendor of what a gut-busting, sneering, powerfully dynamic band The Who were in their prime:

[The Who's "My Generation" via YouTube]

The availability of performance footage like this can go a long way towards educating current generations about why older music artists mattered in the first place. It's easy to dismiss the Rolling Stones now, when you view the craggy faces of the Glimmer Twins as they rip through 30+ year old songs on stage:

[The Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" via YouTube]

But if you understand what they were in their prime, if you experience Mick Jagger's lustily leering, androgynous visage as it was in the '60s and '70s, if you see Keith Richards' boozy stage strut as it was in his youth, then you'll have gone a long way towards understanding why the energy of the Rolling Stones still thrills people:

[The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" via YouTube]

I've written this piece about classic rock 'n roll, as that is the genre I'm fond of, but the observation is just as relevant for other types of music. It doesn't matter if you're interested in blues, folk, disco, punk, synthpop, grunge, or ambient minimalist nintendocore, the history of musical performance is now largely stored in and appreciated on YouTube.

Case in point: Jezebel recently had Marisa Meltzer, author of a new book on the riot grrrl movement of the '90s, put together a post on classic performances by female music artists. The post features several YouTube videos and commenters embedded dozens of their own, all of them part of an incredible celebration of the triumphs of these artists. This kind of education in pop music history could not take place without the instantly accessible video catalogue that YouTube provides. Simply hearing the music isn't enough: you also have to experience its visual representation.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that this dimension of the new media content distribution system is one that has flown mostly under the radar. We hear a lot about how new media has revolutionized the future of content distribution, but little about how it has contributed to the recontextualization of old content and the effect of YouTube on the appreciation of past popular music is, I'd argue, about as extreme as any it's had.

To wit, the historical narrative, the pop mythology of our musical heritage is being furthered to an unprecedented degree thanks to new media resources of video distribution.