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Finding rare songs on YouTube

The popular video sharing site is also a treasure trove for music lovers in search of that long-lost track. But be warned, that song might not be as awesome as you remember.

In the small hours of a summer night when I was in college, I heard a song play on San Francisco's famous Live 105 that seemed, at the time, one of the most profound, melodic, and catchy tunes I'd ever come across.

It was called Dancing on the Planet, and even back then--in the late 80s or early 90s--a rare track I never again heard on the radio.

For years, it was jammed in the back of my memory, always there as this incredible song that I just had to find.

Some time after the Google era kicked in, I began looking for it, finding it listed here or there on some random music site, the artist identified as Dave Storrs. But there were few clues as to how I could get a copy.

Once, I found a European site offering a compilation that included Dancing on the Planet. I tried buying it, but it didn't pan out. I also scanned various file-sharing sites and caught the occasional whiff of it. But still, the song was no more than an unimpeachable memory.

But a couple of weeks ago I had the inspiration to search for the song on YouTube. A quick, 21-character search string. Suddenly, with no fanfare, nothing to herald the conclusion of what had been at least a 15-year hunt, it popped up (see video below): the elusive song itself, accompanied by an obviously unofficial 1980s-era space-themed digital video.

Suffice it to say, it's hard to live up to the profundity of college-era memories, and Dancing on the Planet turned out to be a fun, if not great, dance track. But this sudden, unexpected end to a very long-standing personal mystery left me startled.

In the comments section, I discovered I was hardly the only one who had used YouTube to reunite themselves with Dancing on the Planet.

"Damn," wrote someone calling themselves gforcekaras. "(I) never thought I live (long) enough to hear this song again. Thank you so much for uploading this!"

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been so surprised that YouTube would prove to be the terminus for the search. In fact, after finding Dancing on the Planet, I immediately checked off another decade-plus hunt on the site as well: Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's original studio version of The Show, one of the first great rap songs.

And it turns out that YouTube, a service that was never really supposed to be about music, is many people's choice for tracking down the songs they've longed to hear for years, but couldn't find.

"Probably 15 years ago, I remember seeing The Wedding Present perform (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah) on the Conan O'Brien show," said Kevin Lien, who runs the music blog, The Sound of Indie. "I put a video tape in to try and record it, but...I missed it and have been on the lookout for it for nearly 15 years. Then all (of a) sudden, it pops up on YouTube one day."

Lien said he'd actually tried finding it on the service several times before, to no avail. But then one day, someone posted it.

"After searching for so long for that recording," Lien said, "I was thrilled to finally see it again. This four-minute piece of footage was my Moby Dick. I knew it was out there, but it had always eluded me."

For Molly Steenson, a Ph.D. student at Princeton, YouTube has provided her and her boyfriend a way to DJ at home. They can track down songs they previously had no other way to find.

"It started when I was in Bangalore, India (in) 2006," Steenson said. "My friend Udai...wanted to show me a Raj Kumar song (and YouTube) was the best way to find it. It's only increased since then. And now it's a few times a week that (her boyfriend) and I end up DJing back and forth on YouTube....It helps to find specific live performances we remember from TV shows, things that once upon a time I had on bootleg VHS."

And YouTube is also helping Steenson rediscover songs that she remembers from spending her high school years in Germany.

"It's been great fun," Steenson said, "to dig up songs I've had in my head since 1990 and that I've not heard since."

Serial song searching
For some people, tracking down missing songs is a serious pastime, since music is so important to so many and we all have those tunes we heard one time when on vacation or danced to with a certain special someone.

To Chris Taylor, a San Francisco journalist, the meeting of the Palm V and Napster, circa 2000, was a "perfect storm" for being able to easily write down the names of songs to hunt for later and then to actually try to find them.

But Taylor said one song he'd been seeking for at least eight years--5 Minutes (Uncle Eric), by Mainframe (see video below)--had eluded even his most assiduous attempts to find it.

"I had been looking on every file-sharing service in existence, from Napster on," Taylor said. "I found a 12-inch remix on BitTorrent, but like most 12-inch remixes of the day, it's a bit crap. I remember the song as being a bit spooky and surreal and time-travel-like."

Taylor said his eagerness and persistence about tracking down 5 Minutes was due to the song's quick rise and fall.

"It sank without a trace shortly after making an impression in the charts," Taylor said. "It's so funny how that happens. You hear a song on the radio every day for two weeks, then nothing at all ever. Like it went into the memory hole. It never existed."

But exist it did. And because it was one of the very few songs on the list on his Palm he couldn't find, "its mystique increased."

For Taylor, the resolution came one day when he decided to Google the song.

"Presto," he said. "The YouTube version."

Like my experience with Dancing on the Planet, though, Taylor said finally uncovering 5 Minutes was somewhat bittersweet.

"Not only is the track rarely as good as you remember," he said, "but also, you hear it on YouTube, but you can't download it to iTunes...Like, why did you post it (there) and not on LimeWire?"

But one friend I contacted for this story pointed out that there is a solution for some feeling Taylor's frustration.

He noted that one YouTube user, known as herecomesmongo79, rips old vinyl and posts the songs on YouTube along with purchasing information online. The idea is that this user is trying to promote the purchase of rare, out-of-print vinyl that would otherwise go completely unheard.

Another friend who heard that I was looking for people who had used YouTube to find rare music, asked if there wasn't some risk that by writing this article, many of the songs I identified in it would be removed, since many of them were posted by people other than the legitimate rights-holders.

In response, a YouTube spokesperson told me that, "We offer copyright holders choice as to what they want done with their videos: Whether to block, promote, or create revenue from them, in a way that is simple and straightforward. We cooperate with all copyright holders to identify and promptly remove infringing content as soon as we are notified."

Reading between the lines of that comment, my sense is that since the songs I'm writing about are all way, way below most people's radar, it's unlikely anyone is going to complain. Plus, some of the songs were posted by the record labels themselves.

Then there are the songs that still, inexplicably, haven't turned up on YouTube.

Lien, of The Sound of Indie blog, said he'd set up Google RSS feeds that automatically alert him if, for example, a song he'd been looking for turned up on YouTube.

And Steenson suggested that it's just a matter of biding one's time.

"Is there anything I'm looking for that I can't find?" Steenson said. "Some, yes: Indie bands from Minneapolis and elsewhere in Minnesota that are long forgotten. But someone will put them on YouTube, I'm sure."

Note: If you've used YouTube to find a song you'd been long searching for, please leave a comment with the name of the song and a link to it.