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Why We Think Music Should Be Free 1

This is not a diatribe about copyleft. It's an exploration of ways "music delivery" has changed over the last three decades, and why these changes have led to a commonly-held belief that music can be downloaded or exchanged without paying a dime to the artists who wrote and played the songs. (more below)

When Music Was Live

When I was growing up in the sixties, every school dance had a live band. Almost every bar in every Holiday Inn featured live music. Upscale wedding receptions and Bar Mitzvahs offered wide-open employment opportunity for musicians. So did lots of other events, down to and including car wash openings. Small bars and coffeehouses universally featured folk or acoustic rock acts, and "old people" -- who were the age then that I am now -- had piano bars and swing dances that catered to their taste for pre-rock tunes.

Not all of the local musicians were much good, but at least they were human. The popular image of a semi-professional musician back then was of a dreamer who hoped to make it big someday, but was working a day job and playing on weekends, either steadily in bars or other places that had music all the time, or doing one-off gigs like weddings and school dances.

High school bands and choirs, at that time, were vocational education. If you learned to sing (at least more or less) in tune and to knock out four or five chords on a guitar and then got together with a couple of friends to buy instruments and amplifiers, you could get up a repertoire of 20 or 30 songs and (unless you were truly horrid) get enough gigs to pay for the equipment and have some money left over. There was a market for almost any kind of music you wanted to play, from classical to be-bop to Balkan folk dance tunes to top-40 rock. I happened to like folk and country, and while I never put much effort into trying to professionalize my musical efforts, I mananged to earn a little side money during my high school years playing fiddle and guitar either alone or with friends' groups. I was not very good, but I could stay in tune and play, as Arlo Guthrie put it, "with feeling." And this was all it took to get paid for playing music in Southern California and Southern Arizona back then.

The Twin Evils of Disco and Music Videos

I got my first inkling of a musicianless future the day Tucson, Arizona's first "disco" opened. This was in 1969, I believe. It was the first bar in the area to offer dancing and music without a live band. Instead, they had a guy playing records, backed by rudimentary special effects like strobe lights and a fog machine. Before long the place had lines outside the door, not only because of its novelty but because it had no cover charge and charged lower drink prices than any other dance bar in town. Sodas, as I recall, were 25 cents, and beer started at 50 cents per glass. Prices at live music bars were generally twice that high during hours when they had music playing.

Many people ignored the disco bar. We all had records at home, the reasoning went, so why go downtown to hear someone play records? If you went out, it was to hear real music, played by people you could watch and might even know, not to listen to some sort of glorified radio program done in person by a disk jockey whose only contribution to the music was to shout incoherently between songs.

On the other side of the country, at about the same time, a Baltimore City government employee named Fil Sibley was doing something just as insidious, in its own way, as replacing live musicians with record players: he was videotaping live concerts performed not only by local groups but also by big-name touring bands that played at the Baltimore Civic Center. Fil did this with city-owned equipment on his own time. He also borrowed the city's portable videotape equipment to show his tapes at local bars, and often interspersed the video showings (which were, in those days, black and white and had decidedly low-fidelity sound) with his own comments about the live shows at which he had made the tapes. In effect, Fil invented not only the music video, but also became one of the world's first video jockeys.

A bar owner could hire a disk jockey or one of the (then rare) music videographers like Fil for a lot less than the cost of hiring even the most mediocre live band -- and have his place filled with the latest Rolling Stones hits instead of whatever grab-bag tunes second-string local bands had managed to learn from the radio or sheet music or had written themselves. If a DJ only managed to drag in half as many patrons as a live band, that was okay; DJs typically cost less than one fifth as much as a live band. For a bar owner who was barely making a profit, this was an attractive deal, and for people who could barely afford to go out at all, the lower drink prices at "canned" music joints made them more attractive, most of the time, than bars that featured live musicians.

The canned music infection spread like Ebola through a pack of green monkeys. High school student governments found that they could hire DJs instead of bands for dances, cut admissions charges in half, and put more dance profits than ever into their activities funds. Couples getting married on tight budgets started hiring DJs or VJs for their wedding receptions. It didn't happen in one day, but over a short span of years the music died -- and was replaced by recorded copies.

Turning Music Into Gold

Each live performance is a unique event. You're either there for it or you're not. A record, tape or videotape is essentially static. Every time you listen to a particular recording of the pop song, "Daydream Believer," it sounds the same, even though John Stewart, who wrote it, did not sing the same lyrics to it in every performance, and often turned this piece of heavily covered top-40 pap into a sly commentary on hidden homosexuality with this simple change to the chorus:

Cheer up, Sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean
To a daydream deceiver
And an old closet queen?
The Greatful Dead hasn't gotten all those people to follow them on tour for all those years by doing things the same way at every show. Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, and other younger groups also like to vary their material with each show, depending on audience reaction. At the other extreme, Janet Jackson's shows are so rehearsed that they are as close as you can come, live, to recorded music, with differences from one performance to the next coming purely from the hall or stadium's acoustics and the characteristics of the individual audience. There is no reason to follow Janet Jackson on tour. Her "live" performances are carefully contrived commodities, tapelike right down to the moves made by every single background vocalist. In essence, those shows are mass-produced products, as are all records, tapes, CDs, and MP3s.

A lounge piano player is a human being. If you like the way he or she plays, there's a tip glass right there where you can directly and financially show your appreciation. Like the music played by a local rock band you hear at a local bar? Buy them a round of drinks when they take a break, and they'll likely thank you by name when they start their next set, just as the pianist will reward you with a smile and a subvocalized "thank you" when you slip that $1 or $5 bill into his tip glass. This is a human-level transaction. Someone is performing for you and you reward them for it, over and above the money they are getting paid by the bar to work there. Now try to give a gift to Janet Jackson -- or Metallica; or Madonna; or Ricky Martin -- and see if you get any acknowledgement for it. Chances are, if you try to hand one of this crowd something in person, you'll get stiff-armed by a security person wearing a radio headset. If you send a gift to a big-time pop musician by mail, it will probably not be acknowledged in any personal way. If you're lucky, you'll get a machine-autographed picture in return, and if you make a "fan" Web site for your favorite big-time performer you are more likely to get a "stop infringing our copyright" demand from their lawyers than a note of thanks.

Now I am going to take a small detour to blame The Beatles for much of this change in the way musicians related to their audiences: they were the first big-time popular musicians to make albums that were purely studio artifacts never performed in public and that, indeed, could not be performed live. They were fine albums, and I'm sure that when they were being made no one thought about the long-term effects of this innovation. But those albums were the first hint of music as a pure product (in the form of records) instead of music as a service (in the form of live performances).

Gold originally became popular as currency because it didn't change; it never rusted and never spoiled. It was the ultimate interchangeable commodity. Turn music into recordings and it, too, becomes a commodity. (John Stewart released a song called Gold that touched on this in 1979, long before the MP3 format was developed.)

Regulating Commodity Distribution

We humans have been trading commodities for at least 10 or 20 centuries; salt for woven cloth, gold for weapons, food for baubles, and so on. Now and then governments try to over-regulate commodity trading. A prime example of this was the British attempt to outlaw direct trade -- without stops in the "mother country" -- between its colonies in the Carribean, India, and North America, which was a large factor in the American colonies' decision to join together and declare their independence. If attempts to restrain commodity trading don't lead to revolution, they often result in organized smuggling, as happened with the alcohol trade during prohibition and is happening today with Heroin, cocaine, and other mood altering drugs the U.S. government dislikes.

Now that music is most commonly sold as a product and not as a service, it is another commodity to be traded or smuggled, just like any other, and technological workarounds for restrictions on commodity exchanges are nothing new. The clipper ship, which was first developed in Baltimore, Maryland, during the second decade of the 19th Century, is a prime example of of a technology that developed in response to trade restrictions. Its fine-bowed, narrow hull and manpower-intensive tall rig made it an uneconomical method of transportation for most low-cost goods, but its sailing abilities, which were far superior to those of any warships owned by the British Navy, gave it the ability to sneak past the British picket ships that blockaded American ports during the War of 1812. In its day, the Baltimore Clipper was as revolutionary (and, from the British perspective, as much of an outlaw's tool) as Gnutella is today.

Just as the clipper ship's design improved over time, and even faster steamships were developed on a parallel track that eventually took over most maritime trade -- and smuggling -- we can expect to see new Internet music filesharing tools developed as fast as first-generation ones like Napster either get outlawed or neutralized by becoming part of the royalty-paying mainstream music distribution system. And as the law (inevitably) catches up with the next generation of copyright-avoidance technologies, yet another generation of them will appear, and so on, into the forseeable future.

The Entitlement Mentality

Call it creeping socialism or anything else you want, but most citizens of developed countries seem to believe, down deep inside, that they "deserve" certain things as part of their birthright. Food and shelter are obvious, and almost anyone who lives in places where Internet access is common can usually get hold of these necessities one way or another even if they have no earned income. An American, Canadian or European homeless shelter may not be the world's most pleasant place to eat and sleep, but it's a more luxurious accomodation than most people in Africa will ever have, no matter how hard they work.

Books are free to virtually anyone in any developed country that has a public library system. Internet access is becoming another popular library feature, and many libraries loan music CDs and videotapes as well. You can argue that libraries are not free, just sponsored by taxpayers. You'd be right. But that doesn't change the fact that end users can make use of their facilities without paying any more than they pay to listen to ad-supported radio stations or to watch ad-supported TV sitcoms.

Then there's Muzak and other recorded background music you hear everywhere from shopping malls to self-service gas stations to office waiting rooms. Somebody pays for it along the way, but the average mall patron isn't asked to drop money into a slot at the entrance to help support the background music. It's just... there, like the (almost inevitable) wishing pool, and the chairs and tables in the food court. Talk about music as a commodity! You never hear anyone -- not the composers, the arrangers nor the performers -- getting credit for the "sweet strings" sound so stereotypically common in elevators and other public places.

So here we are, all of our basic needs met, with an entire generation now reaching adulthood whose members have been surrounded by free music since they were in their mother's wombs.

Why in the world would the RIAA -- or anyone else -- be surprised that these people now expect to get their choice of popular music products online for free? I see a logical progression that led to the current widespread acceptance of free Internet MP3 sharing, and see no way that the clock can be turned back. Either the recording industry will find a way to adapt to the way today's fans treat music -- as a commodity -- or it will die the same way medieval European scribes' guilds went belly-up soon after printing presses with movable type replaced quill pens as the most common book-production tool.

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Why We Think Music Should Be Free

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  • What can I say? I'm from a totally different world here. I don't
    really listen to anything that can be performed live anymore, except
    for old jazz records. Most of what I listen to is electronic, and
    completely studio-driven. On top of that, it's dance music, so it
    lives in the hands of a DJ. Spinning d+b/techno/house/garage is quite
    a different art from what the top 40 folks do. A lot of talent is
    involved, and not just matching up beats. More importantly, it's about
    being new and not playing the stuff that's already been popularized by
    MTV. Good DJs create an experience, something that really is
    one-of-a-kind (even when the records themselves are static!) and
    something that makes you want to go out and be a part of it.

    The idea a DJ playing what you could just go home and play yourself is
    pretty much anathema to electronic music. If someone brings it up, 9
    times out of 10 they're about to go on a rant about "how much the
    scene sucks now" (Hey, we all do it once in a while). I'll talk mostly
    about drum+bass since that's the style I'm into. Being a good DJ is
    about playing stuff that differentiates you from everyone else. The
    all-important thing here is dub plates -- limited pressings of tunes
    that haven't been released to the public. Sure, If you buy records
    every week, you can stay fresh, but that gets expensive. Dubs
    generally come from 2 sources: big-name producers that the DJ is
    networked with (thru labels or otherwise), and unknown people who want
    to get free promotion for their tracks.

    What you have is a whole system of value based on scarcity (only the
    elite can get plates from a very popular artist), where the demand for
    that value comes from free distribution. It's a reputation-based
    system, and it all works without any major labels doing the promotion.
    It's a sort of weird cross between meritocracy and nepotism. If a
    major producer thinks you're a hot DJ, he can hook you up with his new
    track, and people will want to hear your mixes because you have it.
    And if you're a big-name DJ, you can make or break producers by
    choosing what to play. At the same time, it's the listeners who
    influence the both of them by making demand for a certain record or
    style or label.

    This mini-economy, I think, *could* work on the net. Drum+bass (and
    many, many, other styles) has always depended on the pirate radio
    stations in the UK. A lot of these are moving online, since getting
    raided by the cops all the time tends to be annoying ;-) You have two
    distinct kinds of consumers here: people who listen to the mixes and
    people who want to make their own. The listeners influence the DJs,
    and the DJs spend the money on the records. It's entirely possible
    that these new DJs, operating from their home, could buy MP3 tracks
    and burn/mix with them. mixtapes would be shared all over the place,
    but this has been happening since early rave days and has probably
    helped sales more than hurting them. But the mixable tracks themselves
    have *value* -- if you have something new and hot, you can make a
    better mix than the next person, become more popular, and thus get
    more dubs from people looking for promotion. This means the original
    producers can charge money even without using draconian copyright
    restrictions. Plus there's a much bigger pool of talent for the
    promoters trying to fill clubs.

    I know it's a big pie-in-the-sky dream, and doesn't apply to a lot of
    other genres, but I like my little sub-culture. Thanks for listening.

"Oh what wouldn't I give to be spat at in the face..." -- a prisoner in "Life of Brian"