The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Music Piracy Part Three: What Is Music Really Worth?

In my rambling discourse on music piracy, I did touch on the subject of how much music is worth. The point was that piracy does exist because music is worth something.

The underlying question is the same, just with extra question marks...what is music really worth???

There isn't another question or factor...if music isn't worth anything, no one will take it. A decade ago, no one would dream of stealing copper wire. Now, it's as common a crime as speeding (well, almost).

The answer is simple: Music is worth what people will pay for it, or give for it. Most people wouldn't dream of stealing big screen TVs, and they buy those as if the things were as necessary as food. If you left a 50 inch screen on a street corner, then someone would probably take it. Same with 300.00 shoes, or iPads...leave it on a bench and it will find a new home.

Which is what file sharing is. People leave music online, and of course people will take it.

But it is worth something. One good indicator of what music is worth is to watch a street corner musician at work. If he or she is good at the trade, then the instrument case has cash in it. Most of the audience throws in quarters, or maybe a buck (the top price of an mp3).

Yet...an accomplished group, maybe even a legendary one, will have it's music shared for free in a peer to peer environment.

This isn't an accident. It has nothing to do with the artistic worth of the music. While that is part of a song's intrinsic worth to some people, it's only part of the thing that people are really paying for, which is value.

A couple is having a nice day at the beach. They top it off by going downtown and having a nice dinner, and as they walk back to the car or are sitting around in the park, they hear music by some street musician. If it adds to the experience, a dollar is thrown into the guitar case. There was some value there, and it generated a cash reward in appreciation.

This scenario isn't too far from the folk music example in the previous essays. That quality of being part of a nice evening is really about community, and there's an sort of democracy in effect. The street musician is really an equal, and producing part of a collective energy that produced a safe beach to enjoy, good food to eat, a safe place to hang out in, and music with the live energy of an entertainer to add to the atmosphere. It's a product that most people understand, and they will generally give what they can. A violinist in a restaurant may seem like a silly cliche to some, but people like it when some talent adds to the overall fun. Music is functional also.

The other end of the spectrum is arguably value also, and let's be the devil's advocate here...

The product of the millionaire star. To enjoy it, the average person might have to pay anywhere from 30.00 to 250.00 to see it live. The CD might cost over ten bucks, and it comes with the stern warning that only the buyer can use it (even if we all know it'll be used in any number of ways that even the musician would have no problem with unofficially). The web will often be full of news about the star, and most of it will reflect the lifestyle of someone who thinks they're pretty special...throwing tantrums at airports, trashing hotel rooms, having illegitimate children without judgement by most of society, getting away with petty crimes, and most of all, the idea that the artist has this sort of special life that puts them at the level of royalty.

If you don't think that attitude exists, then try a little experiment. The next time a big star comes walking by with an entourage, try simply stepping into that person's path and see what happens.

I remember reading about some big rock benefit, and a famous singer's entourage came bursting through the backstage area, yelling for everyone to get out of the way. They cut a path through the crowd, and then came up on Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, and Keith Richards, and began to get into their faces. The three just laughed and the entourage was forced to move in another path.

What struck me about the story wasn't that this famous star's entourage was forced to actually respect human beings, but that it was a classic case of nobility running into bigger nobility, or at least nobility that knew it didn't have to move aside for an equal. I'm sure more than a few commoners were simply shoved aside before that perfumed train hit the immovable objects.

My point is that all this, not just the music, can figure into what the fan perceives as value.

I mentioned buying that star's CD. It goes deeper than that.

Take the Beatles for example. I bought all their LPs in the vinyl days. then I bought all of their CDs. In some cases, more than one in order to get a "remastered" or "original master tape" version. While each assumed that I had bought only a license to play it, the seller never assumed that I had bought a license to own it for life. I had to buy each delivery vehicle separately, even if it was the same song, and if you count the digital age, then there's songs that have been purchased a few times.

In other words, there's some Beatle songs that I've spent around 20.00 or 30.00 just to listen to it from my teenage years to the present.

One of the silliest articles I ever read was about rock stars who complained that when CDs were sold in a used record store, they were being robbed of royalties on that secondary sale. I'd be lying if I said it made me feel some sort of tinge of pity for the star. When you think of how much it can cost the average Joe to be a "fan," trying to collect royalites off a used record is almost like taking coins off a dead man's eyes.

Of course that never happened...the record industry, while pretty obtuse at times, simply isn't that stupid. It was a non-starter right from the beginning.

The problem is that it simply adds to the unflattering picture of an entitled class.

That's an extreme. There's plenty of music stars that I admire also, and the quality virtually all have is gratitude. There's plenty of talented, and lucky, stars...the ones who stay around and have long careers generally know that without some 40 hour a week schmoo putting out hard earned cash for their music, they'd have to contribute something to society that might require showing up to work on time, putting up with arrogant bosses, worrying about layoffs, and having to actually decide what to buy and what not to buy.

The smart ones know that, and that's why the good ones work so hard and show appreciation (or at least make sure their press agents tell the public that). They know that the average person needs to buy food and necessities, pay bills, wear decent clothing and pay taxes...and now they have to compete with the internet, game consoles, sports, literature, television, movies, and even vices.

You can't beat all that by acting like the audience owes you a living...at least for very long...you can't even beat that by producing great art, even if it is great art...you can only beat the competition if you can at least do what that street musician I talked about did...provide all or part of a great moment.

Which in essence, is what a great song is.

A song, like I said, is worth what people will pay for it. Some Beatle songs have been pirated for sure, but the latest reissues with yet another remastered mix did well. Good music will sell most of the time.

As far as always being able to make people pay for it...if we can't keep people from stealing money, copper, jewels or stop them from taking drugs, how do the record labels and artists think they're going to completely stamp out free file sharing?

That audience will pay money for perceived value (like a computer). Sure, don't leave it lying around, but the industry will be better off finding the next new thing that people will buy than to get too heavy handed with an audience that already shells out money for CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts, souvenirs, and ten dollar hot dogs.

Next Episode: Let's finally talk about the blues, the long tradition of ripping off artists done with both good and bad intentions, how file sharing helps and hurts the genre (and small labels in general), and how the digital age will make the blues even better (and how it already has).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Song Continued: Numbers 3 & 4 (David Lindley, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt)

Greatest Blues Car Song Continued: 3 & 4

As the number gets higher, I should note again that this top ten isn't in strict numerical order, but really just ten of the best. In view of how limiting a top ten is, I'll probably add an Honorable Mention list to cover songs that deserve to be on such a list, plus any I simply forgot to put on.

4. David Lindley El Rayo X: "Mercury Blues." One of coolest blues rockers ever, from one of the great cult bands of all time. Lindley had an acclaimed career before Jackson Browne, and with his band El Rayo X, continued to have one. The song opens with a pounding drum beat that's recorded so loud that it might as well be the lead instrument, and it draws the listener in (always a sure sign of a great drum beat). A propulsive rhythm track comes in, with as perfect a slide riff as you're ever going to hear. Lindley's voice is a perfect match for the cut, and the whole thing barrels along with an energy that never lags. This cut has never been off any portable music device of mine since the cassette days.

CADDY Spedometer Rating: Good at any speed, but will make 55 feel like 25, so listen with care.


3. Jackson Browne/Bonnie Raitt: "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (Warren Zevon Tribute: Enjoy Every Sandwich). One of the hallmarks of a great song; just about any artist can cover it and sound definitive. Linda Ronstadt and Terri Clarke did wonderful versions (both on my iPod), but the best was on a Warren Zevon tribute CD, with that classic cut performed by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. Instead of opening with a twang, Browne and Raitt decided on the big bang (bad rhyme, but couldn't resist in my quest to avoid cliche). A pumping bass and drum intro lead into a great Browne vocal, and some of the hottest slide I've heard in a decade. Bonnie isn't the fastest slide player around, or the most dynamic, but she's not only one of the most unique (thanks to using a strat) but easily one of the most intelligent. She never plays a solo that's purely an exhibition of chops and speed, and in this case, it fits the song so perfectly that it functions as a song hook. I bought this song almost immediately after hearing it on the radio, and it's never been off my playlists since. Zevon was a great songwriter, and his friends here did one of his greatest songs justice.

CADDY Spedometer Rating: Good at any speed, but it will shorten any freeway drive by 50%.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Music Piracy Part Two: Fan Perception Of Music, It's value, and Musicians

The thing about downloading music for free is probably not about morality...most people know that making music costs money, and that the musician does want to profit from the recordings. I've read various opinions, the worst being that musicians should give away their recordings and make their money from live performances.

Which is absolutely silly...an artist doesn't record a song simply to promote live performances. It also represents the time and money it took to record it, and most importantly, it's the one concrete thing that most artists will leave in this world. If the artist wants to give it away, that's different.

One thing that's obvious...if music is free, most people will take it. If someone puts copyrighted music on the internet in  a file sharing situation, of course people will download it. The reason music is downloaded isn't because record companies rip off consumers (maybe that's true, maybe not), that some artists are too rich and don't need the money, or that a piece of music becomes something the buyer can do whatever they wish with.

The main reason people will download music is simple...it's worth getting for free, as it's something that they would probably pay for if there was no other way to get it. Music has value.

Most people who download also know that when they do so, the musician doesn't profit from it. I've read the various rationalizations, ranging from downloaders also buy music to it being a compliment to the artist. Probably true to an extent, but I also think, and this is my opinion, it also has to do with how musicians and music are perceived.

It wasn't that long ago that musicians were basically servants. There's always been folk music, of course, but in terms of professionals, only the rich nobility could afford music. That's because it had to be performed live, and as a rule, the cheapest way is to make the performers into servants. Common folk could rarely pay for music, and thus it was often created communally. This changed over time, at least for some, and I've read that we're in an aesthetic age, where artists have been elevated into an elite.

That's sort of true...the most popular are treated like royalty. The problem is that unless you are popular, the audience's perception of you will be all over the map.

Some will respect the skill it takes to even present cover numbers in a dance club situation, some won't, and will tend to treat musicians as a servant class (and treat music simply as sound that can be "captured" for free)

I remember my first gig as a musician (unpaid of course). It was as a teen, and at the time I played bass. A group of us had been invited to jam at a teen night at a local recreation center, and the organizers hoped that we could play for a few hours.

Which we did...but my main memory of that special night is that during this one jam (on a Santana number), a girl stood in front me while I was playing, and kept screaming in my face "Play 'Get Ready," Play 'Get Ready," play something we can dance too"!!!! No one else did anything about it mainly because, like most novices, we were playing so loud that I was the only one who could hear her.

I'd have chalked that up to youthful exuberance except it also happened once at a party when I was in my 20s. I showed up to play, and we were just jamming, and this drunk guy waded into the musician area and started yelling at us to play something he could dance to (I'll grant that maybe we weren't). Another time, like at a wedding I once attended, a drunk sat on the drummer's seat (while the band was on break) and began to bang away on the drums while the crowd laughed and applauded. The band came back on and were good sports about it, but I know that it made me cringe to see that. Most musicians absolutely hate it when someone just grabs their instrument and plays with it without permission.

My point isn't that people treat musicans like dirt...most don't, and they truly appreciate the music. It's just that the perception of music even now isn't always that far away from the folk conception, and thus a sort of communal property. Copyright law is a relatively recent concept. Even classical composers like Handel and Bach treated copying someone else's music (or having their's copied) as a compliment.

Prosecuting down loaders is wrong headed. If for no other reason, that's going after the customer and that never works. It just adds to yet another public perception that's just as important to the question of downloading as the public's perception of music.

That perception being that many musicians are arrogant, rich, and have a low opinion of the audience that made them stars.

True enough...in a court of law, we'd have to stipulate that as fact. Which will, right or wrong, give people the idea that taking music for free is OK. It really has nothing to do with whether downloading is stealing or not, but if the industry is smart, they'll realize that they, the artists, and everyone in the industry depends on the public's goodwill. It may not be fair in a sense, but if you produce music in some isolated room for artistic satisfaction, you can do what you want with it. If you want someone to pay for it, then all the usual rules of business apply.

In the case of music piracy, the customer may not always be right, but he or she is the customer...and there is no alternate route to stardom and recognition of the music. If people don't like you, or don't want to buy the music, there is no music industry...period.

Music has been both a public property, and a valued one by the noble class, and in a more democratic situation, the musician is perceived in wide variety of roles, from entertainer to star, from hack to artist. As long as music is being sold, any attitude about artistic worth or lack of it is irrelevant...art is for it's own sake, art for money is in the realm of entertainment, and the customer is king.

Which leads us back to the question (hopefully, if my narrative flow was good), is piracy OK?

Of course it isn't...and if music was worthless, no one would steal it.

The real question is, since you can't put the customer in jail, how do you get them to pay? Frankly, for all the screaming the labels do, most of the customers do pay, and the situation hasn't been made better by arbitrary claims of the financial damage caused by downloading (bootlegging, that's another subject) or imposing massive fines on housewives and students. Getting the ISPs to cooperate (or forcing them to as the government is doing) does help in the short term, though it's really like trying to kill off an ant colony with your feet.

The real solution is to change the public's perception of what music is in the digital age, and to recognize that due to the extraordinary changes in how music is delivered, that a new model needs to be developed, and in the short term, not to punish the consumer too much until the new system is perfected. In a free society like ours, oppression doesn't create obedience, it creates rebellion. Most of the piracy systems (like peer to peer) are not created by the public but by individuals, and their cooperation will make or break any effort to make the digital music industry into a viable one.

...and until the next paradigm, the digital music industry is what we'll have for quite a while. Better to fix and perfect the delivery system, and stop wasting time treating the people like criminals for taking what's there. Plug the holes for sure, and most won't go looking hard for the new one...but fine some single mother or student 100,000 dollars for downloading, and the industry will be kidding itself if it thinks the public will be cheering them on...in the old days, when the principal lectured the students or punished one in public, most sympathized with the punished. Same with the current trend of fining down loaders higher amounts than drunk drivers.

In part three, I'll talk more in detail about mp3s and other digital formats...and more about modern bootlegging which in the long run is the real problem. Once again, these are my opinions and thoughts, and don't represent industry or consumer opinion.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Music Piracy Part One: Radio and bootlegs...

The question, whether or not music should be free doesn't really have a right or
wrong answer, and in my opinion, is really more about how people value and relate
to music. In terms of radio or any broadcast medium, music has always been technically
free (though conditional).

For example, the basic agreement between music makers and listeners used to be,
if you bought a particular delivery system, like a radio, it was free. There
were strings of course; there were ads to listen to, not to mention the hope
that you would buy the record or CD on the basis of the free sample (the
single). On that basis, the record company was willing to have songs played for
free over the air.

That wasn't a bad deal for the listener. Most music, especially in pop, has a
shelf life and you're likely to hear it about as many times as you care to in
the time this or that song stays on the charts. The label took the risk here.

The one thing the record company counts on is that a song or album is even more
pleasurable when it can be heard on demand. Which required a record company to
record an artist, capture a sound, get it onto a medium like a record, package
it and distribute it, and of course, pay the artist (which may or may not have
happened of course). People knew this, and many were willing to pay money for
that service.

There was a clear perception that it was a concrete product, something that not
only held the music one enjoyed, but was an object worth keeping, and it only
provided the service to the holder.

What changed all this didn't come with the digital age. What started it was
access to consumer level tape recorders. Now, a record could be lent out and
taped by another. In effect, a record was no longer a self contained
product...the music could now be separated and given to another, or sold by a
third party. It wasn't easy, and required an investment on the part of both
parties, but it was easier. Especially with the advent of cassette tapes and
recorders, though believe it or not, music pirating has been around since the
days of paper sheet music.

The sale of that copy in vinyl (or tape form) was called "bootlegging."
Bootlegging was sort of common among jazz fans in the 60s, and was mainly
confined to live performances and rare recordings not generally available to the
public. There was a "code," that such recordings were only to be traded or given
out in limited distribution, and as a rule, the recording industry didn't
aggressively prosecute the practice. If for no other reason that prominent music
writers were among those collectors.

Bootlegging began to be more of a business when it entered the rock market. Most
accounts say that the first really popular rock bootleg (it hit gold status in
sales) was the "Great White Wonder," a copy of the tapes Bob Dylan made with the
Band as he recovered from his now famous motorcycle accident. There were
different versions with various collections of songs from the sessions (and
other sources), and even that record was bootlegged under other titles. The
sound quality varied from poor to downright tinny, and it's main appeal was the
fact that it contained Dylan songs during a period where he was as hot as an
artist could get, but wasn't releasing product.

Many of the Dylan songs that artists were performing during that time were
compositions that he hadn't recorded yet, and were taken from that bootleg and
other similar tapes. In other words, even artists bought bootlegs back then.

Still, the practice generally stopped well short of copying legal releases in
the vinyl era. It was simply too expensive and legally dangerous to make a vinyl
copy of an album and still make a profit from the effort.

Where the rock bootleg had it's main impact was with live albums. Countless live
albums have been released, if for no other reason, than a bootleg of a concert
or tour was already out and selling well.

One good example is the Rolling Stones "Get Yer Ya Ya's Out" live disc. Before
it came out, a double set from the Oakland Coliseum gig was out and doing well.
To this day, some feel that it was the better live album.

A good second example is the Crosby, Stills and Nash "Four Way Street" double
LP. It's now considered classic, but at the time, it was described more as a
ragged document by a band that couldn't duplicate it's tight harmonies and
arrangements. The primary reason the band put it out was probably because due to
their popularity at the time, a bootleg of their earlier gigs called "Wooden
Nickel" was already out and selling well. In terms of sound quality, it was one
of the worst of it's era, but it capitalized on the group when it was a top
concert attraction.

The reason most artists and labels gave for countering the bootlegs was that it
gave the consumers access to a better quality product, as most bootlegs were
basically rip offs.

Still, it took a lot of effort to put out a vinyl bootleg, and most weren't put
out in large quantities. One had to take the source recording, get it into a
mold, contract a pressing plant to make the vinyl records (generally under a
fake title or name), package it in an LP jacket, and get someone to sell it (and
taking the risk of being busted).

At this point, it could still be argued that it provided a product that the
label or artist wouldn't have put out, and mainly fed a dedicated fan base.

What isn't always said is that bootlegs are parasitic. In rare cases, it can
document a cult artist's output and keep interest alive, but it's main function
was to captialize on an artist during the period when he or she was at a career
peak. To put out the money to issue a record was a real risk back then, and
bootleggers only bet on sure things.

The basic perception that justifies bootlegs is that it only affects record
labels. Which isn't true.

Even the most popular artists have a period when their earning power is at a
peak. During this time, they're going to make as much money as their recordings
are going to ever generate and as a rule, that income is going to decline.
Artists need this period to pay back the label's advance on royalties and have
something to show for their work. If they don't generate enough income, they
often find themselves in serious debt.

This is also the time when bootlegs of that artists are the most salable also,
and anything the bootlegger makes doesn't go the artist. The argument that such
recordings help the artist isn't true...no one bootlegs unpopular artists,
except in rare cases like cult artists, and even they would benefit more if
royalties were generated by that activity.

The fact is, commercial bootlegs are always parasitic.

Once digital music could be easily duplicated onto CD with perfect quality, then
the nature of pirating changed. Instead of rare or "legendary" live performances
or demos, just about every live gig could be easily put out. "Soundboard"
recordings (from the soundman's console) used to be considered a high grade
bootleg and relatively rare...now, the range of bootlegs easily encompassed any
live recording that could be captured on a small digital (or even analog) tape
recorder, but also illegally obtained soundboard and soundcheck tapes, demos,
unreleased albums still sitting in "the can" in a recording studio, or even
currently available product.

The reason is simple, it's about distribution (as it usually is)...

Like I said earlier, with vinyl, you have to get the tape or bootleg mastered
into a mold, find a pressing plant that would take the job (or fool one into
doing it), package the LP and distribute it. That's a huge trail and it wasn't
very hard to track down a bootleg, or a store that would sell it.

I remember one used/new record store that was an institution in my teenage
years. It was hit by an FBI raid, and the fine essentially crippled it and it
went out of business a short while later. Because the vinyl bootleg was a
concrete item, with a complex trail, it was an easy product to stamp out once
people got serious about it.

CDs are another matter, those can be duplicated privately by a console (in the
old days) or by a computer now. There's essentially no financial risk either.
Copying legal releases and selling those at a lower price became easy, and it's
now relatively easy to make it look like a legal product also.

When services like the original Napster appeared, music pretty much stopped
being a commodity in the traditional sense. The music was now a digital file
that could be transmitted without the traditional vehicle of a record or CD, and
listeners didn't necessarily need radio anymore and the tacit agreement between
label and listener for that service was no longer in effect. The relationship
between radio, the artist, labels, and the listener is a complex one, and that
will be talked about in part two.

Music that once was free to listen to also became free to own with the advent of
file sharing, and even with sites like Napster forced to change to a commercial download or
streaming model or others like Limewire simply shut down, there's no denying that the public's
perception of what music is as a product has changed.

In part two of my thoughts on this subject, I'll talk about the good and bad of
the advent of mp3s...I should note, that everything I've said is purely my
opinion and not intended to be a definitive history or final authority on the
subject.