Death to the industry!

This is a repost of a response I made to an entry on Elliott Randall’s MySpace blog back in 2006. If you don’t know the name, you know the man’s work: he played lead guitar on Steely Dan’s Reelin’ in the Years, which starts with the 11 notes that, when I was a mere toddler, catalyzed my lifelong obsession with music. Mr. Randall is arguably the reason I’m sitting here writing this. Anyways, the entire entry and thread are here, if you want to check it out, but I’ve always felt that this really comes very close to encapsulating my views on music, so I present it here as well.

Also, I was considering cleaning up some of the text, but I decided to just leave it as is, if only for the amusement you’ll feel at the rather quaint idea that I had, waaaay back in 2006, that $80 was an expensive concert ticket… and here we go.

Lots of great replies to this already, and I’m probably gonna echo a couple of them here.

There’s a lot of things that have played into bringing us to this spot, but I remember when Napster was still around, people (the RIAA’s people, mostly) were sounding the deathknell of the recording industry, and my immediate reaction was “we can only hope.”

Now, take that the way I mean it, but as Elliot already pointed out, artists have been getting shafted by the industry for decades already, and while all this file downloading is certain to have a LOT of casualties, I can’t help wondering whether, when it all shakes down, artists won’t end up being better off.

It’s been mentioned that the notion of intellectual property is on the way out, and I tend to agree with this, but there are powerful people who are going to fight hard to keep it. This goes way beyond the recording industry: look at biotech, for instance, who are pushing for the right to patent human DNA, or the pharmaceutical industry, who are pushing doctors to prescribe their expensive, and often unsafe, pills, and who will not budge on things like reducing prices for AIDS medications for victims of the epidemic in Africa. This, too, is intellectual property at work, and I don’t think that the eventual death of intellectual property would be all bad either – this debate goes far beyond the borders of the music world.

And just how legitimate is this notion of owning a song, anyways? In fact, this is a very recent phenomenon, placed in the context of the whole history of music, is it not? I don’t know exactly how classical music worked, but most of us work in the milieu of popular music, and any folk music fan knows that the idea of authorship is actually quite a hazy one. Traditional folk music draws on a number of key chord progressions, rhythms and lyrical themes, altering them slightly, rearranging them, moving one set of lyrics to a different set of chords – any blues or folk music (which are really the same thing) fan will know exactly what I’m talking about.

One of my favourite albums right now is Richard Thompson’s ‘1000 years of popular music,’ which runs the gamut from ‘Sumer is Icumen In’ all the way to ‘Oops! I Did It Again!’ – a great concept, though it could easily have filled a box set, or several box sets, and still remained incomplete.

But I digress. Jazz musicians, I am told, draw on ‘standards,’ which enable them to instinctually know where a jam is going. Similarly, the virtuosity that can be observed in the rhythm section at any blues jam is remarkable – somehow they know when the song is stopping, where it’s going. Country musicians have what a friend of mine’s musician father called “Nashville tab,” a shorthand way for an experienced musician to walk onstage, speak to the band for 30 seconds, and then they all play, flawlessly. From this, I tentatively extrapolate (I know there’s a lot of musicians present – feel free to correct me) that all musical forms have a basic vocabulary, a set of giants’ shoulders if you will, on which all individual creativity rests, and a big part of becoming proficient in said form is learning this language – to know in a blues song, for instance, when you hear the I chord turn to a 7th, that you’re about to go to the IV.

Song ownership really began in earnest, as I understand it, with the Tin Pan Alley era, where every good house was expected to have a piano, and would then, of course, require a collection of sheet music. Later, that paradigm became a phonograph and a collection of disks or cylinders, and then a Hi-Fi and LP records, and then a stereo and CDs, and then…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Something bad happened in there somewhere: the invention of the phonograph. Previous to that, music was something that you DID, not something you bought. In that era, music could be a profession if you were good – bars with pianos would hire people, for instance – but mostly women just sang while they hung out the washing, farmers practiced the fiddle over the winter (and read books, another activity that’s increasingly unpopular these days), kids were given lessons and expected to learn. Music permeated the lives of everyone, not just people to whom the label “musician” was applied.

The death of the recording industry won’t bring that era back, as nice a thought as that is, but perhaps along with the many casualties that are coming from this era of shaking things down, some of the more odious aspects of modern music will also die out:

Things like the idea that a musician, as well as being talented, must also serve as eye candy. The primacy of visual beauty has gotten so ridiculous that nowadays, you don’t even have to be able to SING – they’ve got pitch correctors for that. Once upon a time they were trying to make machines sound human, but now they’ll settle for making humans sound like machines.

Maybe Clear Channel will croak, and their stranglehold on the airwaves, in which the same damn 500 songs get played over and over on every damn station on the dial, maybe that will end.

Maybe the idea that a live show needs to be a song and dance spectacular, with billion-dollar lighting rigs and ten costume changes and rising platforms and big screens and sattelite feeds, maybe all that can die out, and people will stop going to shows to “Be Entertained” and start going to “Hear Music” again. When that happens, concerts will no longer need to cost $80 for the worst nosebleed tickets.

I’m sorry, I babble and babble. Hopefully y’all get that when I say we can only hope that the industry dies, I actually say that out of my love for music, not my disrespect for musicians. We all, musicians and fans (of which I am both), deserve better than this.

Special bonus Steely Dan oddity for making it this far: a live performance of Do It Again featuring David Palmer instead of Donald Fagen on vocals.

Palmer is an interesting example of the record industry at work – as I recall, Fagen was not originally acceptable as the group’s frontman (whether because his vocals were not considered up to snuff or because he was such an ugly bastard is open to debate), so Mr. Palmer was brought in to front the band, and was long gone by the time the second album came out.

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