Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Honor among thieves

I've been thinking a lot about the download issue. To start on the personal level, I would like to sell CDs to people. However, is it better to let people simply have the music for free (such that they are actually listening to it) and to then make money in some other way? At my upcoming shows I will be trying out the "Pay-what-you-think" approach to selling the new disc. (On a side note, the new disc, Medicinal Reverb, is going to be the only one available.) And while the idea of earning some cash from CDs is very appealing, ultimately I think it would be better to have more listeners.

Another thing that got me on this issue was reading The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. It's been quite some time that I've enjoyed reading a book based on the fact that I totally disagreed with the majority of what the author had to say. Throughout much of the book he comes across sounding like "We can't let the serfs have too much of anything, they don't know what's good for them! We need mainstream media to tell us what is right and good!" You know that anyone who uses the terms "cultural gatekeepers" and "Fox News Group" in even the same paragraph is an asshole. (oops, it looks like I just did ;-) And when it come to downloading, he takes the hardline "It's stealing" approach. But sometimes the more important question, at least to me, is from whom?

To illustrate: I've recently managed to, um shall we say "obtain," some music. Specifically, Brahms, Stockhausen, and Led Zeppelin. To work backwards, I did at one time years ago legally own the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue, so they've gotten my money. Additionally, the approximately $150 not spent probably means a hell of a lot more to me than the couple bucks of that that would trickle down to Robert Plant. Among the Stockhausen, I got a copy of a recently released version of Stimmung. This disc I will buy soon because a) I want the liner notes, and b) it will help support the performers. Had I not had the opportunity to hear this work before purchasing, I might have put my money elsewhere. And lastly we come to the Brahms.

The other day Chris and I were in the kitchen, talking before dinner. He mentioned that there was a particular recording of Brahms Piano Concerto no.1 by Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould that he wanted to hear. As it happened, that was one of the albums I had "obtained" recently. Now obviously, the work itself is in the public domain, but the performance may still be under copyright. Which made me ask, "What's more important? That I get to hear this, or that some grandchild of Bernstein gets 40 cents from my purchase?" This in turn led to another question, which is why is there no equivalent to the museum or the library for music? Now granted, libraries do tend to have music sections, but they are small and unreliable in terms of stock. I can walk into any library and most likely be able to get a copy of Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics, yet if I want to hear Carl Ruggles' Sun Treader I'm probably not going to be able to get it there. (incidentally, I can't even find a torrent of that work)

And as with all things lately, this leads me back to good ol' Charlie. Ives was very much against copyrighting his material, even flying into a rage when Henry Cowell copyrighted one of Charlie's pieces for him, saying "This music is not to make money but to be known and heard. Why should I interfere with its life by hanging on to some sort of personal legal right in it?" Exactly. I want to hear and know the music. All of it, or at least as much of it as I can absorb in a lifetime. And since there isn't a resource that I can reliably (and legally) simply hear whatever I want, I am forced into a life of crime.

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