Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Killing the Music Industry?

An article appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago which profiled a woman who works for BMI. It chronicled her struggles, as it were, in getting clubs to be compliant with the performance rights groups so that musicians will get paid each time their song is played. The article was also picked up by a Pittsburgh jazz blog of which I and many local and international jazz musicians are members.

First of all I want to say that I believe musicians are entitled to get money for their art. If you work hard at creating something - music that you hear in your head that motivates you to create and express yourself - and at some point after expressing yourself there is money to be made at it, you should get that money.

But this whole thing about BMI and ASCAP going after these deadbeat clubs or coffee shops because these places are denying musicians of their hard earned dollars - that starts heading into the category of malarkey. Or else it only serves to make sure that the big musicians get more money, not the little guys.

The way I see it, the money that these establishments pay to BMI or ASCAP goes into a big pool. It's not as if they're going to make sure that Dean Wareham gets paid for the Galaxie 500 song that might get played in some little boho coffee shop. If a club has a bunch of Blue Note CDs on their jukebox, or if they're played through the sound system, can you guarantee to me that Hank Mobley's estate is going to get a cut of the money? I'm sure that T.S. Monk and Miles Davis' estate both have strong grips on everything associated with their fathers' name and that they will get some percentage of what happens to it. But the rest of the guys? Don't count on it. The money paid to these performance groups probably flows towards the bigger performers. Fill in the blanks with names of them here, because I'm really out of touch with specifics. Let's just use the blanket term American Idol winners.

When I interviewed John Petkovic from Cobra Verde a couple years ago, he told me a story about what happened when the band's version of "Play with Fire" was used on True Blood. Great exposure for the band right? Sure, five guys from Cleveland who have day jobs and still play music get a little more exposure and get a few more downloads of songs. The other thing that came along with this was lawyers representing the Rolling Stones, who called day after day demanding that the figures about how many downloads the band received and how much money they owe the Stones for it. "I was like, you know I understand that Mick and Keith don’t the luxury to fall back on day jobs, but we do. But do you know that the money were talking here is less than the price of two tickets to see the Stones? If I joked [the lawyer said], 'This is a matter of getting publishing and mechanics paid up.'"

In this case, we're talking about ABKCO, the Stones' publishers, which is different than BMI or ASCAP, but it point out the same idea, that the big guys will go after the little guys to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of them, while less established musicians in that same position get very little.

It's also easier to talk about how any type of CD sharing or burning is bad when you know people are out there getting free copies of Britney Spears songs. Poor Britney is being denied her money because people are getting those songs for free. And that's because any copying of CDs is bad, right? You're taking money away from artists who deserve it right?

Well let's look at this: You have all of Thelonious Monk's albums on Riverside and you have the Blue Note box set. You either bought them new or someone got them for your as birthday and Christmas presents. You're interested in his Columbia albums because you might like to add to your collection, although you've read and heard from friends it's not the best period of his career. Very good in parts but not excellent, and maybe it's not worth the $15 risk. So a friend burns you a copy of It's Monk's Time. Turns out you really like it. A year later, you're in a CD store and see a copy of Monk's Dream, another Columbia album, and you decide to buy it based on what you thought of the other album. Six months after that you see Underground and you really dig the front cover. You make a mental note that it might be worth getting someday because it looks like some of the songs aren't on any other Monk album. (This is true. Three songs were new on that album.) Mum and Pop want a Christmas list from you. Since they won't be able to find a Tim Berne CD, you put down Underground.

Now if you're friend hadn't burned It's Monk's Time for you, you might not have ever considered purchasing the other ones. That's because for people who really like music this whole argument about "you burn CDs and you're killing music" is only true to a certain point. People who really like music and put the time, and effort into listening to it, will purchase it. We don't want a wall full of CD cases with handwritten covers.

Let me update that last image: We don't want a long of song titles on our computers taking up space. We want tactile pieces of music. We want artwork. We want liner notes. And we want to hear everything, maybe more than once. (Which gets harder once you pass 40 and kids factor into your daily life.) And as much as this might bug some people, if a person borrows a copy of Andrew Hill's Passing Ships from the library and copies it, there's still a good chance that he or she will buy Hill's Pax or Black Fire knowing that the Andrew Hill name is synonymous with good albums. AND FUNDS ARE LIMITED AND WE CAN'T BUY EVERYTHING.

If record labels limited access to songs - by making it hard to download songs and impossible to get them onto your IPOD unless you bought a tactile CD, what would happen? "Well, uh, then sales would plummet." Yeah, but only people that really wanted the music would buy them.

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