Music as culture

Andrew Dubber makes the (persuasive) case for understanding music (and rights management) as a cultural good and not just a commercial interest (h/t, M). Money quote:

The British Library have a sound archive that includes thousands of pieces of recorded music. Unfortunately, researchers and scholars are unable to use a great deal of that material in their research, as quoting or referencing that music infringes on the property rights of the record labels. There is no clear commercial reason for record labels to allow researchers to study their catalogue, and so the position is intractable.

And the public suffers. Culture suffers. Intellectual progress suffers. The people who vote for the politicians, and for whose benefit all policy - economic, cultural, legal and infrastructural - is set, suffer.

But culture has no seat at the table. There is no lobby group for popular music as culture. There are copyright reform advocacy groups, and their involvement would be very important. But that’s not all this is about. There are important decisions being made right now for arts, culture and heritage all around the world. These issues are more urgent than ever because of the opportunity afforded us by digital technologies.

Music IS commerce - and it’s important that voice is represented, and it’s important that every stakeholder with that interest is represented. But music is not JUST commerce - and it’s now a matter of extreme urgency that the voice of music as culture is expressed.

The whole thing is here.

I’m deeply sympathetic to his position (indeed I think I might have called for something similar a while back as it relates to archiving and accessing southern gospel music and history). In writing about southern gospel music for scholarly and academic publications, I regularly quote from lyrics and other copyrighted material that require permission from the rights holder/manager, and I have found most of them to be reluctant and skeptical of my requests for permission to reprint lyrics, even though the usage is limited to a venue that does not generate profit for me (and usually not the journal either) and is solely for academic, educational purposes.

This is true both of people and organizations within the southern gospel industry and larger corporate clearinghouses that have no affiliation with sg and have simply gobbled up clusters of songbooks and the rights to them in bundled transactions. (Judy Nelon is a principle exception … she gets it, and this is not nothing coming from the woman who owns the rights to “How Great Thou Art” and “Alleluia” … also, Greg Bentley and Mickey Gamble at Crossroads have been enormously helpful to me, so while they’ve never been in a position to grant permissions themselves, they deserve recognition as well for getting it.)

Once I’ve explained what I’m doing and assured everyone involved that there’s no money to be made (for me) or lost (for them), the rights have been granted (one publishing giant whom I shall not name - rhymes with Sal Skinnard - did insist on a formula-based fee and ran me through several e-hoops, but I didn’t take it personally). So at the risk of over-generalizing from my own limited data set, I’m slightly more sanguine than Dubber about the future of this particular area of rights management in the digital era. (Disclaimer: I’m intentionally avoiding the whole fair use discussion for the sake not getting lost in the high weeds.)

But there’s no doubt that the thinking about access to copyrighted material is in the main hopelessly corporatist, self-interestedly anti-intellectual, and counter-productively legalistic (Cecelia Tichi complained about this problem in the country music industry in her book High Lonesome). It may make everybody feel good to deliver sermonettes about thou shalt not steal, but that only makes it more – not less – difficult to negotiate between the complicated, conflicting claims of access and rights in the age of the internet.

That’s because like any fixation, once you start making piracy and digital rights violations an obsession, you see it everywhere. But letting an academic or scholar or curator or reviewer or reporter use your work for purposes that are not principally commercial (even if some sort of financial transaction must be involved in their usage) is not only the right, altruistic thing to do. It also helps grow the long tail of digital culture and generate real profits for the rights holder down the road. If you’re only focused on whether or not you get paid for someone else’s use of your property, you’re more likely to mistake the opportunity for a swindle.

Which is to say, it’s not just lily-livered, broke-ass humanists like me who have a stake in this. For artists, owners, and rights managers, it’s of course valuable to know not only who is stealing your music and how to prevent it. But it’s also just as important to know when and under what circumstances it’s actually mutually beneficial to allow open access to your work.  

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  1. quartet-man wrote:

    That is weird about he publisher There happens to be one that also rhymes with that whose initials are H.L. ;-)

  2. cdguy wrote:

    Quartet-man #1 — My guess is that’s exactly who Doug had in mind.

  3. CVH wrote:

    a “…lily-livered, broke-ass humanist”. That’s why I love you man.

    Good post too, by the way.

  4. quartet-man wrote:

    #2, yeah I was just making an attempt at being funny. :-)

  5. cdguy wrote:

    quartet-man — I guess it went right over my head. I thought maybe you knew more than one musically relevant name that rhymed with Sal Skinnard, even though I have no idea of any other.

    Carry on!

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