Music’s real problem is downgrading, not downloading

Sam Smith

Missing from the righteous outrage over the attacks on the Internet by the film and recording industries has been fact that movies and music are quite different.

From its beginning, music has been the one the few forms of art intended to be replicated and shared and not just absorbed. There are no garage film producers making covers of popular movies. We don’t gather in bars to dance to trailers. We don’t go to church and paint copies of famous art works between prayers and sermons. And while writing is often quoted, the total occurrence is miniscule compared to the way cultures have recirculated music throughout human history.

There are a number of explanations of how this came about. Charles Darwin thought it had to do with sexual selection. Others have similarly suggested that singing and dancing indicated both a desirable physical and mental fitness. Other theories include bringing groups together, teaching cooperation, and passing along cultural truths from generation to generation.

Steven J.Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals, writes of studies by John Blacking:

“He undertook one of the most informative studies of communal music making when he studied the Venda people of South Africa during the 1950s. He described how they performed communal music not simply to kill time, nor for any magical reasons, such as to create better harvests, nor when they were facing periods of hunger or stress. ln fact, they did the reverse: they made communal music when food was plentiful. Blacking believed they did so, at times when individuals were able to pursue their own self-interest, precisely in order to ensure that the necessity of working together for the benefit of society as a whole was maintained as their key value through the exceptional level of cooperation that was required in their music-making.”

Mithen notes other roles such as aiding “the performance of a collective task by rhythmically facilitating physical coordination. But in the majority of case it appears to be cognitive coordination that is induced by the music, the arousal of a shared emotional state and trust in one’s fellow music makers.”

Blacking cited another group function of music:

“Some years before I arrived in Venda, famous Chief, Ratshimphi, was fed up with the actions of the white Native Commissioner, and so he gathered force of over 350 tshikona players and went to Sibasa ‘to honour the Native Commissioner’ before making ‘a small request’. The sound of the musicians dancing round the District Offices brought all court and clerical work to a halt, but the Chief pointed out that to stop the music would be seen by his supporters as a loss of face for the Commissioner. As a result, the Chief’s request was granted and the Native Commissioner was reminded noisily of the sort of support that Ratshimphi could command.”

Blacking concluded that “all human beings have a right to music and to opportunity of artistic expression,, and therefor the goal of musical progress must be not so much to create ‘free music’ as to enable free people to be free to make music.”

This is obviously not the purpose of the RIAA or the politicians it has paid off. Like so much in our culture, the goal of politics, power and the legal world has been to remove as much as possible from the public sphere, turning it into exclusive profit centers for someone. What they’re up to is not just a war against music and the Internet, but against basic principles of functioning human cultures.

Their manipulations have included the cornering of the market through ever extended copyright coverage. Copyright law followed the invention of the printing press. In 1709, Britain passed the first major measure, which dealt with the problem that “Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.”

The American principles contained in the Constitution, gave authors protection for up to 28 years, or about one third the length of today’s copyrights.

Thomas Jefferson even proposed the issue be included in the Bill of Rights:

“Art. 9. Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature and their own inventions in the arts for a term not exceeding __ years but for no longer term and no other purpose.”

The goal, in short, was to protect the rights of the authors and their families, not to create to create an interminable profit node for mega-corporations.

In the past few decades, the music industry has favored the latter course, while claiming that the illegal use of music has been the major factor in the decline in music sales. Politicians and the media have bought into this argument and helped to push the anti-Internet laws and other legal actions that have caused such a furor of late.

But the real story is quite different.

For example, last year Michael Degusta in Business Insider pointed out that when you convert music sales to a per capita basis and correct for inflation, things look even worse for the industry yet with a markedly different explanation.

According to Degusta, the music industry is down 45% from where it was in 1973. Also:

– 10 years ago the average American spent almost 3 times as much on recorded music products as they do today.

– Twenty-six years ago they spent almost twice as much as they do today.

According to the RIAA argument, the problem is led by illegal downloading hurting CD and legal digital sales. But DeGusta points out, on a per capita basis and correcting for inflation, “the CD peak was only 13% better than the vinyl peak.”

And it doesn’t explain a decline that goes back four decades. Notes DeGusta: “Turns out that, somewhat unsurprisingly, the recording industry makes almost all their money from full-length albums. Equally unsurprising, no one is buying full albums any more'”

Legal and illegal, we are back to to the days of digital versions of single platters and 45s, but with even less interest in albums.

Further, as the recording industry pursues its faux demons, it ignores more important headaches – in particular the decline of music as a part of our communal culture. The real problem is downgrading, not downloading.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to music. We obviously do. But the Venda people of South Africa of the 1950s would find us odd, because our relationship has become increasingly passive – a matter of consumption rather than of participation.

Others – say musicians of the 1930s and 1940s – would be stunned by how much music has become a form of visual theater rather than sound, complete with smoke, explosions, circus-like dancing, and vocalists appearing to be having an orgasm as they sing something as arousing as, “And so I had another cup of coffee.” ooo

One survey has found that the percentage of adult population performing or creating any of the major genres of music never surpasses 4% with the exception of those in choirs of chorales (about 6%).

On the other hand 14% engage actively in photography, 13% in weaving and sewing, and 9% in painting or drawing.

A study by the National Endowment of the Arts found that between 2002 and 2008, even attendance at jazz events was down 28%, classical music performances down 20%, and opera down 34%. There was no evidence that the missing audience was illegally downloading these performances.

What is even more striking is another study that found a huge drop in attendance by those aged 18-24 between 1982 and 2008. The worst hit was jazz with a decline of 58% but even musicals fell by 13%. For adults as a whole the decline ranged from 19% for jazz to 30% for opera.

While having industry lawyers deliberately mislead the public is not all that surprising, the media also routinely fails to mention such factors.

And there are other considerations. For example, in 2004 Rolling Stone pubished what it said were the 500 best songs of all time. Let’s leave aside the question of whether they ignored a few centuries of western music by only choosing numbers from the 1940s on. What is truly amazing about this selection – made by critics widely considered among the hippest – is that only 5% of the songs came from 1990 and later. Forty percent came from the 1960s and 28% came from the 1970s. Even the 1950s did better than the 1990s.

This unintentionally raises an interesting although little discussed question. Could it be that American creativity has been on its way down some time?

I wrote about this a decade ago at the beginning of my book, Why Bother?;

|||| Over lunch one day, I asked journalist Stephen Goode how he would describe our era. Without hesitation, he said it was a time of epigons.

An epigon, he explained to my perplexed frown, is one who is a poor imitation of those who have preceded. The word comes from the epigoni — the afterborn — specifically the sons of the seven Greek chieftans killed in their attempt to take Thebes. The kids avenged the deaths by capturing Thebes – but they also destroyed it. They were generally not considered as admirable and competent as their fathers.

Being around epigons is like being trapped at a bad craft fair where everything you see seems to have been made before, only better….

In anthropology class, I was first introduced to the notion, revolutionary for its time, that progress was not inevitable, that there can be an ebb as well as a flow to cultures. In one American archeology course we studied the steadily improving design of a tribe’s pottery. As time passed, the browns and the blacks and the whites and the zigs and the zags became ever more intricate and appealing. But then cultural entropy set in and it all started to go the other way, the art a poor imitation of its predecessors. In short, the tribe forgot what it once had known. Like the tribe, we have also have forgotten much about ourselves. |||

Some of this is inevitable. Although the mathematical possibilities for different melodies in our music is in the millions, the number that one actually wants to listen to may be relatively quite small. Certainly if the melody is based on an extremely simple chord structure such as the blues, you can’t realistically expect to keep coming up with wonderful new tunes. In fact, the development of chords themselves may have run their course. If you go back to early Christian music, you will find chords based on notes that are 4, 5, and 8 keys apart. Then along came minor chords in the Baroque period and the use of chords beyond the few most common ones. By the Classical period, the dominant seventh chord began to thrive with more chord alterations in the Romantic era.

And so forth and so on. And as music became ever more complex and, coincidentally, used up more of its possibilities, it reached at least a mathematical peak – if not for all an aesthetic one – with modern jazz.

So what do you do next?

Obviously, the attorneys at RIAA can’t help us.

One answer is to share and integrate your music with another culture. But the Recording Academy, even as their world is falling apart, recently decided instead to kick some of these cultures out.

Democracy Now described what happened: “Dozens of musicians demonstrated outside the Grammy Awards protesting the Recording Academy’s decision to eliminate dozens of ethnic music award categories, including Hawaiian, Haitian, Cajun, Latin jazz, contemporary blues and regional Mexican. Some protesters see racial bias in the revisions, others see them as harmful to low-budget indie labels. Last August, four Latin jazz artists filed a lawsuit with the New York Supreme Court claiming that the dropping of such categories had adversely affected their careers.”

To realize how counterproductive this is, consider the origins of a music considered most American: jazz. As the musicians’ site, Aces & Eighths, points out:

“Many blues elements, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. The Diddley bow, a homemade one-stringed instrument found in parts of the American South in the early twentieth century, and the banjo are African-derived instruments that may have helped in the transfer of African performance techniques into the early blues instrumental vocabulary.”

The first jazz arranger was Jelly Roll Morton. And he had no problem with borrowing from another culture, in his case Cuba. As he explained to Alan Loamx: “Then we had Spanish people [In New Orleans]. I heard a lot of Spanish tunes. I tried to play them in correct tempo, but I personally didn’t believe they were perfected in the tempos… In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.” The term “Spanish tinge” would live on in jazz.”

When I heard about the Grammy blackout of ethnic music, I was immediately reminded of the Buena Vista Social Club album of the 1990s.

And when I had first heard that album, something had immediately come back to me, something I hadn’t thought about in thirty years – how, as a young musician, Afro Cuban jazz had been a familiar part of the repertoire and how silently it had faded from our lives.

PBS described its departure in introducing the Buena Vista Club movie:

“The revolution of 1959 stands as a border in time. The music of Cuba emigrated to the United States and Europe throughout the early part of the 20th century causing not a few “crazes” among Latinos and non-Latinos alike. But by the mid-1960s, after the Cold War embargo of the island took effect, a generation of music and musicians suffered a premature death.”

The Grammy blackout and American sanctions against Cuba are two examples of how of how easily music can become either the tool or the victim of those in

Of course, it can also be used the other way, which we tend to forget about because the last time large numbers of people routinely stood together and sang songs of protests was in the 1960s.

Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen and still doesn’t have an impact as Greg Mitchell described recently in the Nation:

Last October 15, mass protests took place around the world, organized by the burgeoning Occupy movement and other groups … But by far the largest turnout took place in Madrid, where a crowd estimated at half a million gathered in the Puerta del Sol after dark.

From afar it was hard to judge all that happened that evening, but videos posted on YouTube a few hours after the event suggested that the high point of the world’s biggest protest was not a speech by a political icon or a mini-concert by a famous pop star. Instead, it was a performance of part of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the “Ode to Joy” segment and then the finale—by a small, ragtag, amateur orchestra….

Kerry Candaele has documented Beethoven’s global impact in his upcoming ninety-minute documentary titled Following the Ninth. Now I have written a book and e-book with him, Journeys With Beethoven…

Yes, many know that the “Ode to Joy” has been transformed into the anthem of the European Union… But did you know:

– In Chile, women under the Pinochet dictatorship sang the “Ode To Joy” outside torture prisons to offer hope to those inside.

– In China, student leader, Feng Congde, played the Ninth over a loudspeaker in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as troops moved in to crush the movement for democracy.

– In England, the folk/punk singer, Billy Bragg, wrote a new libretto for the Ninth in English—and his version was performed before the Queen by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

– In Japan, the Ninth is performed hundreds of times each December, often with 5000 or 10,000 singers in the chorus, transmitting a message of solidarity among all people. As Journeys With Beethoven reveals, the Ninth turns worlds inside out and upside down.

– Pro-Palestinian protesters in London recently rewrote the “Ode to Joy” this way:

Israel, end your occupation
There’s no peace on stolen land.
We’ll sing out for liberation
’Till you hear and understand.

Ironically those trying to capitalize on music can easily work against themselves.

For example, music is made up of numerous genres and often the fans of those genres are far apart. I haven’t uncovered any analysis of this in the United States, but a study in Japan in 2003 found that rock was the only musical genre that had more people like it than dislike it. Every other genre – eleven of them from rap to classical – had 43-66 percent of the public disliking it.

Yet the music industry acts as though we are far more unified than is actually the case. And it is so obsessed with the big winners that it forgets a majority of Americans dislikes much of its output.

It is worth remember that some 200 million Americans did not buy Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – and that it sold less than the number of cups of coffee that Dunkin’ Donuts sells in a month.

Even more significant is the fact that you create markets with something worth buying, not with regulations.

For example, music was thriving in the 1940s through 1960s despite the fact that a key accessory to many musicians was the illegal fake book – a collection of hundreds of songs reduced to their melody and chord symbols.

You just walked into a music store and bought one under the counter for $25. Everyone did it. Even the FBI, in 1964 memo from its Cleveland office, noted, “It is his belief that practically every professional musician in the country owns at least one of these fake music books as they constitute probably the single most useful document available to the professional musician. They are a ready reference to the melodies of almost every song which might conceivably be requested of a musician to play.”

One way to think about these musicians is that they were loss leaders. Yes, they didn’t pay for the rights to use the music but by their performances they greatly increased the market for music that others might otherwise have easily forgotten. Like a public library, they kept the vast musical treasures of the country within convenient reach.

The music industry might be obsessed with new hits; but bands had to deal with audiences whose aural memory could extend several decades. Thus they kept alive what top ten lists would kill.

You might almost describe the fake book at a sort of musical Bible. And the metaphor is apt because the real Bible is probably the book – thanks to translations and modifications – most frequently used in violation of its copyright. Yet it is also the best selling book in the western world, a status constantly reinforced by its legally incorrect use in our society.

This is not a unique oddity as Cory Doctorow pointed out in 2009:

“A new British independent poll conducted by Ipsos Mori concluded that the people who do the most illegal downloading also buy the most music. This is in line with many other studies elsewhere and is easy to understand: people who are music superfans do more of everything to do with music: they see more live shows, listen to more radio, buy more CDs, buy more bootlegs of live shows, buy more t-shirts, talk about music more, do more downloading — all of it.

“And of course, these are the people the music industry’s super geniuses have set their sights upon for bizarre enforcement regimes like the one that British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has promised: anyone who lives in a house that generates three or more copyright infringement notices will be barred from Internet access.”

And it is worth remembering the the musicians union opposed the idea of records and RIAA opposed VCRs.

Long ago I discovered a principle of urban planning that works well in other fields: look for things that normally honest people do illegally and change the law to adapt to them. The planning issues included illegal apartments (40,000 in Los Angeles alone) or double parking in front of places where people are just running in and out. Perhaps the greatest example in America is four decades of cruel and pointless marijuana laws.

The over-prosecution and over-fining of downloaders clearly belongs in the list. There other ways of dealing with the problem such as treating Megaupload like a local bar or concert hall and coming up with a fair fee or revenue percentage, mediated if necesary by the courts.

But destroying people’s access to the Intenet or to music – especially that not at the top of the list of RIAA’s member corporations – is an obscene alternative that no one should accept. It is not only music that is endangered but our whole culture that depends upon it,

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