Perhaps some of you remember the case of Metallica v. Napster back in 2000. Metallica, a highly successful heavy metal band, accused Napster, a rapidly growing P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing company, of copyright infringement. That is, people were downloading Metallica MP3s through the service without paying for them. I was 21 at the time and firmly on the side of Napster. I didn’t have much money in high school or college, and so liked the idea of free access to music; I felt it was in the spirit of the internet itself (which I’d been using since 1995) that content hosted there should be free. (Though I never did use Napster back then because of the hair-pullingly slow download speeds for large files.) Some even claimed that Napster’s users spent more on music precisely because they were able to “preview” albums before making a decision about whether or not to trade their money for the recording artist’s musical services. And I don’t think I was alone in the feeling that when I made an album purchase the majority of my money was going to record label execs and not the artists anyway, so file sharing wasn’t really hurting anyone.
It never occurred to me back then to consider why this file sharing was happening in the first place, the answer to which I believe is twofold: 1) People can be ravenous when it comes to recorded music. Our appetite for recorded music often far outstrips our “entertainment” budgets. 2) A complete disregard for, or in some cases an ignorance of, the real, hard work that goes into recording an album. This idea that music is something musicians do “for fun,” that performing music is easy for those who are gifted, and that music making is mystical in some way all render music valueless in the context of a capitalist economy. In essence, what musicians are faced with is a society that cannot get enough of our painstakingly cultivated skill set while simultaneously treating our desire to participate in the economy (namely, by trading our services for money) as unreasonable, delusional, or even despicable.
Needless to say, fifteen years later, my views as well as the music industry have changed considerably. As a recording musician, I absolutely want to be in charge of when people may download my music for free and when they must trade money for it. But to many members of society music just happens, a constant soundtrack created by an unseen hand, so the idea of paying for the musician’s services seems redundant.
Is the idea that musicians should be allowed to participate fully in our country’s economy unrealistic? I hope not;
It’s arguable that over-saturation has been with us always, and that the only question is of degree. But degrees count, as does context. Back in the ‘60s, according to the ostensibly with-it zeitgeist of the counterculture, advertising was lame and phony, and the rock of the ‘60s was a direct affront to it, considered by its makers to be unassimilable to the needs of consumerism. What we got as aural environment in its stead was Muzak.
Who remembers Muzak (also known as piped music, weather music and/or lift music)? Founded in 1934, the Muzak Holdings Corporation distributed background music to retail stores and was the predominant playlist in elevators and public spaces. Meant to be unoffending and innocuous, it was deemed an assault to the senses and sensibilities of ostensibly serious music lovers. But it had its place, as they say.
While Erik Satie’s concept of “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement—or, more precisely, background music) gave both the composer and the music lover something to ponder in terms of rethinking ambient music sources, I’m not sure anyone could have envisioned that, as Muzak was phased out and pop, New Age, and ostensibly “light” classical were increasingly fed into the places where Muzak once reigned, that all music might be transformed into background music. Since 1997, the Muzak Holding Corporation has used original artists for its music sources, except on its Environmental channel. This may have rid the world of bland and boring arrangements of current popular tunes (which was the effect of Muzak’s generic orchestrations), but it also sped up the process of making the original source music itself into background chatter.
Of course, there’s advertising. There’s always advertising. And as hipster corporate gurus like Malcolm Gladwell (“I like advertising. I think it’s cool.”) realigned our relationship to advertising, the floodgates opened. Once advertisers got wise to the potentially positive effect of a licensed pop song rather than a bland underscore, record companies, managers, and indie bands were all trying to place their songs in the next car commercial. This may have created a licensing boon in the short term, but as new web media outlets like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix began to displace primetime TV’s market share, the revenues for song and music placements started to dwindle. But not before they contributed to the overall saturation effect.
Copyright and fair use have become hot catchwords with the advent of new technologies. And many pundits wonder if the Copyright Act of 1976 should be amended or completely scrapped given the new media landscape. But I would argue once again that it’s not just the march of technology that’s creating this new look at copyright. Could it also be that the dissemination of music everywhere makes it harder for bar owners, restaurant managers, and club owners to understand the importance and complexity of copyright law? In other words, the complete and successful infiltration of music everywhere has created its own parallel universe: Music is everywhere. Why should I have to pay for it?
The forced incorporation of music into every conceivable context is taking turns into the realm of the absurd. Even the ancient practice of yoga isn’t safe, with “power yoga” classes (which could only have arisen in Power America) pumping out playlists to match increasingly aggressive yoga postures. And it begs the question: are people uncomfortable with, or just plain unaccustomed to, being alone with their thoughts? ...