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Musical Musings

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For some time now I’ve been wanting to rant on the subject of greed in the music industry, if for no other reason than to clear my head. I’m not just talking about the digital wars waged by the industry on users to prevent them from getting a single free chord, though that’s part of it. No, a penchant for mean-spirited avarice among the power mongers in the business goes back even further.

I first noticed it in the 80s, when in order to quote song lyrics in a story I would’ve had to pay twice what I got paid for writing it. I’m very big on using lyrics in my writing, whether fiction or news reporting. Sometimes nothing can convey what I’m saying as brilliantly as a pithy four lines from John Lennon, or eight from Joni Mitchell. When did ASCAP and other music rights holders decide two lines were plenty, that anything more would cost an arm and a leg? Hell, I was even denied usage, in an erotic story, of a stanza from the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb (see story Under His Thumb in Herotica 4). I’m sure Mick would’ve been shocked, shocked! to find his high-minded lyrics in an anthology of sexually explicit fiction.

I know the historical reasons for the monetary crackdown on usage: too many rock ‘n’ rollers died—and lived—in abject poverty. Every once in awhile a story turns up about some toothless crone in Tennessee or Zimbabwe who wrote The Lion Sleeps Tonight or some famous blues riff that was ripped off and recorded, invariably by some white-bread singer who got rich on it. I’m completely empathetic towards the singers and songwriters of the past who were innocently ignorant about the business end of the profession: these guys were my heroes. Jackie Wilson is the best—or worst—example: after thrilling teenagers for years with an operatic voice full of pathos, the man ended up sick and penniless in some county hospital where he eventually died. I hate when that happens!

Unfortunately, in its effort to prevent such travesties in the future, the industry went overboard. In recent years children of musicians banded together to change public domain law that permits free usage of creative work a certain number of years after the artist’s death. iTunes can’t sell Beatles songs—what’s up with that? In the most well-known battle, the industry went to court to shut down music-sharing sites on the Internet. Sometimes I think we writers would do well to learn from our musician sisters and brothers.

But here’s the thing: surely I’ve spent at least a year’s worth of earnings on the music I love. When I was a child, songs came to me via big, clumsy, easily damaged discs of vinyl. By my pre-teens the 78 was replaced by a smaller disk, still easily damaged but less difficult to transport and store. By the time I was a teenager, the 45 was trashed for long-playing record albums—still easily damaged and hard to maintain. Then came tapes, which we thought would solve the vulnerabilities of vinyl—but they had problems of their own. The solution came in the form of Compact Discs—until digital music became transportable through cyberspace, played on nifty little computers known as MP3s. I have welcomed every change, even when it meant losing brilliant liner notes penned by Pete Hamill, or album lyrics printed on the back. I’ve lost psychedelic and other gorgeous cover art, as well as cute little boxes and slim attractive cases.

With every change I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve spent time, energy and money transferring LPs onto tape and CDs onto my Mac, but I’ve frequently had to purchase the new formats if I wanted to hang onto my beloved music. This is still going on: just last week I had an urge to hear Bell Bottom Blues, realized that somewhere along the way I’d lost Derek and the Dominos, and bought the songs I wanted from iTunes. At this point I’ve probably paid for some of the same music four or five times. True, I can’t blame the industry for albums “mistakenly” lifted by departing roommates, or tapes that disappeared at a party, or CDs stolen from my car, incidents that have sent my musical budget into the stratosphere.

Still, I’ve been a good little consumer and a loyal fan. I love music so much that I keep on buying it, even though I can’t afford to print all of It’s All Right Ma in the introduction to my novel. Isn’t it time the industry repaid me? Don’t I deserve a freebie or two, besides the obscure and usually crappy “Song of the Week” that iTunes throws my way? Don’t the musicians remember the days when you used to sit /and make up your tunes for love /and pour your simple sorrow /to the soundhole and your knee?* I know it’s not all their fault—a lot of corporate execs are making big bucks off them, too–the guys who are stoking the star maker machinery /behind the popular song.** I guess it always comes down to the same damn thing: The man in the coon-skin cap/in the big pen/wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.***

*Joni Mitchell, For the Roses
**Joni Mitchell, Free Man In Paris
***Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

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