Copyright as a Human Right?

In 1948 the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of the many vital and life-affirming rights enumerated in this document, one particular section caught my eye recently.

Section 27:
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

This statement is relevant today as work-a-day musicians/creators try to find a way forward in the age of Google. It's reminiscent of Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution, which states:

[Congress shall have the power...] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

What's particularly interesting to me is that the UN document not only specifically mentions the protection of "artistic production(s)" but also, by virtue of the fact that it's mentioned within the context of this document, counts that protection as a human right. The wording further specifies what is to be protected, namely the "moral and material interests."  The material interest part seems pretty clear. That's the money. But I'm really intrigued by the moral interest.

I wonder what they meant by that?

Ben Speaks on the Steps of City Hall in Support of Music Production

Today, I was invited to speak at a press conference on the steps of NYC's City Hall in support of the Music Proaction Tax Credit, which would provide support to recording projects produced in NY, my home state. Here's a transcript:

Ben Speaks at City Hall, with Assemblyman Joe Lentol and Senator Marty Golden, 7/12/2016

"For over a century, the heart and soul of New York has been its music scene. Whether it’s live music or recorded music, New York’s place as the center of the recording universe is being threatened. It still boasts the largest and densest population of world-class musicians and creative professionals of every conceivable style and genre. But the fact is that NY has become a difficult place to do business and the time has come for Governor Cuomo to help us do something about it before the situation worsens.

My name is Ben Allison. I’m a jazz bassist, composer, recording artist and educator. I’m one of the thousands of work-a-day professional musicians who call NY their home.  I am also the President of the NY Chapter of the Recording Academy. You probably know the Recording Academy as the folks who bring you the Grammys. But the Academy also does great work in the areas of education, supporting musicians in need, music preservation, research and advocacy. We’re a membership-based organization comprised of music creators – namely songwriters, recording, mixing and mastering engineers, instrumentalists, vocalists, arrangers and producers – in short, the professionals who create the music we all love.

As a full-time musician and full-time New Yorker, I’ve witnessed firsthand the huge drop in music production that New York has experienced over the past decade. Aggressive programs and financial incentives from other states and cities have lured away thousands of our creative professionals. And it seems that with each passing month another historic recording studio in New York closes its doors.

How is it that many of New York’s homegrown artists no longer view the Empire State as their “musical home” when it comes to recording? And the exodus of talent – from songwriters and performers to world-class studio musicians, engineers and technicians – is continuing at an alarming pace. This is troubling because it hurts our identity as a global center for music and art, and it also undermines the vast interdependent web of businesses and artists who call NY their home and who, collectively are a vital part of our state’s economy.

The legislation sponsored by Senator Golden and Assemblyman Lentol sends a strong message that New York is prepared to reclaim its rightful place as the music capital of the world. After all, we are still home base for people like Billy Joel, Alicia Keyes, Jay Z, Wynton Marsalis, Pinchas Zuckerman, Philip Glass, Nile Rogers, Angela Hunte (who wrote our new “adopted state anthem” Empire State Of Mind), Carly Simon, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Buffalo Philharmonic, Julliard, Eastman, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Jazz at Lincoln Center and hundreds of clubs, studios, performing arts centers and cultural institutions from Buffalo to Montauk, not to mention the thousands of musicians, engineers, and producers who live, work and create here. Yet those of us who wish to continue to record in NY are witnessing the demise of the very eco-system that we need to create our art and sustain our businesses.

To be clear – this legislation does not provide the stars of the music world with a tax break. What it does is create a partnership between the music recording business and the State of New York – a partnership that helps to level the playing field and make NY, once again, a cost-effective place to make records. There is only one New York – and we intend to uphold our side of the partnership in restoring its position as number one in the music-recording universe. 

I’d like to end on a personal note: I love our state. It’s my and my family’s home. NY shaped me into the musician I am today. I’m just one of thousands of musicians who call NY their home – musicians who are each connected to their own communities, who are trying to make a living, who, collectively are the backbone of our important music economy and who help shape our cultural identity.

So, to my colleagues who were lured away, I say “get ready to pack your bags. New York is open for business.”"  

MY LETTER TO THE RECORDING ACADEMY, RE: "TAKE DOWN NOTICES"

On February 10, 2016 I submitted this letter via email to the Recording Academy regarding the overly burdensome "take-down notice" provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Dear Recording Academy:

I”m writing to express my support for the Recording Academy as they file comments regarding the overly burdensome “take down notice” provision of the DMCA. I, like so many of my colleagues have been steadily beaten down by a process that not only feels hopeless, but is often dangerous. Let me explain:

Like many artists and record labels, I created a Google Alert which notifies me whenever phrases like "Ben Allison Free mp3” or any of my tune titles or album titles and the words “free” or “download" appear on the internet.

I receive several such notices every day and have for the past 8 years or so, which speaks to the shear volume of illegal uploads. Occasionally, I take time out of my work day to click the links to see what’s been posted and where. Too often, I’m redirected to “click-through” sites, which are only intended to keep the user clicking. Windows pop up and disappear, and I’m often redirected automatically several times before actually landing on a page. I'm guessing there’s revenue being generated for somebody by all of these clicks and auto-forwards.

Eventually, if I click through enough times I might end up on a site where there are actual download links.  However, the danger comes when I check the links to see what files actually download (which I feel I must do before requesting a “take down”). Sometimes the links initiate download of actual mp3s of my music, but many times they include malware, viruses or other dangerous files.

The whole process is very time consuming and dangerous for small businesses like mine to protect their property. The only way this will ever change is if the idea of “safe harbor” is updated and the onus moves to the companies who host files (including music) to get permission from rights holders prior to posting files or allowing them to be posted by users.

ISPs have a role to play as well in helping to curb this problem and should not be given a free pass. For instance, entering the phrase “Ben Allison Free mp3” into Google generates 415,000 results (screen shot attached).  I believe they could do a better job of working with the music community to make it harder for people to find illegally uploaded music.

Thanks for continuing the good fight.

Sincerely,

Ben Allison Bassist/Composer Sonic Camera Records Vice President, Advocacy chair, Recording Academy, NY

We Are Pieces

That we are made of pieces,Pieces so small as to be Colorless, odorless, Themselves made of even smaller pieces - Being nothing much more than empty space.

That these pieces of nothing were Violently spewed from stars After having collapsed under their own weight.

That, fantastically, they self-assembled And through the turmoil of eons Joined and collaborated in such a way As to eventually ponder themselves - to look up To other stars, other future pieces.

This is what keeps me up at night.

In a good way.

My YouTube Experiment

YouTube is the first place many people go when they’re looking for a specific song. It’s common for fans to upload their favorite tunes along with static images of the artist or album cover art. For years many artists, labels and publishers have looked the other way or even embraced the practice. But all that is starting to change as the very nature of the music industry changes. Publishers and labels are working to hammer out deals with YouTube that would give them a small royalty. These deals aren’t based on any statutory rates (those set by congress) or any historical precedent (like typical sync licenses). Instead they’re based on the “percentage of ad revenue” model that has emerged as the new standard in the Alice in Wonderland world of on-demand streaming. Two of the “big three” majors, Universal and Sony already have their deals worked out via a partner enterprise called VEVO. But indies are still hard at work on their deals and, by all accounts, finding it tough going. It’s not easy to negotiate with a behemoth like Google, especially if you’re a small company. But at least it’s starting to happen.

Meanwhile, YouTube started offering uploaders the ability to “monetize” their videos as a way to win some points with copyright owners. Anyone who has uploaded a video, including (and this is important) people who don’t own the rights to the material they’ve uploaded, can monetize videos, and in theory share in the advertising revenue that YouTube collects when ads are placed within or over the top of the videos. Of course, copyright owners can request YouTube remove a video containing their property that was uploaded without their consent or knowledge. And YouTube does a pretty good job of getting this done quickly. But the onus is on the copyright owner to first find the content and then fill out the appropriate forms. The process is pretty similar to the DMCA “take down notices” that file-sharing (piracy) websites are supposed to honor, although, unlike most piracy sites YouTube doesn’t go out of its way to hide or obscure the illegal content or make removal an overly onerous process.

Thinking through all of this led me to the following question: Does monetizing videos actually help artists and indie labels?

THE EXPERIMENT

My latest album, The Stars Look Very Different Today, is the first that I self-produced and released on my own label (Sonic Camera Records). I have full control over where and how the album is available (excluding when it’s pirated, of course). As an experiment, I decided to see what would happen if I uploaded the entire album to YouTube as one continuous video and “monetized it” by allowing YouTube to insert ads. YouTube allows uploaders to place ads at the beginning, at the end and at one specific time during a long video, for a total of 3 ads.

Once my video had received 300 views over a few days, I took it down and reviewed the stats.  This is what I found:

The total minutes watched by all viewers was 3,284 minutes, or about 11 minutes per viewer (you can get this kind of info on your Analytics page). That means that each viewer listened to about 2 tunes (each one being about 5 minutes in length on average). Total income from the ads was $2.91. This comes out to .0097 cents per viewer or .0048 cents per streamed tune.

Granted, this was a limited experiment. Results based only on personal experience are anecdotal at best. I understand that the jazz world is quite different than the pop world, where “views” might number in the millions. Ad revenue might fluctuate depending on how many hits the video has. But I think my experiment is fair and representative of what an indie musician might expect.

I’ve monetized several other videos of mine for over the past year or so and all of them have generated similar revenue results. I’d be curious to hear what others find. My guess is the results will be pretty similar to my own.

Interestingly, .0048 cents per stream is eerily close to the average per stream amount artists often see from on-demand sites like Spotify, which in my experience was about .006 cents per stream.

My YouTube figure does not include the publisher fee that should (hopefully) be in the pipeline once deals are hammered about between my publishing administrator and Google. But my informed guess is that those fees won’t amount to much either.

You might ask, “What’s the problem? Isn’t YouTube a great place for artists to gain exposure and develop their fan base?” Yes, I agree that’s true. I, myself occasionally upload videos of my band performing live. It’s a great way to share music with fans and the general public. But when it comes to studio recordings that are currently available commercially, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that YouTube is not always a good thing for artists and the future of recorded music. At least, not yet.

One of my concerns, as I’ve mentioned in public panel discussions and interviews over the past few years (listen to my interview on WNYC from 2011 - Smackdown: Spotlight on Streaming), is that on-demand, subscription-based streaming is undermining the recording industry by allowing and encouraging consumers to listen to, but never actually buy music. After all, why would anyone buy a track on iTunes for $.99 when they can stream it for free or nearly free anytime they have Internet access (which is most of the time these days).

There are numerous reports, including this new one from Billboard that show download sales continuing to decline (as CD sales have been doing for more than a decade) even as on-demand streaming increases. This particular article ends with the statement: “The growth of streaming services negatively impacts digital purchases and puts additional pressure on the music business to generate new revenue by growing streaming services.” Can income from streaming services fill the gap? My take is that they can’t, or more likely, won’t. Here’s why.

As artists and music-lovers, we should stop thinking of YouTube, Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, Rhapsody and the rapidly growing list of streaming services as being part of the “music industry.” I think of the recording industry (the creator side of the music industry) as essentially being comprised of record labels, publishers, distributors, and artists. All are interested in the same thing — creating and selling music.

By comparison, companies like YouTube and Spotify aren’t really interested in selling music because they don’t sell music. They’re interested in accumulating user and subscriber data and selling ads. They use music as the draw. Spotify recently received an infusion of $100,000,000 in venture capital from Goldman Sachs. Not bad for a company that has yet to be profitable. Is Goldman Sachs interested in getting into the music selling business? I don’t think so.

So, I’m left with the thought that I don’t want to monetize my videos on YouTube. It doesn’t turn into any real money for me. Meanwhile, it allows YouTube to profit when they insert ads into the experience of listening to music. Furthermore, this model adds to the idea that on-demand streaming is going to save the recording industry. I'm worried it will have the opposite effect.

Some say that we’re just in a transition phase to a new kind of music industry. The key, they argue, is to make music as readily available and ubiquitous as possible so that those tiny fractions of pennies derived from ad revenue and subscription fees will add up for creators. In the words of Spotify founder Daniel Ek, “We believe music should be like water. It should just exist everywhere.” Leaving aside the fact that water is a finite resource (and all too scarce for many millions of people), the analogy is troublesome for another reason. It is based on the idea that if you make things cheap enough and available enough, people will consume more. Think of it as the “Walmartization” of music. The Waltons have certainly done alright with Walmart and consumers seem to like it. I’m not so sure about the people who make most of the stuff they sell or the small companies who can’t compete when they come to town.

It is possible that someday the money will start to trickle down, but clearly we’re not there yet. In the mean time, we artists should become as educated as possible. We should be aware of how things are changing and what’s driving that change. Only then can we start to drive some of this change ourselves.

All well-considered opinions are welcome in the comments section below.

The DIY Ethos and Thoughts for the Future

When I was 25, I had a few realizations that continue to guide my musical life two decades later. In order to find your voice as a musician you have to take risks. You have to pursue your music with energy, passion and a healthy disregard for the status quo. And it really helps to surround yourself with like-minded artists who share those ideals. These thoughts inspired me to form the Jazz Composers Collective — a non-profit, musician-run organization dedicated to new music. In the summer of 1992, I, along with pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonists Ted Nash and John Schroeder and later saxophonist Michael Blake and trumpeter Ron Horton, set out to provide ourselves and other musicians with opportunities to develop and present our music on our own terms and, at the same time, build new audiences for jazz. It was a fairly simple mandate based on collaboration and self-empowerment. At the heart of this effort was a desire to carve out one corner of our musical lives in which we could be idealistic.

The Collective’s annual concert series, which was a mainstay of NYC’s creative music scene from 1992 until 2005, featured the work of 50 composers, the participation of over 250 musicians and the premiere of more than 300 new works. It was a tremendous outpouring of creative energy that resulted in over 40 albums, countless national and international tours, residencies at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), an annual festival at the Jazz Standard club in NYC, collaborations with the 80-piece Jazz Sinfonica orchestra in Brazil, partnerships with the U.S. State Department, as well as lasting friendships and lots of great memories.

Fall, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of our first concert. We celebrated by reprising the Jazz Composers Collective Festival.  Over the course of 6 nights at the Jazz Standard we presented 11 bands led by  founding members of the Collective.

Preparing for the festival got me thinking about the early years, before the Collective. Back then, I was itching to get my music career going but frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. There were some clubs where I might land a weekday set with my band, but too few to sustain any kind of momentum. I had been organizing a weekly session in the basement of a music school where I was teaching.  The price of entry was an original piece of music. Someone might bring in a fully realized score, another a deck of cards and a concept. Those were some very experimental sessions. And I loved them.

As a kid I listened to rock, ska, punk, blues and whatever else felt raw and had an edge. When I eventually discovered jazz as a teenager, I was drawn in by musicians who, to my ears, had a renegade spirit — Ornette, Mingus, Monk. These musicians taught me that jazz could and should be dangerous.

The sessions at the school allowed us to experiment without fear. We could bring in a crazy idea with the assurance that everyone would work hard on it. Sometimes the ideas would lead nowhere or fail epically. We’d just laugh and move on to the next one. Gradually, some really amazing music started to emerge. We had begun to find our voices as composers.

After a year or so we decided to bring it all out of the basement. We rented a hall and presented our first concert in October 1992. We drafted a mission statement and published our first newsletter, which contained articles written by the composers about their music and process. We put together a business plan, a fundraising strategy, incorporated and filed for non-profit status. In 1996 we moved our series over to the performance space at the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, where we remained until we decided to dissolve the Collective in 2005. By then, we felt we had fulfilled the Collective’s mission.

As I look back at what we accomplished and think about the current state of the music industry I think the DIY ethos is more relevant than ever. Many artists, out of necessity, must now be their own record labels, managers, lawyers and promoters. And we all do better when we collaborate, share information and build strong communities around the music we love.

Ornette Coleman, 10 Favorites

This article also appears on JazzTimes.com

The third jazz record I ever bought was Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music. I had never heard anything like it before and it changed the way I thought about music. I was in high school and was just beginning to immerse myself in the world of jazz. Until that point, most of the jazz I had heard was bebop-era music, which to my teenaged, rock-loving ears sounded a bit cerebral and complex: no vocals to pull me in immediately, bass and drums just thumping away. With Ornette's music (I use his first name throughout this article with all due respect), I heard something different, but also something familiar. This was folk music, it had melody. And it was rock music, raw and edgy, dare I say, almost punk. It made sense to me immediately. There was a lot of blues in there. And a voice. It was a saxophone voice. I was hooked. Here are some favorites, in no particular order.

ThisIsOurMusic
ThisIsOurMusic

“Folk Tale” This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961) This record featured the great but rarely recorded lineup of trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Charlie Haden. One of the world’s funkiest drummers, Blackwell was not afraid to play the drums, not just cymbals. On this record he hooks up with Haden in such a deep way that it makes me wonder why Ornette rarely used them together on record. To my ears, “Folk Tale” is an archetypal Ornette tune—full of catchy melodies and grooves, hairpin turns and a kind of offbeat humor that pops up in a lot of his music.

SoapsudsSoapsuds
SoapsudsSoapsuds

“Human Being” Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977) Soapsuds, Soapsuds features Ornette and Charlie Haden in the stripped-down setting of a duo. Recorded for the great Artists House label, the sonic room afforded by a duo gives these masters room to harmonize and re-harmonize at will. “Human Being” is remarkable for its stark beauty, soulful lyricism and the amazing counterpoint offered by Haden, some of his best playing on record.

SoapsudsSoapsuds
SoapsudsSoapsuds

“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977) I couldn’t decide between “Human Being” and this one so I chose them both. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the theme from the amazing and strange nighttime soap-opera parody of the same name. Norman Lear created the kind of television that pushed boundaries, much in the way that Ornette does with music. Humor, deep emotion and a just-plain-weird feeling pervaded the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of "improvised reality” was a big influence on filmmaker Christopher Guest.

ScienceFiction
ScienceFiction

“What Reason Could I Give?” Science Fiction (Columbia, 1971) One of the rare Ornette recordings to feature vocals, this take sounds colossal with Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums, plus four tightly voiced horn players (including Ornette and Dewey Redman and two trumpeters) and a processed mix that adds to the density and intensity. Vocalist Asha Puthli really belts it out with fearless energy, a perfect beginning to a record that has a serious edge to it. Any record that has the word “science” in it has my attention.

SomethingElse
SomethingElse

“Invisible” Something Else!!!! (Contemporary, 1958) On Something Else!!!!, Ornette’s first album, you can hear a lot of classic bebop references. It sounds a bit like a first step, the beginning of a transition. In hindsight we know where Ornette’s going with his music. But at this point in history the other musicians are very firmly routed in American Songbook forms, which, in a way, is at odds with Ornette’s more folk-and-blues-oriented music. To my ears, Ornette is referencing a more traditional—maybe even primal—approach to music that the modern musicians of the day weren’t hip to yet (or had forgotten).

ArtOfTheImprovisers
ArtOfTheImprovisers

“The Alchemy of Scott LaFaro” The Art of the Improvisers (Atlantic, 1961) For me, the session that produced this cut as well as the album Ornette! and part of Twins is all about Scott LaFaro (bass) and Ed Blackwell. LaFaro brought a totally different energy to Ornette’s music when he temporarily replaced Charlie Haden. This is truly “out” music, which means it’s atonal. The focus is timbre and energy. The forms are very simple, rough and loose, and sometimes difficult to discern. This is not lyrical music, not folk music as I think of it. There’s a great conversation happening—it’s just not about the weather or sports.

InAllLanguages
InAllLanguages

“Feet Music” In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams, 1987) “Feet Music” is one of my favorite Ornette tunes. It’s a funky boogaloo with lots of blues elements. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Ornette’s music is the way he can break a groove for a few bars at a time, then resume it and make it sound alright. That kind of thing is more common in folk and blues music but almost never happens in bebop-era tunes. It’s another example of how his music is so tied to the cadences of the human voice, both in song and in spoken language. This has been a huge influence on my music.

TomorrowIsTheQuestion
TomorrowIsTheQuestion

“Tears Inside” Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic, 1959) Another great blues, filled with interesting momentary trips into unrelated keys and a hint of bop phrasing, “Tears Inside” is always fun to play.

TomorrowIsTheQuestion
TomorrowIsTheQuestion

“Rejoicing” Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic ,1959) Parts of this tune remind me of Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” It’s rooted in bop phrasing and harmonic structure but with a few odd measures and other twists and turns that knock it off-center. What makes this so quintessentially Ornette is the way he solos. It’s a slippery statement that, once again, sounds like a vocalization to my ears.

ThisIsOurMusic
ThisIsOurMusic

“Blues Connotation” This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961) “Blues Connotation” is one of his most enduring and covered tunes and the first one I ever learned to play. Ornette’s saxophone playing and his approach to composition are completely intertwined. It’s not easy to play his tunes without hearing his voice on the saxophone in your mind. Like Bird, his pre-conceived melodies seem to be extensions of his improvisation—part of one sound, integrated and whole. He’s a complete artist and one of my biggest inspirations.

An Open Letter To Musicians

This post also appears at brubeckinstitute.wordpress.com

Dear Musicians:

I recently participated as a guest speaker in a web chat hosted by Chamber Music America called “Audio Streams, Downloads and Digital Files” that was moderated by JazzTimes editor Lee Mergner. The discussion focused on the benefits and downsides of streaming music online, what is involved in streaming music via your own website or a site like Spotify, whether to offer free samples of your music for download, and the difference between mechanical royalties and performance royalties. The key question that emerged was how to strike the right balance between getting our music out there and maintaining enough control over our recordings to be able to derive income from them.

The terrain for recording artists, composers, and performers is rapidly changing. Aside from new technologies, we also face issues related to intellectual property and how we should view the recording industry. Many artists feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the very institutions that were set up to protect their rights and represent their interests. I often hear musicians, especially younger ones, questioning why they should bother with ASCAP or BMI if their checks are small, and why they should care about SoundExchange. Musicians are increasingly asking, “Isn’t it better to give our recordings away for the sake of promotion since we mostly make our living from live performances?”

Businesses are happy to broadcast/stream music without paying a decent royalty. Moreover, a growing number of music listeners believe music is and should be free. Taken together, these attitudes are slowly eroding the very idea of intellectual property. In fact, there is a strong movement that wants to do away with the concept of copyright entirely (think “copyleft”).

Thankfully, the very idea of intellectual property is written into the United States Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8 (alongside basics like levying taxes, printing money, etc.):

Congress shall have the power: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The important point is that, like physical objects, ideas have value too. When we buy a CD, it’s not the plastic disk that matters. It’s the music on it that we care about.

RAISING CONSCIOUSNESS

Earlier this year, as part of a group of NARAS governors and delegates, I had the opportunity to meet with members of Congress to discuss issues related to the future of the music industry. Congressman Steny Hoyer from Maryland offered the following comments:

“Stephen Foster died a pauper. Why? Because there were no publishing rights. No one thought they were stealing his property when they played his music and he didn’t get paid for its usage. IP rights in many respects are about raising the consciousness of good people. You’re not going to convince the bad people, the robbers and the thieves. They don’t care. But the good people understand that you are taking something of value, something that gives you pleasure, lifts you up and gives you vision. And that’s worth something. And if you don’t compensate people for creating art, they’re not going to do it. And if they don’t do it, our lives will be less rich and the quality of our communities and civil society will be less rich. The arts help to inspire us and give us vision. The fact of the matter is that art is a universal way to communicate. And we need to make sure that those of you who create art are protected.”

I believe many people would still create art even if they were not compensated. I think this is a primal drive — people will always be making and listening to music. The real issue is how the general public views recorded music and whether or not they believe it has intrinsic value. In this sense, Congressman Hoyer was right on the money. Intellectual property laws are partly about raising consciousness.

THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC

Technology, art and finance have been converging and feeding off each other for the past 80 years or so, creating the “music industry.” I put the term in quotes because I do not believe we should think of the music industry as a monolithic entity. Instead, it is a system made up of many moving parts, some are large corporations, but many are small companies or single individuals, all pursuing their own combination of art and business.

The fact that the “business of music” exists is a good thing. When I was a kid, my friends and I would often accuse musicians of “selling out” when their music seemed to be driven by financial interests more than artistic ones. As an adult, my view is more nuanced. I have come to realize that not only do music and commerce co-exist, they are mutually dependent on one another, at least for people who make their living by composing, recording and/or performing music.

REALITY CHECK

Will choosing to become a professional musician continue to be a viable career choice in the future? Many people involved in creative fields are very concerned — and for good reason. Ask journalists or writers whose works are reduced to a few kilobytes of easily transferrable digital information how their industry is doing. My guess is they would say not so well.

The music industry is comprised of many industries that are interconnected — recording engineers, producers, promoters/publicists, venue owners, music critics, and so forth. Without professional musicians, all of these related industries would likely collapse. Music is at the center of it. Musicians are important, not just to our cultural health but also to the health of our economy.

But we undermine ourselves when we appear in promotional videos for piracy websites like Megaupload. I’m talking to you Kanye West and Will.i.am.

And when we say things like, “Piracy is the new radio.” Neil Young, you’re my hero, but that’s bullshit.

In this fast-changing world we musicians can and should have a lot to say. Becoming as informed as possible about issues that impact our livelihoods and refining our views are important first steps. We have to be comfortable with the idea that our music has value. And we should work to strengthen those laws and institutions that help to protect and enable us to sell our music in a fair way.

Please let me know what you think by posting comments below.

My Day Testifying Before Congress - Performer's Rights and the Future of Audio

Today, I testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce regarding performer’s rights.

You can read a transcript here: http://energycommerce.house.gov/hearing/future-audio

New York Times Coverage: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/business/media/radio-royalty-deal-offers-hope-for-industrywide-pact.html?_r=2&

It was exciting and gratifying to get the chance to make the case that performers, in addition to songwriters should receive fair compensation when they're music is played on terrestrial radio (a right they currently don’t have).

I’m not sure how many people are aware of the fact that, while songwriters get paid when their recordings are played on AM/FM radio, performers (the musicians who played on the recording) do not.

Most musicians know from first hand experience that it's really the folks in the band that bring a tune to life. I count on the musicians in my group to “put meat on the bones” - to take what I write and put their personal stamp on it. This is is a big part of what gives the music on my albums its character.

After my testimony, I was asked a question by Congresswoman Mary Bono-Mack who is the wife of the late Sonny Bono. Her question gave me the chance to bring up Carol Kaye, the great bassist from the LA recording scene, whose seminal playing can be heard on countless recordings and big pop hits. One such recording was Sonny’s “The Beat Goes On” which Sonny wrote originally as a swing tune. Arguably, it’s Carol’s funky bass line that helped make that a hit. And yet Carol gets no royalties when it’s played on the radio (as it still is). The US is the only developed country that doesn’t have such a royalty for performers. That’s beyond wrong.

Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, also testified. I am fan of Pandora. It’s a really great way to find new music. And it gives a voice to countless artists who play styles of music that might not otherwise make it to traditional radio. Pandora is internet radio, and like satellite and cable they pay a royalty to the performers on a recording. That’s fair. It makes sense.

Ben's testimony. Also pictured, David Israelite, CEO National Music Publishers Association. 

But for reasons that defy understanding (probably based on legislation that was passed before I was born) terrestrial radio is exempt from paying such a royalty.

This has to change.

Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is whether or not people believe that music has value - that after all the blood, sweat and tears that American musicians pour into their craft, they should be afforded the same rights enjoyed by musicians throughout the rest of the developed world.

As I said in my testimony, without the songwriter putting that first note on paper, without the musicians performing that song in ways that move us, without the engineers capturing that performance, there would be no iPods, no Pandoras, no labels, no publishers.

Thoughts?

My Conversation with Aaron Siegel Part 1: Making Frankenstein Move

(reprinted by permission from the Carnegie Hall Blog.)

Aaron Siegel: I want to talk about process. I was struck in the video that you did with Rogerio [Boccato, percussionist] that we started to see a little bit of your working process. I was really fascinated by that. Probably if Charlie Parker were alive now, he would have a computer, he would have his ProTools setup, and he would be at home writing these pieces and recording them and listening back to them and seeing how they fit over each other.

The meticulousness with which you're developing these works struck me. There's a process of layering and organizing, and it's not a pen-and-paper process from the beginning. It's much more like playing around with puzzle pieces. From your standpoint, how does that ultimately affect what the music sounds like? How intentional are you about that process?

Ben Allison: It is intentional. It's an interesting process. It has changed over the years, but I think I've been on somewhat of a constant trajectory since the mid-'90s. I’ve always been interested in playing with genre and mixing and matching sounds.

Back in the day, I had this antiquated system involving tape decks and little keyboards that you could pre-program, but these days I work mostly with Logic (a music sequencing and recording program). For me, composition is a multi-step process. Usually, it starts is with a germ of an idea—just a sound, or maybe a reference to a particular genre or player. Maybe it's something taken out of my experience improvising with my colleagues. Something interesting happens spontaneously and then I make a mental note or try to capture it on tape so that I revisit it and use it as a jumping off point.

It's hard to say where the interesting ideas come from. A lot of it is trial and error. This is where the computer comes in because it allows me to layer up different timbres and tonalities. It's not just about the notes at this stage. It's more a question of what I’m alluding to with a particular sound. Then I have to get together with other musicians and work it out, see what sounds good. What I eventually end up with is a very basic score, what we call lead sheets. They have bare-bones information. What's not notated is actually the meat of the tune. All of the genre references, all of the textures and musical concepts are best conveyed through rehearsal and actually talking about it and figuring it out together.

Recently, I had a basic beat conceived for a new tune, which I worked out on the computer. But, of course, I'm not going to use my ProTools or Logic samples on a concert. I have to see what actually works in the real world, what actually sounds good. Rogerio will bring over his set of tambourines, so I'm hearing tambourine on this tune and it's connected with the drum part. Things like that are actually rather specific. The only way to know for sure what works is to try it in rehearsal. All this stuff seems very antithetical to improvisation, but the point is that once we have these sounds and this landscape mapped out and the musicians have an idea about what the landscape looks, feels, sounds, and smells like, then they're free to explore within it. Then we're at the point where we're improvising and playing around with those ideas. The actual construction part is collaborative, and then of course the actual performance of something is totally collaborative. It’s very important to leave enough room for spontaneity, for people to engage in a conversation.

Aaron Siegel: It's interesting you say that. Recently, we interviewed Christina Pluhar of L'Arpeggiata, who reminded us that with early music, it's a case of, "Here are a few notes. Now you go and do the rest." It's exactly the same as you described it. Over the centuries, every space has been filled in with notes and directions by composers, but it started out with, "Here's your sheet. Go away and play."

Ben Allison: It's called folk music. As a matter of fact, it has always existed. It has been probably the predominant form of music on earth, because most people just play. Most people don't go to conservatories and study towards the goal of eventually playing. They just play right from the start and figure things out as they go along. Even in the classical world and the jazz world, where you have people who are very accomplished musicians, my hope is that they still have that mindset, that they're still collaborating and figuring things out as they go. Part of being a composer is knowing when not to say anything, and that's often my most gratifying moment, when I've written something that's a nice jumping-off point but then one of the musicians in the band has an idea that's much better than what I was envisioning, and all of a sudden the tune is so much cooler. It's easy to take credit for those moments. But in reality, the musicians have so much to do with that. They're the ones who put meat on the bones and make Frankenstein move.

Aaron Siegel: You have nine or ten records now as a leader, which is a pretty significant catalog. One of the things that was really interesting to me was that up until this point each of the records was mostly your music with one or two covers. Then with your latest record—Action/Refraction—it suddenly goes totally to covers. I use that term loosely, because I think what you're doing is actually a much more sophisticated and much more inventive response.

Ben Allison: Yes, most of my albums to this point have been centered around my original compositions. That’s an important part of how I define myself as a musician. But I’ve also recorded music by legends such as Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, John Lennon, Neil Young as well as some of my colleagues like Michael Blake and Steve Cardenas (both of whom will be performing with me at the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert).

These are composers whose music I really admire, people whose music strikes a chord. It's a chemical thing. I think the same thing that draws me to playing with Steve and Michael also draws me to listening to those other musicians. There's something in their music that on the one hand feels deeply personal to them but on the other hand feels familiar. Even if I've never heard it before, emotionally it gets me right away. I sometimes get this feeling when I'm listening to someone else's music where I wish I had written it. With some tunes that I hear, I feel almost envious of the composer. I think "I wish I had written that. I almost could have written that, because it sounds so much like something I would want to write.

Aaron Siegel: Is that where the "refraction" metaphor comes in? Do you see the band refracting these other things?

prism-and-refraction
prism-and-refraction

Ben Allison: The light's coming in and being split into its component parts. I'm a science nerd, so that's how I think about things. It's about taking the music apart and seeing what it's made out of. That's the "refraction" part. The "action" part is reassembling it in our own way and trying to find something new to say with it, using the constituent parts of the music as jumping off points.

I call it a covers album because that gives people some kind of a context, but I think it's a little bit more than just covering someone else's music. I try to put my own stamp on it. I tend to be somewhat irreverent as a person, at least when it comes to music. As much as I love these great musicians, I also feel that part of the responsibility of any artist is to try to bring something new and personal to what they do. We have to be a little bit fearless in that regard.

Taking something like a Donny Hathaway tune, especially something like "Someday We'll All Be Free," and taking it apart and rebuilding it in a totally new way is risky. It feels in one way exhilarating and in another way terrifying—because I admire his music so much, and my greatest fear would be that a relative would call me up and say they hated what I did with his music. At the same time I feel like it's our responsibility. Jazz musicians have always been a restless bunch. They've always been the kind of artists that like to push boundaries, taking elements of other styles and reusing them. The tradition of jazz is non-traditionalism, in my opinion.

Aaron Siegel: I'm thinking about how much the notion of the cover has been a part of the jazz tradition.

Ben Allison: In that era, Charlie Parker's "tunes" were really solos that he liked and codified into melodies that he could do more than once. He would take the pop tunes of the day, get rid of the melody, and use the harmony as a jumping off point for a solo. Then, when he played a solo that he really liked, he'd write that down, and that became the tune. It was totally connected with modern American Songbook material.

Jazz at its core is a folk music in that regard—at least it should be. It should be connected to what's happening now. It's our responsibility as jazz musicians to keep it relevant, and the way you do that is either write the new standards or use the new standards as a jumping off point.

Aaron Siegel: An interesting responsibility for musicians is the decisions they make about what songs to cover.

Ben Allison: That was actually part of the challenge I set for myself—"Can I take a Samuel Barber piece [St. Ita's Vision] and put it right next to a punk rock-era PJ Harvey tune [Missed]?" Hopefully we were successful. I like the idea. It's almost a collage approach to writing.

I think a lot of jazz musicians of my generation think about improvisation a little bit differently than in the early days. To continue with Charlie Parker, in those days (as I said) they would have a set of chord changes and a soloist would improvise a melody over the top of them. Their melodies were a language that they were developing—they're connected to that time and that era. A lot of jazz musicians of today are thinking more in terms of soloing with a genre. While the notes continue to be important, they're not our focal point. We're really thinking about genre as the basic building blocks that we can use to improvise over.

What we call jazz has expanded to include almost anything you can think of. The one thing that stays constant is this notion of improvisation. What we're improvising now is playing with genre and using premeditated composition and spontaneous composition as our tool. Spontaneous composition is basically a fancy word for improvising.

My Conversation with Aaron Siegel Part 2: The Tradition of Jazz is Non-Traditionalism

(Re-printed with permission from the Carnegie Hall Blog)

Aaron Siegel: You have nine or ten records now as a leader, which is a pretty significant catalog. One of the things that was really interesting to me was that up until this point each of the records was mostly your music with one or two covers. Then with your latest record—Action/Refraction—it suddenly goes totally to covers. I use that term loosely, because I think what you're doing is actually a much more sophisticated and much more inventive response.

Ben Allison: Yes, most of my albums to this point have been centered around my original compositions. That’s an important part of how I define myself as a musician. But I’ve also recorded music by legends such as Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, John Lennon, Neil Young as well as some of my colleagues like Michael Blake and Steve Cardenas (both of whom will be performing with me at the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert).

These are composers whose music I really admire, people whose music strikes a chord. It's a chemical thing. I think the same thing that draws me to playing with Steve and Michael also draws me to listening to those other musicians. There's something in their music that on the one hand feels deeply personal and original but on the other hand feels familiar. Even if I've never heard it before, at least emotionally it gets me right away. I sometimes get this feeling when I'm listening to someone else's music where I wish I had written it. With some tunes that I hear, I feel almost envious of the composer. I think "I wish I had written that. I almost could have written that, because it sounds so much like something I would want to write."

Aaron Siegel: Is that where the "refraction" metaphor comes in? Do you see the band refracting these other things?

Ben Allison: The light's coming in and being split into its component parts. I'm a science nerd, so that's how I think about things. It's about taking the music apart and seeing what it's made out of. That's the "refraction" part. The "action" part is reassembling it in our own way and trying to find something new to say with it, using the constituent parts of the music as jumping off points.

I call it a covers album because that gives people some kind of a context, but I think it's a little bit more than just covering someone else's music. I try to put my own stamp on it. I tend to be somewhat irreverent as a person, at least when it comes to music. As much as I love these great musicians, I also feel that part of the responsibility of any artist is to try to bring something new and personal to what they do. We have to be a little bit fearless in that regard.

Taking something like a Donny Hathaway tune, especially something like "Someday We'll All Be Free," and taking it apart and rebuilding it in a totally new way is risky. It feels in one way exhilarating and in another way terrifying—because I admire his music so much, and my greatest fear would be that a relative would call me up and say they hated what I did with his music. At the same time I feel like it's our responsibility. Jazz musicians have always been a restless bunch. They've always been the kind of artists that like to push boundaries, taking elements of other styles and reusing them. The tradition of jazz is non-traditionalism, in my opinion.

Aaron Siegel: I'm thinking about how much the notion of the cover has been a part of the jazz tradition.

Ben Allison: In that era, Charlie Parker's "tunes" were really solos that he liked and codified into melodies that he could do more than once. He

would take the pop tunes of the day, get rid of the melody, and use the harmony as a jumping off point for a solo. Then, when he played a solo that he really liked, he'd write that down, and that became the tune. It was totally connected with modern American Songbook material.

Jazz at its core is a folk music in that regard—at least it should be. It should be connected to what's happening now. It's our responsibility as jazz musicians to keep it relevant, and the way you do that is either write the new standards or use the new standards as a jumping off point.

Aaron Siegel: An interesting responsibility for musicians is the decisions they make about what songs to cover.

Ben Allison: That was actually part of the challenge I set for myself—"Can I take a Samuel Barber piece [St. Ita's Vision] and put it right next to a punk rock-era PJ Harvey tune [Missed]?" Hopefully we were successful. I like the idea. It's almost a collage approach to writing.

I think a lot of jazz musicians of my generation think about improvisation a little bit differently than in the early days. To continue with Charlie Parker, in those days (as I said) they would have a set of chord changes and a soloist would improvise a melody over the top of them. Their melodies were a language that they were developing—they're connected to that time and that era. A lot of jazz musicians of today are thinking more in terms of soloing with a genre. While the notes continue to be important, they're not our focal point. We're really thinking about genre as the basic building blocks that we can use to improvise over.

What we call jazz has expanded to include almost anything you can think of. The one thing that stays constant is this notion of improvisation. What we're improvising now is playing with genre and using premeditated composition and spontaneous composition as our tool. Spontaneous composition is basically a fancy word for improvising.

SOPA and Freedom of Speech - A Musician's Perspective

There's an important debate that's beginning to emerge, the outcome of which promises to have a profound impact on the music industry. The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would allow the Justice Department to shut down (after due process) what are called "rogue" websites. Rogue websites like Pirate Bay are offshore or foreign sites whose main purpose is to offer pirated content (music, movies, etc) for sale or free download (with ads). SOPA would allow the Justice Department to require US-based ISPs to block the URLs of these rogue sites, effectively erasing them from the internet.

There is a carefully constructed campaign being waged against this proposed legislation. Major players such as Google are lobbying hard. And bloggers left and right are using (or misusing) terms like "net neutrality" as a way to frame the debate to be about FREEDOM OF SPEECH. They've been very effective in the campaign, as can be seen on tech related sites such as Cnet.com, where the editors seem to have come down hard against SOPA.

I'd like to offer another way of looking at this issue:

I think that music pirates are thieves. In some way they are like real pirates, in the sense that they work outside the reach of local law and steal with a sense of impunity. In the case of real pirates, we, that is, our governments fight back. We try to take their guns and bring them to justice. And when we take their guns you wouldn't say that we've violated their Second Amendment rights, would you?

[Note: I've modified this post to clarify that I'm not trying to equate violent acts with music piracy as some have suggested. The point I'm trying to make is that First Amendment rights are not absolute.]

Blocking websites that traffic in pirated material is not an issue concerning free speech just as taking guns away from criminals is not a Second Amendment issue.

Another argument used by those who oppose SOPA (or any legislation that attempts to reign in rogue sites) is that if the government is given the right to shut down websites it won’t be long before they shut down any sites they find to be offensive. The internet is and always should be free from regulation. That’s what makes it so wonderful.

The logical fallacy here is called the Slippery Slope fallacy - the belief that if we agree to A then it's necessarily just a matter of time before we agree to Z. Never mind that B through Y is a huge step, consisting of many intermediate steps, any one of which might be rejected as wrong or bad.

I agree that the internet should be free from regulation when it comes to free speech. After all, I’m a musician!  I’ve devoted my life to personal expression and celebrate creative freedom every time I pick up my bass. That’s what music is all about.

But there's a big difference between saying the internet must be free vs. saying it must be lawless.

I think theft is a violation of freedom. The net can never really be “neutral” or "free" as long as thieves threaten the livelihoods of musicians and large corporate interests like Google stack the deck against artists by supporting them.

[update, 2.2.13: a new report from USC lists Google and Yahoo as major ad pacers on piracy websites http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57561713-93/google-yahoo-accused-of-funding-piracy/]

I'm unsure if SOPA, in its current form, is the answer. But to paint this whole issue in broad strokes as being one of the freedom-of-speech-lovers (as represented by the awesome programmers at megaupload, etc) vs the fascists (as represented by the RIAA/Universal/Disney and other huge corps) is totally bogus and misleading.

What Jazz Musicians Expect from Journalists/Critics

This post originally appeared on OpenSky

Journalist Willard Jenkins recently asked some jazz musicians a simple question: "When you read music journalism/criticism what qualities are you looking for in the writer and the writing?" I contributed the following, response:

The best music journalism, in my opinion, does the following things:

1.    Gives insight into a piece of music by offering observations about it in the context of the current music scene: how does is reflect what’s happening now in a broad sense? Where does it fit in terms of larger musical trends vs. the local trends both in time and geography?

2.    2. Gives insight into a musical work in the context of the artist’s history: how does it fit in the overall story that the artist has fashioned over their personal career? An example would be the career of Miles. How does “On the Corner” fit in with his work with Bird, the band with Trane, the mid-60s quartet?

 This is not just a simple matter of “this is good, this is bad,” or “I like this, I don’t like that.” As a reader and musician I usually don’t put too much stock in whether a reviewer likes a record or concert. I’m mostly curious to know something about the music: who played what tunes with what instrumentation? Also, whenever possible, I like to get some sense of context: what’s different or even unique about a particular band or artist being reviewed? In other words, tell me where you think this music falls in the overall scene. Was it a successful performance? If so, why? Judge it on it’s own terms and in the context of what the musicians were going for. Would you judge a Woody Allen movie based on it’s use of special effects, a porno based on its crafty dialogue? This has to be done with some sense of flair and sophistication, and a deep understanding of the scene. Writers will often try to put someone in context by comparing that person to well-known musicians. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been compared to Charles Mingus or Dave Holland. And while these two musicians are among my favorites of all time, and I feel humbled to be put in the same sentence, I often feel like it’s a bit of a short cut on the part of the writer. I mean, is there a jazz bassist alive who hasn’t been influenced by these guys? I’m a bassist/composer/leader. They’re among the greatest bassist/composer/leaders of all time and therefore, among the most recognizable names. It sometimes feels a little obvious. I’m wondering how many writers know about my love and admiration for Willy Weeks and Chuck Rainey, both of whom figure very largely in my sound and approach.

 I don’t mean to suggest this should be a guessing game for journalists (i.e “spot the influence”). I’m only saying that my favorite writers are the ones who look for connections and search for context. And I really love it when writers compare my current work to my earlier work, judging my music in the context of my personal history.

 On the negative side, my least favorite meme is that jazz and jazz musicians are downtrodden. There’s a romanticism to this idea. But it’s been beaten to death and I, for one, don’t want to continue to celebrate it. Most of the musicians I know are hard-working people who see themselves as small businesses. Their brands are their names and what they sell is their art. They have as much integrity as any hard working craftsman. We’re not to be pitied. I don’t want to dwell on the fact that Billie Holiday supposedly died with $700 strapped to her leg or that Robert Johnson died at 27. Both stories are sad but miss the point. I’m mostly interested in how Robert Johnson’s voice and guitar cracked with emotion, which speaks to generations of people. I know I’d understand Robert Johnson more deeply if I knew how things smelled and sounded and tasted in the Mississippi delta (I’ve never been). A good writer would help me, at least a little, to feel like I’m there.

 

Ben Speaks Out, A Spotify Smackdown

Yesterday, I appeared on the WNYC's Soundcheck with John Schaefer to debate Time Out New York's Music Editor Steve Smith on the subject of Spotify and the rise of on-demand, cloud-based music streaming.

You can listen to an archive of the segment here

My basic points are that services like Spotify, while advertised as being a viable alternative to illegal pirate websites and a great way for fans to find new music are, in reality, not all positive for artists and raise some important issues. In real terms, the royalties that are actually paid are laughably low. And the notion of cloud-based music poses a threat to an important royalty stream called the Mechanical License.