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.