Monday, March 31, 2008

"Silly Euphemism" or Stubborn Fact

An article by noted author/blogger Cory Doctorow appeared in The Guardian recently. It concerned the "silly euphemism" of the term "intellectual property".

"...the phrase "intellectual property" is, at root, a dangerous euphemism that leads us to all sorts of faulty reasoning about knowledge....Fundamentally, the stuff we call "intellectual property" is just
knowledge - ideas, words, tunes, blueprints, identifiers, secrets, databases. "

Speaking of faulty reasoning, this generalization is about as dangerous as it gets. There are actually at least two types of knowledge : factual knowledge (that which can be discerned by everyone using sensual observation or experimentation, such as the "knowledge" that the world is round), and creative knowledge ("knowing" works of art, literature, music, etc. that have been brought into the world through the creative work of one or more minds in collaboration). Words, identifiers, and databases are not the same thing as ideas, poems, tunes, novels, paintings. Factual knowledge can not and should not be owned. It would be ludicrous to say that one "owns" the fact that 2 +2 = 4. However, it's perfectly reasonable to say that one owns a song or a novel one has created, and calling this creation "intellectual property" is not only appropriate but accurate.

Mr. Doctorow goes on to say that intellectual property is not "inherently exclusive" whereas most "property", such as a house, can be made exclusive:

"If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can't get you to un-know the sentences you've just read here."

While this may be true, it isn't a sound argument against using the term "intellectual property" to categorize works of creativity. Just because a work of fiction or a song can't be "un-known" doesn't mean a transcription of it can't be made legally exclusive. Knowing my song in your head isn't the same thing as owning a file or recording of my song. The "knowledge"of my song isn't what is being protected, but rather the licensed transcription (a CD recording, an mp3 file, a piece of sheet music, etc.).

Similarly, The Louvre can ban photography of it's famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa, but they can't prohibit anyone from memorizing the image, or even copying an imitation of it it by hand. And no one would argue that the original painting isn't property just because it can be viewed, memorized, or copied (I don't mean forgery that you later try to pass off as the original, just a personal copy).

I agree with Mr. Doctorow that we haven't nuanced the intellectual property language enough. There certainly should be uses of creative knowledge that require no license or payment from the user. For example, anyone should be allowed to sing my song from memory before their own audience without paying for that right. This is a transient experience, not a permanent transcription. It's the same thing as looking at the Mona Lisa, then leaving the museum with only the memory of the image-- something that can't be "un-known".

However, when it comes to the exchange of media containing the original content (the file, the CD, the photograph, the DVD, etc.) we should continue to protect the rights of creators and we should continue to call the contents of the medium "intellectual property" rather than invent further confusion.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Return Of Musical Regionalism

Recently I performed at Congress Hall at the Singer Songwriter Cape May convention. After my show I spoke with a few young musicians who wanted some advice about their musical careers. “We aren’t trying to be famous,” one said, “we’re just trying to make a little money to survive, and play our music.” That sounded sensible to me. With the empowerment of the Internet, there are more and more artists and writers choosing to pursue their art regardless of how much success it brings them. This seems healthy for the music. What we have once again is a decentralized industry consisting of the local scenes of dozens of major markets, and there's great music to be found in all of them.

This is a reactionary movement in some ways. The sterility and sameness of the product that has been mass promoted by the corporate labels has begun to seem just like those endless exits off the interstates staked out by Wendy's, Starbucks and Ruby Tuesday. They figure if you drive no more than a mile from the highway you'll never know you've left home. This is exactly the experience most people DON'T want when they travel. They yearn for some local color, a cool little diner or coffee shop, or a clean inexpensive motel where you can can see some of the indigenous culture. The same is true of the music. There's nothing better when I'm on the road than to catch some great local picking somewhere between Charleston West Virginia and Asheville North Carolina. Fortunately the recent explosion of the coffeehouse and listening room has enabled many regional performers to tour within a few hours of home, find plenty of fans, keep a low overhead, meet expenses, and in some cases eke out at least a supplemental income.

Interestingly enough, there’s a paradox here. As the Internet reaches more globally, the music is becoming more regional. This is in stark contrast to the traditional music industry, which ignored the Internet for years, thought globally, and brought us more and more homogenized soulless music.

Where does this leave the traditional music industry? As Trent Reznor admitted in a recent interview, it was good to have those major labels sometimes because it freed us up to make music rather than deal with the radio guy and the promotion guy. But we paid a premium for our dependence on record labels, and as it turns out, their jobs weren’t so damn hard. Most of us manage to make our music, update our My Space pages, book a few gigs, print up the posters, submit our CDs to indie radio, ship the CDs that sell on our websites, and still have time to write a blog, answer email, and get to sound check.

The big labels are missing the boat. If they were to partner with some of the more successful regional artists and be content to earn less off of more artists, their bottom line would go down and their profits would eventually rise. Why? Because there’d be no need to hire a bloated staff of people whose only job, it turns out, is pretending that promotion or inventory management is a full time gig. As those of us steadily pedaling down the indie highway can tell you, it ain’t. The truth is, the music business has had too many monkeys on it’s back for decades.

When you pay a record exec a hefty six figure salary, allow him to sign checks for $200,000 recording budgets, hire an overpaid staff of “niche experts”, and then only expect a success ratio of one in five acts, is it any wonder the company is in the red?

This weekend I was talking with my friend Ron Sowell, who has a humble but creatively rewarding steady gig as the musical director of the Mountain Stage public radio show. After I’d run through the litany of complaints and diatribes I’d heard around Music Row last week he said, “When ever I talk to someone in Nashville I hear the same thing. But, it seems to me that most musicians are just trying to create their art and make a little money in the process, too. That’s what people like me have been doing all along!”

I had to admit he was right. The mainstream music industry has operated with a sense of entitlement for the past three decades. Because they were able to throw piles of money at an act, they did, and they always assumed consumers would buy it if it was packaged right. But they've forgotten how important local entertainment and local promotion once was to the establishment of their empires. Where would RCA be without a kid named Elvis who was developed by a little Memphis label called Sun Records. These days the breeding ground for the major labels consists of "regional auditions" for American Idol, which, let's face it, isn't the same thing as taping into the rich local communities where bands, pickers and songwriters have honed their skills in bars, at festivals or revival meetings, on street corners, and in jam sessions for many years. The most talented people tend to shy away from shows like Idol anyway.

Fortunately the facts tell us that indie music sales are up, indie artists have fans who buy music as opposed to stealing it, and without the moronic cloning of cookie cutter artists, the indie labels have given us all of the best music of the past decade. Regional music rules again.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, March 17, 2008

In The "Jingle" Jangle Morning

A documentary about Pete Seeger has been airing on public TV all week. I've watched it three times because it inspires me. In one segment Pete talks about why he quit the Weavers. "We were asked to do a cigarette commercial and I didn't think we should do it. They said we needed the money but I said we didn't need the money that bad, so I left the group."

I often find myself flipping the tube late at night pondering what has happened to the self respect of so many artists who seem to sell out rather quickly on their climb to fame.

Back in the good old pretentious 1960s and 70s it was very unfashionable for any artist with credibility to sell his song for the purposes of advertising exploitation. Can you imagine Bob Dylan at the height of his popularity allowing "Blowing In The Wind" to be used in a fabric softener commercial? Now, a rock star like John Mellencamp will release his first single as a TV commercial six months before the CD comes out. "This Is Our Country"-- I don't think I ever heard it on the radio, did you?

These days the list of artists willing to gamble their popularity on a product or a company's ad campaign looks like the playlist for Sirius Radio : Ben Lee, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, U2, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Eyed Peas, The Flatmates, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, The 6ths, ELO, Blondie, Justin Timberlake, Shakira, The Who, Thin Lizzy, Lou Reed (yes, Lou Reed), Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams, Billy Idol, Queen, Guns N'Roses...and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Oh, and there's one more conspicuous name : Paul McCartney. Remember way back in the dark ages of 1995 when McCartney tried to prevent his publisher, who happens to be Michael Jackson, from selling "Revolution" to Nike? Sir Paul may have been a holdout, but in September of 2005 he allowed his song "Fine Line" to be used in a Lexus ad. Ok, a Lexus is a classy car, and Sir Paul is a classy guy, it was a marriage made in heaven. And what about the success stories of deserving artists like Brett Dennon and Leslie Feist, who burst into the national spotlight after TV commercial tie-ins? Hey, maybe this ain't such a bad thing after all. Is there really a huge difference between sandwiching songs BETWEEN the commercials on the radio and hearing the song IN the commercials on TV?

Some of you may be old enough to remember the days when companies hired jingle composers to write their own ad songs. "Things Go Better With Coke", was a popular one. But in 1971 Coke decided to take a fresh approach and enlist three songwriters to compose a new jingle that would also be released as a single to radio. The resulting song was "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" (also known as "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing") as recorded by The New Seekers. The campaign was a flop at first until Coke paired the song with a short film featuring people gathered on a hill holding hands and singing the song in unison. This was essentially the first successful music video although it only lasted a minute and was aired as a TV commercial. The commercial revolutionized the advertising industry and led to more and more companies attempting to utilize the combination of a hit song and a compelling visual campaign to sell their products. The most successful so far has featured a different Seeger's song called "Like A Rock". How ironic is it that this humble Seeger name should exemplify both ends of the TV commercial spectrum?

It's inevitable folks. With the virtual death of land radio (someone drive a wooden stake through it's heart please), artists are turning to the only means they have of getting national exposure. Or should we call it "national over-exposure"? True, some don't need the exposure or the money. But consider what a little bump from a TV commercial can mean for an artist who hasn't received national airplay. In 2006 Gary Jules and Michael Andrews hit the #1 spot on itunes after their version of the Tears For Fears song "Mad World" ran in a TV ad for the Gears Of War game. Feist's story is even better.
Prior to her Apple iPod Nano commercial airing, her latest CD called The Reminder was selling at about 6,000 copies per week, and the song used in the commercial, which was called "1234", was getting about 2,000 downloads per week. Following the commercial, the song passed 73,000 total downloads and reached No. 7 on Hot Digital Songs and No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently consumers don't care where they hear a song as long as they like it.

A few names besides Pete Seeger's don't appear on the TV commercial logs-- Neil Young, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, the names we'd expect to opt out. It would be naive to think they've received no offers. Another missing name, not surprisingly since he recorded a CD of Seeger's songs, is Bruce Springsteen. Granted, Bruce could probably afford to buy most of the companies that would offer him a TV commercial, but as an appreciator of integrity and principals I have to say I'm proud of his decision to just say no.

I, for one, quietly mourn the end of the days when the "purist" Seeger and his ilk desperately tried to separate artistic integrity from commercial ambiguity. TV commercials might be the only viable solution for some new artists but I'm skeptical that art and advertising can be comfortable bedfellows. The line has already been blurred to such an extent that many people can't tell whether an artist is genuine or a slickly marketed chimera. I even expect that one of these days Coke will start a record label and sign acts just to sing their jingles. And probably the songs will hit #1 on itunes.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, March 10, 2008

10 Songs That REALLY Changed The World

I normally have an aversion for lists such as this one:

Rolling Stone's 40 Songs That Changed The World

This seems like a typically shallow survey to me. Like most "culture lists", this one assumes that songs, and human history, began with the birth of Rock & Roll, and that our mind altering experiences and taste epiphanies were more important than they really were. What this Rolling Stone Magazine list really represents is how songs shaped pop culture more than how they made any real difference to the planet or our history.

But are there songs that really changed the world?

It's much harder to find them. There may be a fine line between cultural shift and historical change, and I welcome debate. I thought it might be fun to have a little group participation to see if we really can generate a list of songs that helped to cause significant and lasting change in the world. I'll start this off with a few contributions just so you can see what I'm looking for :

"We Shall (Will) Overcome"

When Martin Luther King heard Pete Seeger sing this song he immediately adopted it for his civil rights movement. Originally an old spiritual that Seeger added a couple of verses to, his version became a song of solidarity during many violent months of protest marching in the south. It was an anthem for a movement that eventually changed the status of African Americans. While the change may yet be incomplete, no one can argue that it wasn't a new window on our world view, and not merely some new drapery. This may well be one of the most important songs in American history.

"Helter Skelter"

This song changed the world in a negative way, but who says change has to be positive? In Charles Manson's psychotic mind, this was the Beatles personal message to him to begin his plan of destabilizing society. The Tate-LaBianca murders were meant to be blamed on radical blacks and were supposed to spark revolution in the streets. While Manson never accomplished this goal, he did change forever the innocent facade of the hippie movement and injected fear and mistrust into the hearts of millions. The last remnants of the "peace and love" demeanor of the late 1960s ended with Manson's August 1969 crimes, and "Helter Skelter" played a significant role ushering in an era of disillusion. Manson also caused a much closer scrutiny of cults and cult leaders, a trend that was previously all but ignored.

"I Like Ike"

Yes, the campaign song from 1952:

I Like Ike, You Like Ike
In America's "Winter Of Discontent" Eisenhower emerged as an unlikely leader and candidate for change. The popularity of this very simple clever campaign jingle sounded the optimistic note America was looking for. The results of Eisenhower's election need not be chronicled, but his was the era of McCarthyism, blacklisting, the dawn of the Cold War, Vietnam, and the continued stalemate in Korea. And folks, we are still technically in a state of war with North Korea. "I Like Ike" lingers as a very creepy reminder of a dark era and the power of propaganda. It was hugely influential on voters everywhere.


For months in the summer of 1970 this song pounded over the airwaves, blasting from car speakers in cities across America. I recall the fear in the streets as Neil Young reminded us over and over that we couldn't trust our leaders. This song not only helped to fuel the anti-war movement (it was often played at anti-war rallies) it even played a small role in the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon. Nixon became more and more paranoid of the outspoken pop music culture, seeking to deport John Lennon and finally breaking into the Democratic headquarters at Watergate to sabotage the counterculture's anti-war candidate George McGovern. Jimmy McDonough writes about "Ohio" in the Neil Young Biography "Shakey" : "In ten lines, Young captured the fear, frustration and anger felt by the youth across the country and set it to a lumbering D-modal death march that hammered home the dread."


Millions have been fed by UNICEF as a result of the royalties generated by this song and the concert that featured it in 1971. Although controversial because some of the funds were never properly accounted for ($250,000 was raised initially, millions since), it's undeniable that tremendous good was done in this seminal fund raising event. This was really the song that set the precedent for future fund raising musical events such as "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "We Are The World". Previous to the release of Harrison's record, music was an inspirational
agent of change only. With Harrison's and other superstars' magnanimous gesture towards the starving citizens of Bangladesh, music finally became a financial partner in change. I certainly commend Bob Geldof and Michael Jackson for their significant roles in raising money for similar causes, but the real world changing song, the one that raised the consciousness of all musicians, was written by George Harrison.

"The Ballad Of John Henry"

The story song that pitted the heroic black man against the white industrialist is still considered by many to be true. Various sources conclude that John Henry was a real figure who died in a contest with a steam drill at Oak Mountain in 1887. The Railroads were once the quintessential symbol of labor abuse in America. In 1893 alone, over 18,343 railroad workers were injured and 1,657 were killed. Through the 1920s and 30s laws such as The Railway Labor Act and The Wagner Act were passed requiring railroad employers to bargain collectively and fairly with union workers for improved conditions, hours, safety and wages. This was the peak period of popularity for "The Ballad Of John Henry". It was a motivational and inspirational message for union workers everywhere, as well as a song of Black pride. It resonated well into the 1960s, becoming a staple in the elementary school educational program, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the folk revival movement.

"Battle Hymn Of The Republic"

Julia Ward Howe's poem set to music was the most popular song of the Civil War era. It was sung in churches, encampments, and on the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee wrote in 1864, "I don't believe we can have an army without music". In the words of Lieutenant W. J Kinchelos of the 49th Virginia Regiment, "We are on one side of the Rappahannock, the enemy on the other.... Our boys will sing a Southern song, the Yankees will reply by
singing the same tune to Yankee words." When dispirited union troops needed rallying, the Battle Hymn was often employed. The words instilled a sense of religious might, right, and purpose in the troops causing them to fight on to victory in bloody campaigns.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela called the death of Stephen Bantu Biko the first nail in the coffin of apartheid. Biko was the honorary President of the Black People's Convention in South Africa. He was arrested in 1973 and held without charge for five years, eventually dying of a brain hemorrhage after being beaten by police in his jail cell. The death photo of Biko's bruised body was printed around the world. When Peter Gabriel saw the image he wrote his tribute song. Time magazine's Jay Cocks said of Gabriel's song, "[there is] no resisting either [the song's] heat or its true moral force. Biko is .. . full of ghosts that will haunt any political present." "Biko" led to Gabriel's involvement with the Nelson Mandela concerts, which were watched by over a billion people in 60 countries in spite of an injunction to stop coverage. "Biko" is considered the first song that shed light and raised awareness on apartheid.

"The Star Spangled Banner"

Perhaps a too-obvious choice, my reasons for including this song aren't quite so obvious. Francis Scott Key's poem "The Defense of Ft. McHenry" was set to a popular British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heav'n". It became the National anthem in 1931. While the song has inspired patriotism for many decades and has been sung at schools, state events, political rallies, and sports games, its more recent controversial uses have probably cause more change than it's traditional uses. Modern interpretations by everyone from Jose Feliciano and Jimi Hendrix, to Whitney Huston and Rosanne Barr have often sparked heated debate and tested free speech in America. While it's hard to find one significant event where the song directly caused change, it has been the soundtrack for many world changing events such as the 1968 Olympic "black fist" protest and the recent New York Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of it in North Korea-- a nationally televised event that some believe has eased tensions between the US and the people of North Korea.

Bob Marley performed this song in Zimbabwe on the day of independence at the actual state ceremony. Marley is considered by many to be the artist of the twentieth century because his music embodied values virtually non-existent in other entertainers. He is an icon of cultural change and grounded spiritual beliefs. No other artist's likeness looks more at home on an armband or t-shirt because he was a movement unto himself. I could nominate a few Marley songs for this list, but the one I've chosen has special significance in light of the current disintegration of Zimbabwe. The song is now a call to action and revolution and it may be in the process of helping to transform the world for a second time.

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You can take it from here... Thanks for participating (or not) !

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why itunes Is Winning

With the announcement last week that itunes has become the #2 retail outlet for music (trailing only behind Walmart), it's time to concede that not only is the digital download growing in popularity as the CD wanes, but that consumers have latched onto the conveniences associated with the downloadable file and there will be no turning back.

On Christmas day 2007, a day when Walmart and other physical (non-virtual) CD retailers do no business at all, itunes sold 20,000,000 downloads. This clearly illustrates why the CD can no longer compete.

For the consumer, music is a leisure component that has become integrated into all aspects of daily life in proportion to it's availability, portability, cost effective delivery system, and individually tailored storage and playback options.

When Sony introduced the Discman, it was the combination of the disk and it's playback system that caused CD sales to explode. For the first time it was possible to travel away from home or car based playback systems and still have a high quality listening experience. With a photo-holder sized carrying case and a slender Discman the consumer could be an audiophile and take a scenic bike ride through the park at the same time. The novelty of this freedom was a heady experience at first, and sales reflected this enthusiasm. Consumers preferred CDs not for superior sound quality alone, but for the combination of quality and portability. The ipod and iphone have done the same thing for the portable file.

It's clear also that music is often an impulse buy. I remember as a kid getting that Christmas money and being frustrated because the record store was closed. Last Christmas the itunes Gift Card made a lot of young people very happy instead of very frustrated. That's why 20,000,000 songs were downloaded. Send a kid to the mall with $20 and he'll spend $6 on food and buy one CD. Send him to itunes with a $20 gift card and he'll download 20 songs. It's that simple.

Last week I did a concert/seminar at the Kimberton Waldorf School here in Chester County, PA. In speaking to the large group of mixed-graders I asked them where they got their music. I received an instantaneous and unanimous answer "itunes!"

But this is not, as some would have it, an age related shift in buying habits.
A recent study determined that 80% of all surveyed adults hadn't purchased a single CD in 2007. Young and old alike prefer the advantages of the digital download over the CD.

What the record industry should be doing instead of whining about loss of profits, is to come up with upgrades that reflect the consumer's preferences. We can predict what they will want : 1) higher quality file formats at retail, 2) easier and more convenient downloading options and payment options, 3) more reliable storage and back-up, such as a form of download that allows buyers to re-access a lost file without re-purchasing the song, 4) more customizable playback options such as built in re-mix capabilities and files that convert themselves to various formats at the click of a mouse.

If the record industry wants to keep it's share of the consumer's purchasing power it must compete in the open market with those who have seized the innovation initiative that the record (read "CD") industry failed to seize at the outset of the downloading revolution. Instead of greedily protecting their obsolete interests and suing grandmothers, they should have welcomed the opportunity to bring in 20,000,000 downloads on Christmas day.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt