Thursday, January 31, 2008

1.31.08 ROT

This article originally appeared in the 1.31.08 issue of Metroland

Way, way back in the day, like 15 years ago, the emergence of email was thrilling to me. I loved that I could have a rolling conversation with someone, even a group of people, stretched over hours, days, even weeks, along with the ability to choose my words, edit and re-edit my thoughts, look over the arc of the conversation, and chew on responses in my in-box.

Email also lifted the burden of telephone conversation, the need for there to be the often awkward, uncomfortable, time-consuming and unnecessary introductory small talk. I generally don’t care how someone’s “doing”, even my friends, and chances are they aren’t going to tell me anyway, but still there is this societal prerogative to start every damned telephone conversation with a How’re you doing? And too often this innocuous question elicits a response, irrelevant to the planned topic of the conversation, derailing thought, subject, and emphasis. I’m as guilty of this as anybody; if something really good or bad has happened to me, I’ll answer the How’re you doing question by narcissistically blabbing away to the no doubt totally uninterested person on the other end of the line. Then there is the equally difficult denouement, the winding down and wrapping up of the conversation. Again, societal prerogative demands that a phone conversation have a sufficient duration lest one appear abrupt if not outright rude, and this results in a stilted, strained, and totally useless jumble of words designed to allow one to just get the hell off the phone already.

Email allowed one to forego all of this, and to make a point or ask a question, hit it and quit it, press send, fade to black, it’s a wrap, bebe. A five minute phone call is now a ten second dance on the keyboard, and so much more effective.

But even more than the convenience of it, email ushered in what I thought was going to be a new golden era of the written word. As long-distance telephone charges tanked in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, most people stopped writing letters to each other. Those of us who are word people (you know who you are) seized on email as a way to reclaim the written word as a primary communication tool. Even in shortened email form, it’s a glorious thing for us; we can tinker with sentence structure and even use those big words we never figured out how to pronounce correctly. We can craft with words again.

And it struck me that this would spill over to everyone. I’d see my kids, just learning to write, stretching their little brains putting together coherent sentences and getting their spelling right in order to talk to their friends via email. I was thinking, this is just brilliant.

Then along comes instant and text messaging, and my grand hopes and dreams for the written word gets all shot to hell! Now, instead of nuanced wordplay, we get truncated, vowelless shorthand, a denuded language that strives to communicate tiny thoughts in the simplest, starkest way. I dnt lk t. T sks. I mn t. Sks!

And the extent to which kids have embraced texting, to the utter derogation of straight-up emailing, is dramatic and depressing. Recent studies have shown that kids consider email to be profoundly uncool, a geezer thing, about as useful to them as sending smoke signals on a windy day. I’ll forward an email to my kid, and then have to remind her in a face-to-face conversation to check her email for my message. Somehow, in a few short years, email has become irrelevant, and worse than that, a dinosaur, to our kids.

Perhaps even more weirdly, kids seem to have a proprietary interest in IM and text messaging. They seem to think it’s theirs alone, a devolved linguistic sanctuary into which adults should not wander. An adult breaking into their little communications orb is every bit as horrifying to a kid as say, having a parent with a band with a MySpace page (thanks for that one, Roz Chast!). Believe me, I know.

So the little thumbs frantically punch in incomprehensible streams of acronyms and gibberish, shot out over multi-billion dollar wireless networks, bouncing off satellites, and rocketing through fiber. We could have worse problems; they could be just not communicating at all.

But I do wish it could be different. Words are important. Call me old-fashioned.

Friday, January 18, 2008

1.17.08 PIGGIES

This article originally appeared in the 1.17.08 issue of Metroland.

The newswires were buzzing last week about the “sudden” appearance of Beatles’ riffs in some new hip-hop songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and Ja Rule. This was touted as some kind of seismic shift in the attitude of the publishing company that owns the songs, Sony/ATV, in the loosening of the reins on the fabled catalog.

It wasn’t such a big deal. Jay-Z was granted riff-rights in 2003 for a track on his Black Album, and Sony/ATV has been licensing songs for the occasional advertisement and movie for years.

What it does point out, though, is the ridiculous, draconian, and anti-creative nature of music licensing, especially as it pertains to sampling existing recordings.

Where to start? Hip-hop was built on sampling. Two turntables and a microphone on a Bronx basketball court block party in 1978; what was on the turntables? Other people’s hit records, that’s what. In the intervening years, though, publishers and record companies have become increasingly restrictive, some would say greedy, with their “properties”, cutting the access to these pre-existing works to all but the most wealthy.

Pay attention now. When a bit of a recording is nicked for a new tune, there are two copyrights that are being used: one is related to the songwriting, the composition, and the other is related to the performance, the recording. Typically, the rights to the composition are controlled by a publishing company (which pays royalties to the songwriter) and the rights to the recording are owned by a record company (which pays royalties to the recording artist).

The law provides that anybody can do their own recording of an song, so long as they pay a compulsory license fee (also known as a “mechanical license”) to the publisher of the song. (That royalty is currently about nine cents per distributed copy.) But this compulsory license only applies to cover versions of an entire song, with the melody and lyrics more or less intact; it doesn’t apply to using just a part of a song as a building block for a new song. And it also doesn’t apply to the use of a sample of a recording, of using somebody else’s performance in a new song.

Which means if you want to cut and paste a chunk of an existing recording into your new song, you’ve got to go get permission (and a license) from both the publisher and from the record company. And since there’s no compulsory license, these entities can charge whatever they want for these licenses. Or they can just say no altogether.

And that’s a problem.

A few years ago I had a client come in with a truly breathtaking recording, constructed partially out of samples from three 30-40 year-old recordings, along with a bunch of added instruments and vocals. The client was looking for a record deal, and wanted to release to track to radio and on the internet to get some buzz going. And the client wanted everything to be totally legal. It was my job to try to get the licenses for the three samples. For each sample, I had to determine the current publisher and the controlling record company, which took some sleuthing. Then I had to try to get the licenses. One publishing company would only grant me a license based on 100,000 unit sales, demanding a $5,000 cash payment. One record company never responded to my calls, emails and letters. One publisher simply denied my request (after a six week wait and countess phone calls), without telling me why.

Interestingly, not one of the six entities I tried to deal with asked to hear the track that my client had created. And it was, in my opinion, a potential hit, a track of real beauty and creativity. And it died on the vine.

What we have is a system where new, creative works that incorporate sampled sounds from existing records can only be made, if at all, by major artists, or artists backed by the kind big money that only major labels can afford. If this had been the situation thirty years ago, the genre of hip-hop might have never been born; it would have been crushed by the weight of the misdirected use of copyright law, a law that is supposed to encourage and foster creativity, not kill it.

The obvious answer here is the creation of a compulsory license regime that the law already provides for cover versions of entire songs to be applied to samples of both compositions and recordings, a system by which publishers and record companies can’t block an artist from sampling a track, but will get paid a reasonable license fee for any and all commercial uses of a recording. It’s extremely doable, but it would need a revision of copyright law, an act of Congress, and the creation of a royalty collecting agency, along the lines of Harry Fox or Soundexchange.

Record companies and publishers would rake in millions in royalties without lifting a finger. All sorts of new music would be made, as sampling without fear would become mainstream. It wouldn’t be perfect. But nothing associated with copyright law ever is. And it would be infinitely better than what we have now.