Thursday, August 28, 2008


This article originally appeared in the 8/28/08 issue of Metroland

Initially, it was with casual interest that I read last week that a couple hundred college presidents are calling on the states to roll the drinking age back down to 18. Apparently, the big idea is that drinking in a controlled and legal environment will be safer than today’s clandestine, look-over-your-shoulder binge-for-alls. There’s supposedly an epidemic of kids getting so faced that they hurl themselves off of balconies, drive their cars fast into oncoming traffic, or simply croak from alcohol poisoning. Lowering the drinking age, the reasoning goes, will save lives.

I’ve always considered the “saves lives” argument incredibly disingenuous. And I even made the argument myself to legislators during a mercifully-short stint as a lobbyist for the liquor industry (Don’t laugh. Well, OK, go ahead) in the mid ‘90’s. I felt like a whore. But people bought into it, because it was politically efficacious. Who’s gonna be against saving lives?

But really, c’mon. Raising the drinking age to 30 would save lives. Prohibition would save lives. Outlawing cars, sports, making people stay in their houses all day, not allowing people to get out of bed, hey now, we’re talkin’ saving lives!

In any event, I thought, eh, it’s probably a good idea to lower the drinking age. I have some concern that, due perhaps to media overload, overbearing boomer / yuppie parents, and school curricula dictated by mind-numbing political correctness, today’s 18 year old is generally the emotional equivalent of a 1980’s 14 year old. But given that most 1980’s 14 year olds drank a ton of booze and most are none the worse for wear, I’ll say so what?

I’ll lean on the old standby argument, which is unassailable: if you’re old enough to go into the military, to get assigned to Gitmo and to spend your time torturing fellow human beings in violation of international law and all tenets of basic human decency, well, Sport, I say you’re old enough to sit back and enjoy a frosty Cosmo with your boyfriend at some dump on North Pearl Street. Am I right or am I right?

Then a thought struck, and I realized that these college presidents are unwittingly pushing for the single greatest boon to working musicians, since, oh, I dunno, penicillin?

OK, let’s get almost-serious for a minute. For a couple of years the mantra among the technorati has been that musicians have to give their music away, because free music is an inevitable consequence of the internet. Musicians can make up the slack by courting fans, gigging, selling merch, etc. Not a bad plan, really, but then gas hit $4. Oops. Touring, which for most bands is an iffy proposition at best, just got a whole lot harder. Things have gotten pretty bleak pretty fast.

If the drinking age goes to 18, you’ll see hundreds of new bars and clubs opening overnight. And many of these clubs, in the mad rush to get bodies inside drinking, will take the revolutionary step of offering live music to their patrons. Suddenly, there will be places to play again, all over the place, and some of these places might even pay the musicians decently. Imagine what it’ll be like in big college towns.

I’m painfully aware of the significance of this, because my band was a victim when the pendulum swung the other way twenty-five years ago. From 1980 to 1983, we toured non-stop, and there were always gigs, good paying gigs, gigs on weekdays, gigs in some pretty nice clubs and at a lot of colleges. Things ebbed and flowed depending on how current our releases were and where in the country we were, but it was generally pretty consistently fertile out there. The drinking age was 18, and to be sure, kids under 20 made up a good percentage of the lunatic partiers who would come out on a Monday night to see us play a show that started at 11 PM.

Then, in 1984 Congress passed a law that required all states to raise the drinking age to 21 or else forfeit millions of dollars in federal highway funds. State legislatures across the country fell over each other to raise the drinking age to 21. And the bottom fell out of our ability to tour. Clubs closed in droves, and those that stayed open did The Tighten-up. Gig guarantees shrunk or disappeared. Clubs had fewer nights with live music, and were more selective about who got booked on the shrinking schedule. Like a lot of bands and a lot of clubs, we struggled along for a few months, then just gave up.

These days, bands criss-cross the country on a wing and a prayer, playing on five-act bills in crappy clubs for a share of a tiny gate, hoping to sell a few t-shirts and CDs to pay for gas to get to the next town, sleeping on floors, eating noodles and fast food, etc. When you’re young, it’s exciting maybe for the first tour, but it gets tired real fast. It’s not making a living; in fact, it’s barely living at all. All this could change dramatically.

There’s a lot of talk about high-tech “solutions” for working musicians, many of which are untested, theoretical, or have more to do with marketing than making music. Here, we’re talking about gigs. Music gigs. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that.

Lower the drinking age to 18. Now.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

8.14.08 IT'S MY PATRY

IMHO, Bill Patry is the dean of American copyright lawyers. His 5500-page treatise “Patry on Copyright” is my bible, I refer to it three or four times a week. Even better, his personal blog contained up-to-the-minute reporting and deep analysis of current copyright issues internationally, in the courts, and in Congress. The blog was indispensable; I referred to it for a lot of my columns here, and if I knew that a client had an issue that had recently been dealt with almost anywhere, I could count on Patry’s blog to give me the skinny. And amazingly, the few times that I had comments or questions, I’d email him and he’d get back to me within a day. Like his gig as Senior Counsel for Google didn’t keep him busy enough.

I’m referring to his blog in the past tense because he shut it down last week. He first took the whole thing off-line, and then restored the archives after he heard from tons of people who, like me, considered his blog a primary research resource.

You’d think maybe he was too busy to keep it going, or that something happened in his life to make continuing the blog, that had almost-daily posts, some of which were several thousand words long, untenable.

Nope, he shut it down because the state of copyright law has become too depressing. Here’s part of what he posted:

I regard myself as a centrist. I believe very much that in proper doses copyright is essential for certain classes of works, especially commercial movies, commercial sound recordings, and commercial books, the core copyright industries. I accept that the level of proper doses will vary from person to person and that my recommended dose may be lower (or higher) than others. But in my view, and that of my cherished brother Sir Hugh Laddie, we are well past the healthy dose stage and into the serious illness stage. Much like the U.S. economy, things are getting worse, not better. Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners. Like Humpty-Dumpty, the copyright law we used to know can never be put back together again: multilateral and trade agreements have ensured that, and quite deliberately.

It is profoundly depressing, after 26 years full-time in a field I love, to be a constant voice of dissent. I have tried various ways to leaven this state of affairs with positive postings, much like television news shows that experiment with "happy features." I have blogged about great articles others have written, or highlighted scholars who have not gotten the attention they deserve; I tried to find cases, even inconsequential ones, that I can fawn over. But after awhile, this wore thin, because the most important stories are too often ones that involve initiatives that are, in my opinion, seriously harmful to the public interest. I cannot continue to be so negative, so often. Being so negative, while deserved on the merits, gives a distorted perspective of my centrist views, and is emotionally a downer.

Wow is right. What he’s talking about is the hijacking of copyright law by Big Media, who perversely twist and augment the law will facially silly provisions designed not to encourage creativity, but to protect their multi-billion dollar business from the simple fact that the internet has rendered their modes of business unsupportable otherwise. Free copying does stop new music from being made, but it does put a hurtin’ on Edgar Bronfman, Jr.’s stock options.

He’s also talking about how these ridiculous laws, that not only stifle creativity and innovation, but threaten the public’s privacy, are rammed down our throats. The President (and I’m not complaining about just Bush, Clinton did it, too) sends a trade envoy who negotiates intellectual property treaties that obligate the US to adopt these hideous provisions into our copyright law. Then the President goes to Congress and leans on them to pass the new laws, so we can be in conformance with the treaty. And the members of Congress, who for the most part don’t understand the laws, don’t care, or are in Big Media’s pocket, happily comply.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s one of Big Media’s great proponents. And he’s got a speaking part in the new Batman movie. Just sayin’.

I mourn the passing of Patry’s blog. It’s gonna be harder for me to appear smarter than I am without his guidance. But I’ll keep going here, because unlike Patry, I enjoy bitching about stuff.