You Can’t Steal A Gift!

My ongoing exploration of alternative ways of thinking about our economic paradigm has given me a new set of lenses to use when I look at the things I already do.

I’m a musician; it’s how I make my living.

Recently a colleague linked to a story in the Boston Globe:

Across New England, church coffeehouses, library cafes, and eateries that pass the hat to pay local musicians or open their doors to casual jam sessions are experiencing a crackdown by performance rights organizations, or PROs, which collect royalties for songwriters.

His FB comment described them as: People trying to get something for nothing and then whining when they are thwarted.

Sympathetic though I am to the needs of working professionals, his words nevertheless didn’t set well with me. This post is my attempt at resolving that dissonance.

I’m a musician. It’s how I make my living — but it’s also how I make my life.

Sure, I need to eat, and I need to pay the mortgage. Fortunately, I’m good at my work, so people pay me to do it. Another, and very major, part of my work in music involves giving it away. I’ve performed at open mikes from time to time, and my wife performed extensively for years at open mike nights where her only reward was the opportunity to sing a couple of songs. I’ve given my music away as long as I’ve been making music; I’ve given my teaching away as long as I’ve been teaching.

Not everybody feels this way. Some artists, when asked to participate in a climate concert, respond that they prefer to get paid, thereby keeping everything tidy and aboveboard. Some musicians, regarding it in some sense as a job, won’t do it without money. I respect this point of view.

Quote from the same FB comment thread:

Only amateurs scream about wanting “music to be free.” If you play for free, you are an amateur. “Donating” your music when no one will pay for it makes the donation worthless.

Professionals understand making music is work. It is a PROFESSION.

When doctors, lawyers, and grocery stores all offer their services and products for free, and banks allow you to live in your houses without rent or mortgage, we can talk again.

This framing suggests that music is somehow analogous to these services and products. “I’ll give my music away when my plumber fixes my sink for nothing,” or words to that effect. And to the extent that one regards musicking as the production of a commodity or an economically productive service, the analogy is correct.

Let’s unpack it a little, okay? The time and expertise of a plumber is measured in billable hours, and is thus (in GDP terms) an economically productive service. Same with the T & E of a doctor, a lawyer, an automobile mechanic, the guy at the other end of the line who tells you what to do when your system seems to have crashed irretrievably.

Much of the music we encounter is commodified, to the extent that we can talk about “buying music” without the faintest hiccup of cognitive dissonance. Some music is not commodified per se, but is produced by paid professionals as an adjunct to the smooth functioning of the consumer economy. For example:

The stuff you hear in shopping malls? That you hear while you’re waiting impatiently on hold for someone to address your printer problem? Somebody had to put that together. Some of the time, of course, it’s material that’s been previously recorded — but for decades, musicians have been getting paid (well paid, too!) to make background music. The Muzak corporation pays the bills for a lot of players who’d probably rather be doing something else.

Muzak hires professionals to render economically productive service, in order that it can offer commodities — packaged music which has a particular “atmosphere.” Here’s their description of a music package they provided to a San Francisco hotel:

Joie de Vivre Hotels has built its brand upon the importance of appealing to all five senses at every opportunity. And nowhere is that more apparent than at Hotel Vitale. Located on the San Francisco bay, Hotel Vitale features open, light-filled spaces and stunning water views. In addition to water and light, elements like warm wood, sprigs of fresh lavender and natural stones complete Hotel Vitale’s “Luxury, Naturally” concept. This concept is enhanced by the Moodscapes music program, a contemplative mix of pleasing instrumentals — creating a serene oasis in the lobby and the soothing experience of a day spa throughout the hotel.


Background music is now integral to the processes of commerce. R. Murray Schafer, the great Canadian composer, theorist and sonic philosopher, recalls:

“When we interviewed 108 consumers and 25 employees in a Vancouver shopping mall, we discovered that while only 25 percent of the shoppers thought they spent more as a result of the background music, 60 percent of the employees thought they did.” (Schafer, “The Tuning of the World,” p. 97)

In other cultures in the world, musicians go to their local village markets and play while the activities of commerce take place around them; while they are providing background music of a sort, they’re able to adjust continually to changing circumstances. And, much of the time, they know the people around them.

Of course, vendors and tradespeople have always had songs and cries to hawk their products; in contemporary media culture, these have become television and radio commercials, performed once by uncredited professionals in a studio and repeated ad infinitum throughout broadcast space. The melodies and phrases of these tiny songs can trigger considerable nostalgia.

I had a student who put herself through college by being a child. Once a month, she’d go to New York and spend a weekend in a recording studio, raising her voice an octave and cute-ifying her pronunciation into an uncannily accurate 7-year old. She spoke what she was told to speak and sang what she was told to sing.

The encounters of working musicians with the world of commercials are often both humorous and revealing. For example:

The bass player Trigger Alpert told bassist and anthologist Bill Crow…

…about playing on a date with guitarist Barry Galbraith, doing a jingle for Stouffer’s frozen foods. When the agency representative asked for soft, unobtrusive music behind the announcer, Barry and Trigger played some blues. The agency rep came out of the booth and said, “It’s nice music; I like it a lot. But it sounds too much like Beef Stroganoff. Can you make it sound more like Standing Rib Roast?”

Bill Crow, “From Birdland To Broadway,” page 235

And John Cage had an opportunity that didn’t quite pan out:

“One day while I was composing, the telephone rang. A lady’s voice said, ‘Is this John Cage, the percussion composer?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘This is the J. Walter Thompson company.’ I didn’t know what that was, but she explained that their business was advertising. She said, ‘Hold on. One of our directors wants to speak to you.’ During a pause my mind went back to my composition. Then suddenly a man’s voice said, ‘Mr. Cage, are you willing to prostitute your art?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, bring us some samples Friday at two.’ I did. After hearing a few recordings, one of the directors said to me, ‘Wait a minute.’ Then seven directors formed what looked like a football huddle. From this one of them finally emerged, came over to me, and said ‘You’re too good for us. We’re going to save you for Robinson Crusoe.’John Cage, “Silence,” page 272

But often, musicians already think of themselves as being in the commodity business. When the members of the Beatles were awarded OBEs, Paul McCartney noted that they were being recognized for their impact on the trade balance, rather than the qualities of their music. They’d caused a lot of plastic to be fabricated into specific shapes which were then sold at a profit, bringing more money into Great Britain.

And it’s here that some of the most interesting conflicts occur. Popular musicians produce commodities for sale, yes — and they are also artists, motivated by concerns both of aesthetic exploration and social issues.

Consider, if you will, the central character in this 1964 commercial:

And fast forward to 1969:

In the West, songs are often commodified. Songwriting is a lucrative business for a fortunate few. I know a guy who was lucky enough to have one of his songs included on a hit album. He said, “That song put my daughter through college.”

Other cultures have other approaches to the economic value of songs. A common feature in much African culture is the Praise Song, where a professional singer will perform a lengthy poem that enumerates various attributes of the praisee — who is of course expected to pony up. A recording from the mid-70s of the Nigerian musician Alhaji Garba Leao includes such numbers as “Alhaji Inuwa Mai Main Gyada A Kano” (“praise song to Alhaji Inuwa, owner of groundnuts at Kano”) and “Ali mai sai da mai Shell-BP” (“praise song to Ali, of Shell-BP”).

In performance, here’s how it works:

“He begins to improvise praise songs as the singers praise people in the audience. Some of his supporters will dance in the middle of the open area and then rush over to sing in front of the person being praised. This person is expected to contribute money to keep the music going. Anyone who contributes money will have music played for him — whether the contribution is 20 kobo (30 cents) or ten Naira ($15). As soon as money is contributed the supporter will rush in mock haste to the musicians — waving the money high in the air — seize the microphone from the singers and stop the music. He will shout into the microphone, telling Alhaji Leo who has contributed, how much, and why. The the musicians explode into action after a short invocatory phrase from Garba Leao.”

Randall F. Grass, “A Performance by Garba Leao,” liner notes to Smithsonian Folkways FW 08860

Praise songs, incidentally, are also addressed to powerful people (who may not be in a position to remunerate the performer). The Barack Obama praise song is now a recognized genre throughout the African diaspora. Here’s an example:

I heard the story of an Indian singer whose performance of a particular raga was widely acclaimed. He went into debt. Having no assets, he went to the moneylender and offered to pawn the raga, saying that he would not practice or perform that piece until the loan was paid. As the story goes, he was called to sing for the local ruler, who requested the item in question. The singer demurred, and the Raja asked for an explanation. Amused at the artist’s resourcefulness, the noble discharged the debt and settled back to listen to his favorite melody.

In America, home of the commodity mindset, songwriters have been exploited ruthlessly by music publishers. For decades it was common practice for people in publishing firms to attach their own names to other musicians’ pieces as “co-composers” — thereby cutting themselves in on the royalties from a hit. It didn’t help that many of the composers were inexperienced businesspeople.

So-called Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) developed as a means of ensuring that songwriters and composers received proper compensation for their work. When you look at the publishing information next to a song on a CD, you’ll usually see the letters ASCAP or BMI — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music Incorporated respectively. When I compose a piece of music, it is “published” by a phantom entity called Querdnort Music, for which BMI is the affiliated PRO. Radio stations keep playlists of every piece of music they broadcast, and the PROs keep tabs and collect fees for this usage. Every so often I get a royalty statement and a check from BMI when my music is used on the radio somewhere. Paul McCartney gets really big checks. My last check, if I recall correctly, was for $1.09.

The notion of music as commodity engenders a marvelous piece of cognitive dissonance: the same organizations that act to protect musicians from exploitation may also be working against the long-term health of the idiom itself.

If I make something to sell, I deserve to be well-compensated for my labor. No argument there. But should the commodity model be the default setting?

Consider the following PR disaster from ASCAP:

Girl Scouts were sad, callers were mad, and even one of Woody Guthrie’s old singing pals was incredulous yesterday at a national songwriting group’s order apparently blocking scouts from singing campfire songs without paying copyright fees.


Woody Guthrie wasn’t affiliated with ASCAP; he was a BMI artist. On the other hand, he was responsible for this famous “copyright” notice:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.


With this in mind, let’s look again at the plight of the small cafe owner who wants to open her/his space for live music:

One proprietor of a small restaurant in Western Massachusetts, who says he’s lucky if 25 people show up for live music on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has written letters to each of the PROs explaining that entertainers in his establishment play only originals and traditional folk songs, which aren’t protected by copyright.

“They wrote back and said, ‘I don’t believe you,’”
he said. “They say that the problem is I don’t know every song that’s been written and someone could throw in a song that I’ve never heard. How do I get around that? Buy a license that covers everything.’’


What’s wrong with this picture? I’ll spell it out.

There are vastly (vastly!) more songs that are not covered by PROs than songs that are. The number of traditional songs around the world necessarily dwarfs the number of songs registered with ASCAP, BMI or any other PRO.

Pete Seeger, writing in December 1963:

The secretary at Columbia Records was taking down over the phone the names of the authors and publishers of various songs I had recorded on a recent album. When I came to the title “Barbara Allen” I said “Public domain.”

“Oh, thanks,” was her surprised and pleased voice.

I told a friend about it afterward. “Of course Columbia’s happy,” he said. “You just gave them a thousand dollars by not claiming copyright control for your arrangement and adaptation of ‘Barbara Allen.’ I not only think you’re a fool, I think you’re wrong. Columbia has no right to that money. Columbia didn’t write ‘Barbara Allen.’

Pete Seeger, “The Incomplete Folksinger,” page 448

The notion of music as product is only a few hundred years old at most, while people have been making songs with one another since there were people.

Other cultures have other ways of ensuring the integrity of attribution. The Indian classical songs I sing often have the name of the composer embedded in the text, usually in the last line. Thus, a text line in archaic Hindi that goes “Prem Piya humse nahin bolata” (“Love’s lover is not speaking to me”) gives notice of authorship, for the word pair “Prem Piya” indicates the song was composed by the great vocalist Faiyaaz Khan.

No royalties are collected, distributed or expected.

In the same culture it was once the custom to sing distorted versions of a song text when an artist suspected a member of another musical “school” was in the audience. Thus if rival vocalists learned a piece from hearing it in concert, their version would have incorrect lyrics, and would be stigmatized as inauthentic. It reminds me a bit of map traps, phony streets included in published maps to aid in the detection of copyright violation.

I make no claims to solving this dilemma, but I know which way I lean. I’m a copyleft kind of guy; Richard Stallman and I share the same philosophical stance with regard to the notion of intellectual property. (That’s why I keep encouraging people to steal my letters!)

Those cafe owners and open mic hosts are doing something people have been doing for thousands of years: making a public space where other people can sing for one another, where they can learn to present a song and listen to others try their hands as well.

Public singing is an unambiguous good. It’s an indicator of quality of life, a part of what Juliet Schor calls “Plenitude.” If the commodification of music makes public singing even more endangered than it already is, I’m against it.

While I’m sympathetic to the economic requirements of songwriters and composers, I do not think of songs as things or objects. If I teach you a song, it is my fervent hope that you will be able to mold it to suit your own voice and your own way of doing things.

Every world culture has its own way of approaching and understanding the notion of intellectual property. The commodified Western paradigm is one with an unfortunate side effect: limiting the free flow of ideas and making shared art less likely.

Ultimately I don’t think this conundrum is resolvable as long as our society is built around the model of consumption as a desirable mode of life — a sustainable society cannot use its intellectual and artistic resources this way. To the extent that I as a musician can influence the development of a new conception of musical property, I put a small balance weight on the other side. Giving away my music is a simple way to do this.

On the scale of things, a song shared between humans isn’t going to make a big dent in global warming. But if we humans can’t recover our ability to sing together, how can we work in concert to resolve the truly big problems we face?

Thank you for reading.

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