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Should cover bands have to pay royalties?

March 23, 2010

Musicians have a long tradition of stealing ideas and flying under the radar of copyright attorneys.  Consider The Real Book, a compilation of sheet music jazz players have been using for gigs since the 70s.  If you know a jazz player, I guarantee you he/she has one.  I played upright bass in a combo for several years, and we couldn’t have gigged without it.  Up until 2005, the Real Book was illegal, so the experience of buying one was a bit like a drug deal.  Maybe you knew the right music store where they kept a few hidden behind the front counter, or you just waited around outside jazz clubs and asked a guy who looked like he might know.  You just had to be cool about it – say something about an empty music stand and “needing some changes.”  I scored my Real Book from my bass teacher, and it’s in pretty rough shape after 10 years.  There’s a legal version out as of 2005, but it just doesn’t feel right buying a replacement off amazon.com.  Maybe I’ll photocopy what’s left of mine at Kinko’s and rebind it instead.

I got to thinking about this over the weekend when I was down in Memphis visiting my parents and checking out some live music from old friends I haven’t seen since high school.  Two acts on the agenda were Ghost Town Blues Band and Beauregard, a pair of hard-working and talented bands that I look forward to seeing again.  Both have extensive libraries of original music, but everyone mixes in an unoriginal here and there.  One of Ghost Town’s slickest numbers was a well-placed cover of Ain’t No Sunshine, a change of pace from their up-tempo, dirty Memphis blues.  At Beauregard’s show, they paid tribute to the passing of Alex Chilton with a cover of Big Star’s Thirteen.

The cover song is many things – a first step for aspiring musicians just learning how to play, a crowd pleaser for more advanced performers, and a way for musicians to show respect to the great artists who came before them. Unfortunately, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) doesn’t see it that way.  Just as the music industry targeted individual file sharers with lawsuits, venues that host cover bands have come under recent attack for copyright infringement.  In a similar move, a guitar teacher was threatened with a lawsuit if he failed to remove clips of instruction involving Rolling Stones songs.  Websites that post free tablature, a form of 6-line sheet music geared toward guitar players, have even come under attack.  I freely admit that I’m biased on this issue, but I fail to see the harm caused to musicians when others cover their work or transcribe it for people to learn.  Music has a rich history of lifting and borrowing ideas, and to try and tamp that down does a disservice to the craft.

China may have it right on this one.  Performers there actively encourage fans to copy and share music.  As Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of the book Free, puts it, “Pirates will pirate a CD, which creates celebrity, which you can use to create cash.  Chinese pop stars make money not off music sales, but from making personal appearances, starring in advertisements, etc.”  As much as ASCAP would like to hold a monopoly on guitar chords, they’re fighting an uphill and (I believe) losing battle.  Stewart Brand first came up with the famous but often misquoted paradox: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”  Musicians will always make music, but I’m not so sure that the middleman publishing organizations will survive.  Given the self-publishing and promotional tools at musicians’ disposal these days, why bother?

As for me, I’m happy to be back playing cello recently in an instrumental duo with a guitar.  I texted my friend from Beale Street last Friday: “Watching a blues band rock Ain’t No Sunshine.  You down to steal it?”  Reply: “Yeah, I saw a solo piano dude kill that last night.”  No royalties will be paid.  If ASCAP thinks it’s worth their time and effort to take action against a small-time musician, they can kiss my G-string.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2010 7:42 am

    Huh, I wonder what inspired this post? See, sometimes those little everyday frustrations result in a beautifully inspired soliloquy.

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