image courtesy of http://www.facebook.com/HammerMuseum
I attended a talk at the UCLA Hammer Billy Wilder Theater. T Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner , record producer, musician, and song writer sat down with Henry Jenkins, an American media scholar and Provost of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC. Their conversation was moderated by Ian Master as they discussed the pros and cons to online, free music streaming, the debate between analog and digital. Mr. Jenkins with clear articulation presented a compelling argument for a need for a new model driven by and designed by the needs of both the artists and the fans. What Mr. Jenkins communicated with his precise explanations, Mr. Burnett, while lacking in articulation, made up for ten fold with his abundant passion for artist’s representation, both in quality of sound and compensation for product. Whereas one held onto nostalgia the other embraced the future.
T Bone Burnett kept voicing a desire for a walled garden for artists, where fans must find the door and key to gain access to this musical Eden. In his idealized walled garden the artist controls all quality of sound and access to those who enter. The artist’s Eden is not a free domain; it is an audio utopia. I do admire and respect his ideological aspirations, the purity of his vision. Will the new market, which has become accustom to cheap or free, support a system where there is a premium for access to the best quality audio? I could support a system in which every fan pays the artist for their art and getting rid of the bloated funds going to the gatekeeper middlemen.
T. Bone is also an advocate for the object: the vinyl record and the CD. He likes analog and he likes his equipment. For instance, I, a tech Luddite also like the object, that said, I also enjoy the freedom, mobility, and options of digital music. I love that I can swim laps while listening to music, I love that I can run to the beat of my favorite songs, and I discover new bands and musical performers streaming music through Spotify. I needn’t even turn on the radio while driving in my car, I have my playlists programmed into my car audio system. Although I have CDs and vinyl LPs, they mostly sit on a shelf and are played as a rarity. I stream music throughout my home via a Sonos system. I agree with T. Bone that today’s digital quality may not be as good as the analog recordings from yesteryear; however, I find with great earbuds, headphones, and speakers, sound quality can and has vastly improved.
Who can argue against his assertion that the best audio quality is within the artist’s recording studio, or perhaps his, as T. Bone asserted and wished the entire audience could wonder over to his studio after the conversation. Yes. I would like to come to his studio! Though, the entire millions of fans cannot come to his studio, nor can they afford his equipment. I know he realizes this. I believe this is why live concerts are still popular. Besides offering great acoustics (some venues have great acoustics while other live venues offer something experiential) concerts bring the fans into contact with the artist. It becomes an experience and a memory. Concerts cultivate an emotional connection transpiring into advocacy for the artist. There are many music festivals both in the United States and Internationally as a way to hear a lot of favorite bands and to discover new music. In fact, the live performance has become the main way for the musician to make their money. I’ve experienced Wilco playing at Red Rocks Amphitheater and watched Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline masterfully switching out guitars and playing wailing guitar solos. I attended two Beck concerts, one at a small venue with great acoustics and another at a large outdoor music fest with great energy – both memorable experiences. I remember listening to Led Zeppelin sitting (probably dancing, too) on the grassy fields of Golden Gate Park.
T. Bone’s nostalgic ideals reminisce about ‘the guy and his guitar’, using examples such as, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson (I imagine Willie Nelson as he portrayed Johnny Dean Wag The Dog, wondering around while strumming his guitar). These guys and their guitars did not and can not exist in a vacuum, they were discovered in clubs, they needed producers, and managers to gain access to their public – today a musician can leave the producer and manager behind, if he or she so chooses. You Tube, provides a forum to discover ‘the guy and his guitar’. T. Bone doesn’t realize this. As I went for my run along the beach the morning after the talk, I noticed a ‘gal with her guitar’ and I couldn’t help but think that it’s possible, if I were to stop and video her strumming her tunes and then post it to You Tube, share it with a few of my friends, who would then share the video with a few of their friends, and so on and so on, this girl strumming her guitar on the beach is bound to get more exposure and fans from this than playing in a local bar or restaurant.
Henry Jenkins understands this. He, too, is an advocate for free use or free sharing. He understands that it is essential and that the customer is the new creator and the fans are curatorial, creating new content. He distinguishes between remixes, sampling, and repurposing that add to an artist’s exposure versus pirating that steals from artistic labors. He understands the benefit to the artist for quick and vast online exposure; and, he agrees that a new market must be developed, one that considers the demands of the fan-based market while also the need to fairly compensate the artist. This is the new transactional system, a moral economy where the fans directly support and respond to the musicians. He believes pirating, where one is purposefully copying, not creating something new or original, and making money off another’s creative labors should be punished and banned. Nobody, yet, has found the solution.
After listening to both sides, I have an idea for a solution. If the technology exists for better quality digital recordings, but it isn’t being used due to cost, then it can be an option for fans. For example: there are those who are content with iTunes and Spotify quality, yet if someone wants a better digital audio quality it can be a separate product offered at a higher price – let’s call it eTunes – for enhanced tunes or Spotify Supreme. Also, using this same model of optional upgrade, perhaps called Audio Ecstasy, it can be bought at a premium on music streaming sites. Just as there remains a market for hardbound books, I believe there will still be a market for the analog with CD box collections and vinyl record products sold as editions to collectors for a premium. This is what I see as the new market.
Creativity and ideas should be public domain and not owned by corporations. I think when Lars Ulrich fought Napster, he may have had the interest of the artist in mind, but it has resulted in manipulation for profit and the greed has stopped progress. We should ask, for what and for whom are the copyright and intellectual laws protecting. As I see it, the gatekeepers are there to benefit BIG music businesses, not the ‘guy and his guitar’.
Radiohead set a precedent by releasing their music directly onto the Internet with options to purchase and to remix their music. In Brazil the exchange of culture is free and is called Creative Commons. I think more artists should follow this example.
If you listen to digital music, you must watch, RIP: A Remix Manifesto, a movie about today’s music culture.
Here are a few you tube remixes to enjoy: