Thursday 3 February 2022

Spider Robinson as prophet

Under sane versions of copyright, it was considered homage. Musicians would grab snippets of each others' work and play with them, building new interpretations. 

That's harder nowadays. And it's being counted among the reasons that new music just isn't as interesting any longer.

In the olden days, talent scouts spent many late nights in smokey bars looking for new acts, wooing them, signing them, and then shepherding them through their first recordings. Such record people still exist, but there are precious few of them. Instead, labels employ people to troll YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, looking for trends.

Acts still send in demos directly to labels, but some are wary of listening to them. What if another act on the label writes a song that happens to have sonic similarities to something on one of those demos? There have been a number of legal actions where an artist who sent in the demo claims that their song was subsequently stolen by an act already on the label. Perhaps it’s best not to listen to any demos in order to maintain plausible deniability. How many great talents are being missed because no one listened to the music they sent to a label?

I keep being reminded of Spider Robinson's warning forty years ago about the perils of infinite copyright, and automated searches that prevent melodies from being remixed and recycled:

She paused to gather her thoughts, sipped her juice. A part of her mind noted that it harmonized with the recurrent cinnamon motif of Bulachevski's scent-symphony, which was still in progress.

"Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create. In fact they do nothing of the sort. They discover. Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system. For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe—and telling ourselves that we `created' them. To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility. As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators."

She stopped speaking and sat very straight. Unaccountably her feet hurt. She closed her eyes, and continued speaking.

"My husband wrote a song for me, on the occasion of our fortieth wedding anniversary. It was our love in music, unique and special and intimate, the most beautiful melody I ever heard in my live. It made him so happy to have written it. Of his last ten compositions he had burned five for being derivative, and the others had all failed copyright clearance. But this was fresh, special—he joked that my love for him had inspired him. The next day he submitted it for clearance, and learned that it had been a popular air during his early childhood, and had already been unsuccessfully submitted fourteen times since its original registration. A week later he burned all his manuscripts and working tapes and killed himself."

She was silent for a long time, and the senator did not speak.

" `Ars longa, vita brevis est,' " she said at last. "There's been comfort of a kind in that for thousands of years. But art is long, not infinite. `The Magic goes away.' One day we will use it up—unless we can learn to recycle it like any other finite resource." Her voice gained strength. "Senator, that bill has to fail, if I have to take you on to do it. Perhaps I can't win—but I'm going to fight you! A copyright must not be allowed to last more than fifty years—after which it should be flushed from the memory banks of the Copyright Office. We need selective voluntary amnesia if Discoverers of Art are to continue to work without psychic damage. Fact should be remembered—but dreams?" She shivered. ". . . Dreams should be forgotten when we wake. Or one day we will find ourselves unable to sleep. Given eight billion artists with effective working lifetimes in excess of a century, we can no longer allow individuals to own their discoveries in perpetuity. We must do it the way the human race did it for a million years—by forgetting, and rediscovering. Because one day the infinite number of monkeys will have nothing else to write except the complete works of Shakespeare. And they would probably rather not know that when it happens."

I hate that New Zealand is signing on for longer copyright terms as price of a trade deal with the UK. 

But I love this story. Casio bundled some pre-set beats into its MT-40, back in 1981, and didn't encumber them. They increased the value of the keyboards. Pay for the keyboard, use the tunes. And it helped kickstart Jamaican dancehall reggae music. 

Today, 35 years after the original song was released, the conventional version of reggae history holds that the “father” of the riddim was Wayne Smith and his producer at the Jammy’s label in Jamaica. In fact, the history of the riddim goes back further than Smith and his collaborators. It was originally a preset rhythm pattern programmed into the Casiotone MT-40, released in 1981. It was this preset that Smith and his friends used as the basic building block for their revolutionary song.

Really, read the whole thing. Excellent piece. 

Nobody needed to ask anyone's permission. They just made music.  

Casio rocks:

Some people thought that Okuda and Casio should sue for infringement of their copyright. But the company believed it was more important for people to use the keyboards in their music and create a reputation for the Casiotone keyboards around the world. Okuda wanted people to use the Casiotone to create music and hoped the keyboards would make it easier for people around the world to make their own recordings. Even today, musicians and record company representatives sometimes discover that the Sleng Teng riddim was originally an MT-40 preset and contact Casio for permission to use the file. The reply is always that the preset bassline is free for anyone to use: just credit the source and acknowledge that the tune “uses a sound file taken from a Casio MT-40.”

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