Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Owns Music?

Bruce Springsteen--"Brilliant Disguise (live)" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Trapped (live)" (mp3)

I spent a good bit of last night downloading and listening to a couple of Bruce Springsteen concerts. The concerts were not for sale. They were not official releases. Bruce, undoubtedly, would not be happy to know that they are available out there in cyberspace. Or else he doesn't care. Or else that space has gotten too big for music lawyers to keep up with all of it. Or.

Here's the scoop on those concerts. The first one is one that I used to listen to when I was in college in Philadelphia. WMMR, the local, commercial, hip FM radio station used to broadcast some or all of this show all the time. The show had been recorded locally, up in Bryn Mawr, at a place called the Main Point, a place where I saw many concerts during my college years. It probably held about 200 people and was the ideal place to see folk acts, bluegrass acts, singer-songwriters. I missed Bruce by only a few months. Anyway, I heard those songs many, many times, even taped some of them off of the radio onto cassette tapes from my dorm rooms. There were many highlights--a cover of Dylan's "I Want You," a slowed-down version of "The E Street Shuffle," a pre-Born To Run version of "Thunder Road," performed under the title "Wings For Wheels."

So when I saw that show online, not only did all of that college nostalgia kick in, but I also thought, 'I used to have that, that used to be mine, I'm going to get it again.' But was it mine? Yes, I did have a cassette of it, and record companies weren't clamoring to bust people making cassette copies of vinyl albums or radio broadcasts.

The second concert is from The Ghost Of Tom Joad tour, a tour I never saw. I did buy the cd, however, and have always thought it was underrated and undeservedly bashed by the critics. One review I read said that it was "tuneless," that there were no memorable melodies. I couldn't disagree more. I think the cd is full of beautiful, quiet songs. We presented at a conference in San Diego not long before or after its release, and just getting the sense, during that brief trip, of what life on the border, life in "Balboa Park," was all about, made the cd more poignant. So, I was excited yesterday to hear what some of those songs sounded like live. I bought the cd, the concert tour came nowhere near me, and I had very young children at the time anyway. So last night, guilt-free, I downloaded that show, too.

I know that this concept would never hold up legally, but is it possible that someone like me who owned all of the Springsteen records on album up through the Live 1975-85 box set on vinyl and then, when the technology changed, purchased all of that stuff again and continue to buy each new Springsteen release on either cd or Itunes, is it possible that in some cosmic way I have some "right" to hear all of Springsteen's music that I can get my hands on? That's not even counting concert tickets, songbooks, dvd purchases. Do I own anything that I didn't directly pay for?

As I see it, there are two issues here. The first is quality control. I understand that artists who slave over putting out, say, a cd that they worked on for three years may be disappointed to think that some raw, slightly off-key outtake or live version of their stuff is out there for public consumption. The second is money. By law, that artist has royalty rights for every sale and performance of his or her music. God knows, we all like the money, and I'm not going to try to argue that such-and-such an artist already has enough money. I don't know and I don't care. But after my own "career" of collecting and listening to music for 45 years, there are some five or six artists, a slightly-shifting list, whose output has engaged me so much that I'm interested in hearing whatever of their music that I can, regardless of the source. And I pursue that goal, from time to time, without apology.

I know it's impossible to distinguish me from some virulent Chinese conglomerate selling Springsteen knock-offs all over Asia, but I'm not trying to make money, I'm just trying to hear what was played. I know it's skewed, I know it's indefensible, but I have come to believe that if an artist played it and someone recorded it, it's okay for me to hear it. Sorry, Bruce. Ultimately, the passage of time will prove me right.


Billy said...

This is precisely where the Metallica Mentality angers me so much.

It's one thing for record companies, which exist for the sole purpose of making a profit on music, to send their henchmen out into the real and cyber-world, looking for thieves of their bottom line. It's altogether a more troubling thing for artists, whose primary goal should be, I would hope, to share their vision and their sound with as many people as possible (and hopefully eke out a living).

But Metallica basically admitted: we're in this for the money, not the fans. We don't want you bootlegging anything, even if you only want to listen to it alone in your basement, because it robs us of potential coin.

Meanwhile, Radiohead hardly fights the cyber-system and seems to be doing just fine.

I would like to think -- and will continue to do so until it's proven otherwise -- that Bruce would applaud and appreciate the way you hunt down and "steal" music that he has no way of selling you. I just wish it were true of more artists.

Record companies, on the other hand, I will mostly continue to view in the same way as nuclear weapons, abortion, and the other so-called "necessary evils" of our modern world.

Dan said...

Once the music is played, it belongs to the universe. That is the way that I justify my larceny.

What are your 4-5 artists for whom you are interested in hearing live and rare (bootleg!) stuff from?

Mine are Bruce, Petty, Neil Young, REM and Counting Crows. Lots of great live stuff out there for all of them. Allmans too. Other bands too, but not as passionately.

Bob said...

I guess my current list would be Neil Young (though his great songs are coming fewer and farther between--but find "Gateway of Love" on Itunes), Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Bruce, and Steely Dan.