Rock Star and Law Professor Weigh In
It was one of those great New York nights. Flowers bloomed in the cold spring air. We were gathering at the New York Public Library for a discussion called “Who Owns Culture?” Any occasion to go to the massive NYPL and be reminded of an era when books and learning were things considered worth creating a temple for, is fun.
Plus we were going to see Jeff Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy, the hero. He was going to talk about the issue of file sharing, the whole economic Pandora’s Box he and Wilco had blown open by putting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the Internet for free. He would be discussing the subject with law professor Lawrence Lessig. It was one of those high-concept match-ups that promised much: A geeky intellectual head-to-head with a 2-pack-a-day Romantic Creator! Sparks will fly!
Well, they didn’t, mostly because Lessig’s issue was so different from Tweedy’s that at times the panel seemed like a dinner party that wouldn’t gel. Lessig is a passionate advocate of freedom for technological art – i.e., mixing and re-interpreting art that’s already out there. He gave as an example the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album being remixed to make DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Efforts by the government to restrict use of others’ material poses a severe threat to creativity in this century, according to Lessig, who seemed at times to be suggesting that no one under 40 is making art that doesn’t involve digital wankery, and if they are, it’s completely irrelevant. (“Musicians are the poets of our day,” he said, gesturing towards Jeff Tweedy. “We don’t pay poets anymore.” So much for poets!)
Tweedy, small and dark in a black windbreaker, sat listening quietly. A guitarist singer-songwriter and self-confessed Luddite, he has little to do with Lessig’s crusade re: digital sampling. His emphasis is on the emotional, experimential aspect of music; he said, in one of the evening’s most resonant lines, “Music offers something I think is pretty rare these days – a spiritual, communal experience.” And how do you legislate that, and how do you put a price on it?
Tweedy argues that offering Wilco’s work for free on the Internet is as much a gesture of goodwill toward fans as it is an effort to subvert the economics of the music industry. “We got into the whole Internet thing with a sort of defeatist attitude,” he explained. “We figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” This down-to-earth practicality was a contrast to Lessig’s more alarmist message: If artists do not protect these vital freedoms (file sharing and sampling) they may be taken away from us! Jeff suggested that no one can take them away – it’s a done deal. Lessig said fewer lawyers should be involved with the debate, yet he had a lot more to say about it than Tweedy, who was often left sitting in silence, representing the ancient art of writing something cohesive. (Sorry, sorry, a bias is emerging here, but it did kind of get my goat to hear non-techonological creativity given such short shrift.)
Wilco’s success raises a lot of questions. Could record labels be circumvented altogether? Tweedy said Wilco had considered doing without a label, but that they didn’t want to do all the administrative work: bookings, publicity, etc. “Being on a label is a structure I’m comfortable with because it’s something I grew up with,” Tweedy said, in another moment of folksy 20th-centuryness. He also said that he felt comfortable with the concept of the cd as an artifact you can hold in your hand. Exclusive downloading isn’t the answer, he suggested. That raised the question of what a fair price is to charge for a cd, but I don’t think the panel came to a decision on that.
Endless questions surround the issue of file sharing. Is it fair to not offer protection to artists whose livelihood may depend on record sales, if they’re not big enough to make their big earnings through touring? What about beginning artists, for whom record sales are a barometer of popularity for their labels and may make the difference between being kept or dropped? What about the one-hit-wonder writer, who could possibly buy a house based on the royalties from one song but with the lessening of restrictions of copyright law, won’t see a penny from use of his/her work?
But somehow the discussion seemed to focus more on law than on the musical side of the equation. Lessig made the excellent point that the current laws are so strict, they are broken daily by almost every young person, so we are raising a generation of law-breakers. “Yeah, it seems counterintuitive to make the sharing and enjoyment of music illegal,” Tweedy said, a shade listlessly. He has said these things before, and he seemed aware that the conversation was barely touching on some important areas.
The discussion kept getting bogged down in details of copyright law, which is certainly an issue for artists but is hard to hear discussed unless you’re actually studying law (which, judging by the concerns raised in the Q&A, a surprising amount of the audience were). The burning issue to many of us is, how can artists work and eat in this country? We aren’t supported by the government, so the market is a crucial factor. Inflated prices and corporations are as much a part of the culture as the Internet, and “piracy” (“I always call it ‘quote piracy'” joked Lessig) is mainly a consumer-driven solution. Why aren’t more bands on board?
“Some people I think are just greedy,” Tweedy said. “I mean, isn’t there a point when you have enough money? Like, I think of Paul McCartney – isn’t there a point when he’d go, ‘oh that’s enough’? I’m not saying that about the real Paul McCartney – but people like him. Wilco is not at that point, by the way.” “How much would you need to be at that point?” moderator Steven Johnson asked him. “A billion,” Tweedy deadpanned.
In the end, there was a general sense of agreement that needing a lot of money was bad, and that writing great songs was good, and being able to hear them was good, but having to pay a lot of money for that was bad. Oh, and “piracy” has up to now been supported by the government (e.g. radio, vcrs, etc.) but now it isn’t, and the fact that it isn’t is bad, but not entirely, because artists deserve some protection, but not very much.
Whew. No wonder there was no press conference, and Jeff Tweedy blew away into the crisp spring night like a mysterious little zephyr. He doesn’t have the last word — no one does in this snarl of creativity, utopianism, legalism and criminality. But he was tired of verbalizing on it.