Who Owns Culture?

Jeff TweedyRock 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.

You can download this entire conversation (registration required) via Bit Torrent at the Wilco fan-site, Via Chicago.

17 thoughts on “Who Owns Culture?”

  1. I’m hoping that the Little Zephyr was joking about the billion bucks, because otherwise, he was too far north in Manhattan and would need to get down to Wall Street, where the real action is for those for whom “enough” comes with nine zeros.

    “We don’t pay poets anymore”? Did we ever?

  2. I am going to have to listen to the whole event to really throw in 2 pennies.

    But I sort of think what is overlooked in the whole deal is what file sharing exists as and what responsibility consumers have in the exchange of product (for lack of a better term). To me if a band is putting together a good piece of complete art (ie Music and packaging) there answer is simple if you are at all respectfull you might sample it via download, but will buy it.

    File sharing to me is no different than a good radio station (oxymoron for the most these days) or hanging out with friends and spinning discs you just got.

    The difference I think really lies in are people downloading the product, reproducing and SELLING it.

  3. I recently brought the new Beck record into my office so that one of my co-workers could check it out. He enjoyed the album and raved about the artwork. While I was busy going about my day he burned it onto a CD and color photocopied the artwork. So, despite how much he was into the complete package, it seems that buying it for himself was out of the question.

    Where do we go from here?

  4. The business model is fucked. That’s the real problem. People have for almost all of history regarded music as culture, not just entertainment and certainly not as a “product”. Until the last 100 years the notion of paying to hear a song was nonsense. If you wanted to hear a song you played or sang it. Musicians were payed for their performances. As a consumer you never really “owned” a copy of a song.

    The discussion I would like to hear revolves around that idea. Why not disregard the notion of selling CDs altogether, and get back to paying musicians for their performances.

    I don’t think it’s really all that complicated. File sharing and the technologies that allow us to copy music are only providing a way to circumnavigate the 20th Century entertainment industry’s business model. The majority of bands today make their money (if any) selling merch and playing live shows anyway.

    Let’s leave it at that and get on with it.

  5. Nah, it’s not the business model itself that’s fucked; it’s all the layers of fat within the major-label system which need to be trimmed. All those extra layers are great breeding grounds for greed and short-sightedness which results in way too many golden geese getting killed. For example, if I may be so cheeky as to refer to our hosts for my example, it’s unlikely that GloNo Recs is gonna intentionally screw over its bands.

    I have no problem with the artist getting cash for their recordings; frankly, for the amount of enjoyment that Alex Chilton and Scott Miller have brought me, there isn’t enough money in the world. I don’t think that a system which forces Mr. Chilton and Mr. Miller to go on tour to realize ANY income from their music is a flawed one.

    The solution is: abolish all major labels. Sell off the worthy back catalogs to the independent labels, and bring the whole thing back to grass roots. There’s your business model for ya… ;)

  6. i’m a large proponent of “giving away the music” myself. I believe that both art and commerce can exist together, but at a different level. yes, the archaic approach that the record industry has been slugging away with over the past 40 years has been an albatross, but it’s also served a valuable role – promoting the artist and exposing them to a wider audience. the downside is that for every one decent artist that breaks through to a larger audience there’s probably 25 to 50 that fall by the wayside. and with them are the sunk cost of promotion that goes nowhere. how do those company off-set that loss? they adjust their expectations for sales of the acts that are selling.

    so, the days of throwing 50 acts against the wall to see which ones stick long enough to turn a buck should be gone. artist development and promotion should become the emphasis of the record companies if they want to remain a going concern. i see a few simple things happening that could help (of course, with simple solutions come serious repercussions and fallout, if they don’t work)

    – record companies should return to being boutique distributors and a cottage industry.

    – focus more on artist management and promotion.

    – allow the music to be freely shared on-line.

    – create interesting and collectable packaging for each artist the label distributes.

    – label should work with musician to place music in other mediums for publishing revenue and exposure to larger audience – film, television, and advertising.

    – paradigm should shift from label being a bank and loaning money to the artist if they sell something to a partnership where percentage is shared from musicians’ live performances, publishing, and record sales. in effect, the artist would become the main entity and labels and promoters would have to buy shares into this entity to share in rewards as the artist grows. of course, this could open a who other can of worms involving lots of lawyers (but no more than are involved now, and the powerbase would shift to the artist).

  7. I said, “I don’t think that a system which forces Mr. Chilton and Mr. Miller to go on tour to realize ANY income from their music is a flawed one.”

    I meant that I DO think that a system which forces artists to derive income solely from touring and merch IS a flawed one. Sorry for the confusion; still getting the hang of this Monday…

  8. So, Murph…you’re saying that the history of music up until vinyl records was flawed?

    For all of recored history, up until the early-mid 20th century, that’s exactly how artists made a living. If you were a singer or songwriter you made your living performing.

    What’s so wrong with that? Why is that flawed?

  9. While he was certainly not a partisan of “rock and roll can change your life,” a comment from one of the most-profound musicians of the 20th century comes to mind, a man who performed on stages around the world, but then gave it up, concentrating on what he could do in the studio:

    “At live concerts I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian”–Glenn Gould

    If performance is all, would he–and people like him, today–be punked financially?

  10. I’m not saying that at all, Scotty; what I’m saying is that for better or worse, the technology exists by which a performance captured at X point in history can be replayed an infinite amount of times, or as long as the medium carrying that performance lasts; we call this technology modern recording. The technology in and of itself is by no means a bad thing; It’s how those recordings are exploited which is where the problems have crept up. I don’t see any problem whatsoever with an artist being able to reap financial rewards from those recordings. I have a problem when the channels by which those recordings are distributed get corrupted (i.e., your typical major label contract). The touring and merch should still be avenues of income for the artist; they shouldn’t be the ONLY ones, is all I’m saying. Riviera should be able to not only make a cut of the door at Schubas, they ought to earn a percentage of any CDs sold, whether it’s at the show as merch, online as iTunes downloads (&c), or in stores ranging from Best Buy to Laurie’s Planet of Sound. At the same time, if Andy Partridge of XTC decides that he can’t get past his stage fright, he still should earn money each time someone else buys Skylarking and is blown away by it.

  11. I like albums. I like studio recordings. If I had to choose one or the other, I’d rather listen to albums instead of seeing shows.

    I think there needs to be a way for bands to be able to afford to create interesting recordings. Somehow, someone has to pay for the studio recordings. I don’t have the answers but I know that the major labels are fucked up. And they waste a lot of money on stupid shit. Like overnight FedEx-ing us promo copies of cds when we’re really not in a hurry to review them anyway. Regular mail or UPS Ground would be fine and much cheaper. I’m sure that’s a tiny fraction of their expenses, but still. They’re dumb, and they deserve to go out of business. And they will.

    Unless the government keeps passing new laws to protect their existing, flawed business model. Like the [url=http://www.keytlaw.com/Copyrights/sonybono.htm]Sonny Bono copyright extension[/url].

  12. It keeps coming back to responsibility and managing expectations. anything that bloated and corrupt will implode with time. and p2p is just a catalyst to allow this to happen. so, if they want to remain a going concern they just have to adapt.

    sure, there are always going to be people that get music, but don’t pay for it. happened back before p2p, cds… all the way back to magnetic tape being introduced to the public at affordable prices. i made plenty of copies of albums to cassette when i was a kid… and i bought a lot of albums too. there has to be a balance between what people want to hold on to forever and what is fleeting. that’s why buying a single made sense… either you taped the song off a friend, taped it off the radio, taped the video on vhs, or went out and bought the single to be a completetist dork like me. you enjoyed it emensely for a while and then it’s gone… you didn’t have to buy an entire album of junk for one song. same thing with downloads… let the song exist on it’s own and it will draw the market in. let the album stand on it’s own and it will get people to buy it. afterall, how much ram is out there to fill up with songs? i’d rather have the artifact with original artwork. it’sthe total package that draws me in.

    on a side note, i used to think of movies as throw aways… either see it in the theater, rent the video, borrow it from a friend… watch it once and move on. though, lately i’ve gotten into special edition dvds… for the packaging and extras – commentary track, essays, deleted scenes, interviews, documentaries of the film, etc. i’ve become obsessed with the criterion collection for their dvds the same way i was obsessed with rough trade, twin/tone and sst for music when i was a kid. a quality product will always find a devoted market.

  13. “Unless the government keeps passing new laws to protect their existing, flawed business model. Like the Sonny Bono copyright extension.”

    Unfortunately that’s exactly what the government is doing, and not just for music. They’re doing it for movies, video games, tv, etc. The consumer is under attack in the US as copyright holders attempt to force us to pay them for things we don’t want or need.

  14. Murph, I get your point that being able to lay down a recording and distribute it does lead to market for the recording. I just don’t believe that the selling of recorded music should be the financial basis for the entire industry. I see recorded music as a hook that should lead people to the artist. 100 years ago sheet music filled that roll. Musicians were payed for their performances, and sheet music was sold for pennies as a means of distributing popular songs. It was affordable, an most americans could at least sing along to it in a social setting. While the sale of sheet music earned royalties for some people writing the music, it was still the performance of the music itself that payed virtually all musicians.

    Yeah, it’s super cool that bands like XTC can brag about going 2 decades without playing live. But what difference does that make? The underlying financial foundation which drives the industry will always lead to what kind, type and quality of music is produced. For every studio-only band relying on the sales of music encoded on hardware, there are undoubtably a hundred more who would benefit from a model where their live performances drove their financial success.

  15. Lawrence Lessig obviously doesn’t read any poetry. One of of poetry’s strengths in this culture is its inability to be co-opted financially, and artists like Wilco who offer up their music for free are doling out some serious justice for their work. Poetry and songwriting are cousins after all, and have always been, and Tweedy, who has had some poetry published, seems much more up on the subject.

  16. God, I second that. And I wouldn’t buy nearly as many of those $5 bootleg cds off the sidewalk either.

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