Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, there was one common understanding, in the United States at least: a college education was a good thing. Returning soldiers took advantage of the original GI Bill, and their children took advantage of what was, for a time, a very affordable college education (at least at public colleges and universities). One result was the greatest economic boom in the nation's history, but another was its most educated public. It would be hard for anyone back in the 1980's, (to pick a decade) to imagine a time when college attendance wasn't a reachable ideal and an unquestioned good for anyone who could manage it.

Today, college education is questioned on every front; tuition has risen dramatically, and pundits -- who take for granted that the best way to measure the value of something is in the increased earning power it confers -- declare that a useful trade-school education would be a much better deal. We're told that we have to let go of the idea that college is for everyone, as pressure mounts on public institutions (public in name only, as decades of cuts by state legislatures have meant that most state colleges and universities receive less than 1/3 of their funding from the state). Even those who talk up the importance of college are insisting on "accountability," which means endless rounds of assessments and measurements of "outcomes," and even the supposedly liberal President Obama, and his erstwhile secretary of education, Arne Duncan, wax ecstatic talking up their plans for cradle-to-grave tracking of the correlatrion between education and earnings.

But in the midst of this neo-utilitarian fervor, something has been forgotten. As Mark Thomason wrote in a comment on a recent New York Times editorial,
I send my kids to college as a growth experience. It changes them, in good ways. I hope they do well financially, but I am not sending them to a trade school, I'm sending them to complete their education and complete growing up. It did me a lot of good, and it is doing them a lot of good.
The only difficulty is that this good -- which I agree is the most important aspect of a college education -- is very difficult to quantify. It doesn't necessarily lead to higher earnings; those who are inspired by their college experience to undertake creative careers in the arts, or work for a better society, often find they're earning a great deal less. But their personal satisfaction, and benefits to the world of their labors, though not necessarily tangible or measurable, are certainly vital.

All this puts me in mind of a much earlier moment when a large number of institutions whose work was universally understood as contributing to the greater good came under government pressure to prove that worth. Secured in beautiful gothic buildings, supplied with dormitories for their residents, dining  halls for their meals, and chapels for their worship, the inhabitants of these institutions little dreamt that, in a few short years, their buildings would be reduced to roofless rubble -- and by their own king. Thomas Cromwell (yes, that one -- whose career is revisited in Hilary Mantel's recent novels) sent out "visitors" to investigate the practices at these places, and the reports that came back were damning: the people there were not following their own rules, they were living lives of suspicious comfort, and worse yet -- by providing spiritual services to their neighbors, they were perpetuating false superstitions and scurrilous beliefs.

The king, Henry VIII, used these reports as the justification for what would, earlier in his own reign, have been an unthinkable act. He, with the collusion of Parliament and a few strokes of a pen, dissolved all the monsateries of England, seized their buildings and properties, and sent troops to round up the valuables. The golden altar furniture and books were added to the King's own collections, while the buildings and land were given to his political allies as their personal estates. The monks and nuns were supposed to receive pensions, but there seems no record of many collecting them. What the King's men left behind, local villagers pillaged, finding new uses for door-hinges and window glass. The lead that had protected the roofs was rolled up and hauled away (it being a valuable metal at the time), and before long, the unprotected beams and boards rotted and collapsed.

To add to the irony, some of the funds raised by some these closures were used to fund colleges and endowments, including what later became Christ Church at Oxford.

I know it sounds crazy --  how could such a thing happen today? But I think it's a cautionary tale, especially for a population which seems unable to resist the siren-song of mere utilitarian value.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Lines

Blurred lines, indeed. The jury verdict of 7.4 million dollars against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke offers yet another example of how juries -- that is to say, how most people -- misunderstand originality in music. Because, in fact, music is by its very nature unoriginal -- every melody line, every hook, every grace note is but a variation on a number of ancient themes, progressions, and melodies. And in fact, that's why we like music -- precisely because it feels both new and familiar. As former Vandals drummer and present-day entertainment lawyer Joe Escalante remarked to the LA Times, it's a dark day for creativity, and in the end, this will be a net loss for music fans" -- but "good news for lawyers and the bitter everywhere."

There are, contrary to popular belief, only a limited number of musical possibilities out there. Nearly all pop music is in 4/4 time, and relies upon a number of common 'progressions' -- chord sequences -- I/V/vi/IV, I/V/vi/iii (the "Pachebel's Canon/Lighter Shade of Pale progression), vi/V/IV/V, and so on. There are a few less common ones, and of course jazz and other genres use a wider variety of them than popular music (though, it's been argued, all jazz essentially derives from the basic blues pattern). Within these, there' a restricted number of possible melodies -- many, but far from infinite -- and, like some robot throwing vast amounts of spaghetti against the fridge to see if it sticks, songwriters and composers have tried out them all. Some, it seems, are stickier than others -- and stickiness is what listeners want, after all -- so they are turned to repeatedly.

So of course we've been here before. And before. And before. Perhaps the most egregious example until now was the case of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" vs. the Chiffons "He's So Fine" -- or, as it's officially known, "Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs Music" -- details at USC's fabulous Music Copyright Infringement Resource). In that case, it came down to a few of what were called 'grace notes'(actually appoggiatura), which suggested the possibility of what the judge called 'unconscious  borrowing.' The damages awarded for this were spectacular: 1.6 million dollars -- 6.5 million in today's currency, nearly as much as the Gaye case.

Such an award is justified by its champions as discouraging 'illegal' infringements, but in fact it does no such thing. If they had lawyers enough, there are tens of thousands of songs whose authorship could be litigated in this way -- and almost any new pop song you can imagine would be a fresh candidate. Instead, it will stifle creativity -- Harrison himself admitted he was 'too paranoid' to write any new material for years after the lawsuit --by preventing the natural and inexorable process of fusing the old and the new that's what Joni Mitchell called 'the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.'

Part of the problem is the way music copyright is handled. The songwriter rights, also known as publishing rights, date back to the era when sheet music sales were a key source of revenue. That's not true today, but these underlying rights still apply, since any recording of them -- including the 'original' one -- relies on a license to to 'use' them. It's why, when "My Sweet Lord" was in dispute, the parties weren't Harrison himself or the Chiffons, but Harrisongs and Bright Tunes, the music's publishers. And, when boiled down to sheet music, songs look a lot more similar than they in fact are -- since part of what makes a song a hit is the arrangement and performance of a particular version. Ins some cases, a cover version does better than the original -- Richie Havens's "Here Comes the Sun," for instance, was a bigger hit on the charts than Harrison's own version -- but in that case, the 'publisher' portion of the royalties went to Harrison anyway -- as would be the case with any covers.

But the problem is, almost all music is a 'cover' of something. Boiled down to sheet music, the similarities are greater than the differences -- but in this modern era, when sheet music isn't even printed in most cases, this hardly seems the point.

What we need, I'd argue, is the throw out the entire existing copyright system for music. Get rid of the 'sandwich' -- publishing rights/performance rights/broadcast rights/non-earthbound communication rights -- and replace it with a system in which 10% of all royalties for all new songs are placed in a fund available to those who can make a case for similarity to older ones; damages should be capped. Then, pay a fixed portion for any performance or rebroadcast, accounting for the (divided) writing royalties. This may sound complex, but in fact, it's been tacitly done within the industry for decades -- which is why cases such as the Gaye/Williams/Thicke one are rare. Let's 'fess up, folks -- when it comes to pop music, there really isn't anything new under the sun.