14 July 2010

Close Encounters With Permission Culture

I've just finished reading Lawrence Lessig's 2004 book "Free Culture," which is chock full of mostly demoralizing stories, observations and ancedotes culled from recent and occasionally not so recent legal and cultural history. Lessig pulls together this history in order to make a point, and he makes it convincingly, but the history is worth knowing in and of itself. The nugget that I just can't get over is ASCAP's threat to sue the Girl Scouts, among others, for singing licensed music at camp. You can read all about it here (via Lessig's helpful list of the book's online references here).

Once upon a time, as a freshly minted music school graduate eager to gain a foothold in the more business-oriented side of my chosen profession, I began looking into joining a performance rights organization, and, for reasons I've since forgotten, ultimately settled on ASCAP. Even then, I had misgivings about joining such a club, for years earlier, ASCAP had supposedly threatened action against a local venue where I and many of my colleagues frequently performed. Rather than pay the fee, the owner began enforcing a zero-tolerance policy regarding "other people's licensed cover songs" and requiring each performing group to fill out and sign a form. This made for some eclectic, original programming, and gave me a great excuse to impose even more of my tunes on my bandmates, but those trivial facts aside, there were no winners here: not ASCAP, who hasn't received a cent; not the owner, who evidently was scared shitless by the whole thing; and least of all those of us who perform there, of whom even the most radical like to play other people's licensed music from time to time, or at least know that we can if we want to.

To have one's music performed by others is not only one of the most basic artistic aspirations which many composers share, but also, the state of music publishing being what it is, increasingly the only meaningful financial aspiration as well, or so I've been reading over the last several years. I'm normally too pessimistic to plan on things like that ever happening, but have occasionally been prone to making such plans simply to put my mind at rest, and as there was no application fee, it seemed harmless enough to just send the damn thing in and forget about it until that first royalty check showed up. Nonetheless, I was never totally comfortable doing so knowing that I was also criminalizing the performance of my music in the very types of venues it was most likely to be performed in, venues where the management and the musicians alike are lucky to break even on any given night. This ultimately weighed on my mind more heavily than not being a member had before, until finally an envelope arrived from ASCAP. Rather than a welcome packet, it was my application, which was being returned to me because I had forgotten to sign one of the forms. I've never been so relieved, and to this day, the incomplete application sits buried in a file cabinet, where I anticipate it will stay for a very long time.

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