Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

Free Culture: Pareles on File-Sharing & The Grateful Dead

Intellectual property, copyright, downloading, even the issue of sampling–there’s a side to be taken on behalf of artists and audiences who aren’t down with corporate manipulation.

Folks have taken to calling this the Free Culture movement, and whether the NY Times’ Jon Pareles has intended to or not he’s made a definitive, succinct statement of what Free Culture advocates are against in today’s column on the controversy over the Grateful Dead’s audio programs.

For some background, this week the Dead asked a third-party website Live Music Archive, a site which aggregates and makes available from free download countless jam-band concerts, to pull its music. This marked a shocking turnaround in the Dead’s policy. For decades, the Dead had pioneered a free taping section at its own concerts, encouraging its fans to bootleg its shows. But initially the Dead asked Live Music Archive not just to remove its own official recordings but audience-made recordings as well.

After an outcry from Dead fans, it reversed its policy halfway, allowing the audience-made recordings back into the archive, while pulling its own. Presumably these official recordings will now be sold.

Here’s the Pareles’ piece. His argument below could be extended to the entire field of sampling law–which has often fattened both record label and publishing company at the expense of both the recording artist who has sampled and the recording artist who has been sampled.

To wit:

“The Dead are thus the latest victims of the notion that digital copying is qualitatively different from every recording technology since the invention of music notation. Yes, digital copying is fast; it’s exact; it’s easy. For a recording business that has realized far too late that it is selling music, not discs, digital copying has destroyed the old monopoly on pressing and distribution.

Digital downloads can also provide numbers for accountants to tabulate and for statistics-mongers to misinterpret. (Just because 10,000 people download a concert doesn’t mean 10,000 people would pay for it.)

Oddly enough, the numbers also seem to encourage visions of wringing every statutory nickel out of every recording ever made. In conformity to copyright law that was designed for sheet music and discs rather than the Web, visions persist of the Internet not as a cornucopia, but as a pay-per-play jukebox. The Deadheads’ old trading network had looked back to an earlier model: music as folklore.

Suddenly, after all these amicable and profitable years, Dead representatives are talking about “rights” to those concert recordings. It’s lawyer talk, record-business talk, and entirely valid on those terms; the Dead do hold copyrights and are entitled to authorize or withhold permission to copy their work. (So, incidentally, are those who own the copyrights to Dead concert staples like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” )

Enforcing that permission on the Internet is another matter. Digital-rights management by technical means is iffy at best: widely circumvented by professional pirates and problematic for consumers trying, for instance, to transfer songs from their CD’s to an iPod. Sony BMG Music, trying to limit copying of CD’s, included software that created security hazards in its paying customers’ computers and is now recalling some four million CD’s and facing lawsuits. The next Windows operating system may place anticopying mechanisms beyond users’ control.

The Dead’s problem is more temporal than technical. Grateful Dead recordings, including soundboard recordings, have been circulating since the inception of the Internet and are not going to disappear by fiat.

The Dead had created an anarchy of trust, going not by statute but by instinct and turning fans into co-conspirators, spreading their music and buying tickets, T-shirts and official CD’s to show their loyalty. The new approach, giving fans some but not all of what they had until last week, changes that relationship.

No doubt it will sell some additional concert downloads in the short run. But by imposing restrictions, it will also encourage jam-band fans – a particularly Internet-savvy demographic – to circumvent those restrictions, finding the soundboard recordings through unofficial channels. The change also downgrades fans into the customers they were all along. It removes what could crassly be called brand value from the Dead’s legacy by reducing them to one more band with products to sell.

Will the logic of copyright law be more profitable, in the end, than the logic of sharing? That’s the Dead’s latest improvisational experiment.

posted by @ 10:03 am | 1 Comment

One Response to “Free Culture: Pareles on File-Sharing & The Grateful Dead”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You can’t listen to a stream in your car

    You know, I turned on to them when I was 14. It used to be that you would see entire families at shows…3 generations sometimes despite the negative (druggie) elements in the scene.

    I’m 40 now. I have a 13 year old now. Nobody that she knows in school know anything about The Grateful Dead except those few that have parents that still like the Dead… and of course, many have moved on.
    Many folks my age don’t have CD buying on thier list of priorities like they might have when they were young.

    So at this point, when and if they buy a Dead CD over something like John Mayer or something else current their kids will like too or whatever, it is a function of returning the good will of the joy the Dead brought them back in the day. They drop the cash even if they know there’s bootleg soundboards out there, even if they have bootlegs themselves. They drop the cash exactly because they know the Dead are so cool as to allow their shows to be online for free. It’s all about good will at this point. A Dead CD is no longer a “must have” item. They spend the money because they still support the idea of them.

    The Dead lost the good will by doing this… and you can still find soundboards easy enough in other places. By losing the good will, they are nothing now. The magic has left and they are no longer special beyond the nostalgia value. What the band uniquely had was more valuable than the potential future net worth of those soundboards (especially given the fact they own so many more in their vaults). The bands capital net worth was tied directly to their once unique relationship to their fans, not “intellectual property”.

    In the early days of the net, John Perry Barlowe, who penned the most original part of Bob Weirs songs, the lyrics, once opined that the value of intellectual property lies in it’s distance to the source. The experience of seeing a band is better than the album, and the experience of the album is far better than just the raw file. Ahhh the hours I spent just looking at the art of American Beauty. Give me a CD studio-quality remastered show with nice cover art and lyrics, and I’ll buy it even if I have the file on my hard-drive. I’ll buy it because I love(ed) that band, and want(ed) to pass my love on as a gift to others… I supported everything they were about in a way that was as unique as the band’s policy was.

    In countless interviews I heard Jerry talk about that magical feedback loop of energy they created between their fans and themselves. The trust they had with their fans was an extension of that.

    If the members of the band can’t see this function they have always played and now it’s all about money it’s because they are as out of touch as George Bush at a NAACP dinner. Yeah, and Bob has just become that pathetic aging rock guy whose addictions cloud him from seeing that he’s no long relevant and has become nothing more than a bad cliche. Worse yet, I know that his personal wealth finds him with too many sycophants in his circle to tell him otherwise.

    So have another line Bob, and pay people to tell you that you still matter and still are special because of some originality you had in your youth. You are just as ordinary as the next guy now. Nothing is more common than greed…and this from a band that once was special? Quite pathetic indeed.

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