Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Music Dillemma

There was an article last week in the St. Cloud Times that really bummed me out. It was about local businesses getting in trouble and facing possible fines because bands were playing music in their establishments without securing proper licenses. In other words, cover bands. The result will be that some locales will stop having live music unless the artists write all their own songs or obtain proper licensing for what they're performing.

I'm sympathetic to musicians and songwriters, and certainly think they should get paid for their work. Steve's daughter's boyfriend Homer is a successful drummer. He gets paid for session work, for touring with the Dap Kings, and also for production/producing work he does through the studio he opened this past year, Dunham Records.  He said the money for him and other musicians is probably better and more long term in producing in the studio. If you produce a hit or for someone established, you're likely to draw more money and continued royalties. It's also good to write and place a song with a major artist or have a song picked up for a television show or film. [Can't resist posting this link to his recent performance on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. You have to scroll to the end of the program.]

I do think musicians have to be creative in how they earn their money, and that as with so many things, more people will be able to be in the business, but fewer people will make the "big money." Record companies and distributors are in crisis. I bought a song tonight on Amazon for 99 cents. Singles are back (and Homer's studio, along with its predecessor, Dap Tone Records, is known for making singles, on wax, mostly old-school funk, with analog equipment).

But I think there should also be room for these local bands playing in small venues. The local businesses reevaluating their music programming are coffee shops, a couple brew pubs and bars, and a local sandwich shop called Bo Diddley's. One of the bands affected will be my favorite local band, whom I won't name because I don't want to get them in trouble. I first heard them play, covers of Americana/folk/bluegrass, at the Farmer's Market. Then I heard them play at a Democratic fundraiser at Fisher's Club, the local set-up club in Avon that specializes in walleye, ribs and rhubarb pie. We also went to hear them play at McCann's, a local brew pub where one of the bandmembers is also the brew master, and again on my birthday at the White Horse in St. Cloud, a bar with an incredible, self-taught cook (last week when we went the special was an Indonesian beef dish that had been marinated for 12 hours and slow-cooked for 6 more, though I had the crab cakes, which are the stuff dreams are made of). The only bad thing about the White Horse is that the "booths" are giant slabs of plywood with benches that are actually church pews-- you feel like you're far from the table and far from the person you're sitting across from.

What I'm saying is, these places are providing a public service by having local bands come in and play a few sets of excellent music, and they're operating on a shoestring. Our friend Nancy plays mandolin and violin in an excellent band, Random Road, that plays at the Local Blend, a  St. Joseph coffeehouse that has finally come into its own after three different owners, mostly because of the connection to local musicians. Random Road is not likely to get in trouble, since they mostly play Irish traditionals and public domain folk songs. But it seems sort of crazy to me that they would be scrutinized or the coffee shop owners would be fined if they played a song without proper licensing.

These are not really concerts, you see. This is one step above playing a wedding or in your neighbor's garage. And why can't there be an exemption for this? Can't we sing and play music for each other, sometimes, for free? We're not selling CDs or putting it on the internet or even selling tickets (though donations are often welcome, and you're encouraged of course to buy a beer or some fresh produce from the vendors). And I feel so lucky to live in a place with such a lively and active music scene.

I feel much the same way about this issue as I felt about the fees I used to pay to show foreign films to community college students. It cost $300 to show an obscure film to the 10-20 students who would show up for the series. Well worth it for the cultural experience, I believe, but also kind of crazy, since they could (but wouldn't) rent most of these at their local video store for $1.99. And the value added was my perspective and brief post-film discussion, which-- my hope-- might make them into lifelong film watchers, or at least not afraid of subtitles.

I hate to say it, but I also feel this way about church music. I know composers write the stuff, and put their time and energy into it. But to charge churches for their congregations to sing a song together on a Sunday morning just doesn't sit right with me. We have a popular composer in the monastery, and I'm very glad she gets paid for her work. But I still think it would be better if all the music we sang each day in liturgy was free. It doesn't sit right with me. To record it, yes, or publish it, yes, but that should be the hymnbook publisher's cost. Once you buy the book, you should be able to sing anything in it anytime you want. But it doesn't work that way. In the Assembly of God church of my youth, this was a major issue. We used an overhead and projected "worship choruses" onto a screen. Pretty quickly that was a licensing issue, and a system was set up to license the songs per use. To this day, my parents' evangelical church projects lyrics via PowerPoint and pay the licensing fee-- no need for books or worship aids printed up for everyone. And licensing fees are paid. I certainly see the rationale, and I'm not even disputing it. It just doesn't sit right with me.

It's music. It's meant to be performed. Everyone should sing! And singing should be free.

No comments: