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2009 is the last year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Since we tend to think about history in ten-year chunks, the close of this millennially charged period in music should have special resonance. But, it doesn’t. During the run-up to the Millennium, standard assessment questions – Where are we? Where do we go from here? – caused folks to actually think. Now, the same questions prompt a shrug.
A simplified answer for this is that the anticipation and excitement of experiencing a once in a thousand years event has been replaced with a satiation exemplified by a crammed-full MP3 player. Clearly, the music created since the balmy days of 2000 will be trumped in future histories by advents in access and storage. In the ‘60s, the Revolution in Jazz was on Impulse. Now, it is on YouTube and RapidShare.
There’s no getting around the impact of consumer behavior on the state of jazz or any of its constituent forms of experimental music. And, there’s no denying the magnetism of getting music without paying for it. Factor in the Biblical deluge of material on the Internet and euphemistic terms like “sharing,” and you have an everybody’s-doing-it rationale for a global shredding of intellectual property rights.
One of the more astounding expressions of this childishness is to be found in the cover package of the November issue of The Wire. The generally illuminating Unofficial Channels is comprised of 15 essays that survey a wide spectrum of unauthorized and artist-circulated media. Some of the pieces – including Alan Cummings’ homage to the mystique-laden cassettes of the Japanese psychedelic band, Les Rallizes Dénudés, Peter Shapiro’s salute to hip hop battle tapes, and Derek Walmsley’s survey of homemade Grime DVDs – are prime examples of what The Wire achieves at its best: Spark a Google’s worth of curiosity about forms of music about which you know nothing.
The trouble lies in “Getting it on the download” by Phil Freeman. Freeman tells how, with an interview with Bill Dixon pending and not having access to a copy of the composer/trumpeter’s watershed Intents and Purposes (RCA; 1967), he downloaded the album from an unnamed MP3 blog, one of a rapidly growing number of sites that facilitate the downloading of whole albums. Luckily for Freeman, Dixon is now in his 80s and, reportedly, in declining health. Otherwise, Dixon would have reacted immediately, fiercely and publicly to Freeman’s admission, as Dixon has for decades strenuously indicted album copying and performance taping as theft.
It is here that Freeman’s preened insurgent persona and his loose play with the facts begin to grate. Give Freeman a pass on his assertion in the opening paragraph that Intents and Purposes “has been out of print since 1968;” he’s simply unaware that the album was available for several years beginning in the late ‘70s on French RCA’s epic Black and White series, replete with a sleeve note by Dixon. But, his blanket accusation that major labels let important music disappear, citing, among others, the Columbia recordings of Tim Berne, is kneejerk. Majors like Blue Note and Impulse have done a passable job of keeping its basic-library avant-garde titles in print on an almost continuous basis. Yes, titles fall off the list for months or even a couple of years at a time – Blue Note just announced that Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador! is going out of print again – but that’s because they actually sell out, albeit at a pace that makes regular press runs impractical. Freeman also ignores the majors’ substantial track record of licensing be it ECM’s repackaging of Verve’s radical Jimmy Guiffre 3 albums or Koch Jazz’s reissues of the aforementioned Berne albums.
Freeman then egregiously characterizes India Navigation and Artists House – respectively run by Bob Cummins and John Snyder, two bona fide stand-up guys – as “fly-by-night” labels. True, Cummins, a lawyer, did not reissue his entire catalog on CD before losing his battle against cancer in 2000; but, in addition to a having a solid reputation with some of the tougher-bargaining artists of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, he ably represented musicians facing legal and contractual problems and he selflessly saved at least one other label from ruin when he salvaged their stock during the New Music Distribution Service meltdown; without Cummins’ intervention, this label’s highly esteemed avant-garde catalog most likely would be languishing in obscurity instead of being widely available on CD. When he ran Artists House, Snyder worked on a completely cooperative basis with artists like Ornette Coleman, who maintained full ownership of their recordings; several, including Coleman and David Liebman, have exercised these rights, the latter reissuing his Artists House recordings as recently as this year.
Pair Freeman’s characterizations of Cummins and Snyder with his calling the MP3 blogging of entire catalogs – including those of artist-owned labels like Strata-East – “quasi-bootlegging,” and you begin to appreciate how Freeman’s knowledge gaps, occasional lapses into fabrication (he refers to reissue-deserving Marion Brown albums on MPS, a label conspicuously absent in the saxophonist’s discographies) and situational ethics would lead him to ask two extraordinarily adolescent questions: “(I)s it possible to steal something that no one is offering for sale? Who’s being harmed by the digital dissemination of audio from an out of print album?” The answer to the first is an unequivocal Yes. Contrary to Freeman’s answer-with-a-question to his own second question, it is the artists who are harmed, not “(t)he proprietor of a used record store somewhere in Paris or Chicago, whose lone, spine-split copy of Noah Howard’s Space Dimension will sit a little longer on the shelf, because the free jazz hipster who might have purchased it has instead downloaded it from Rapidshare.”
Freeman concludes with the good faith suggestion that labels monitor MP3 blogs, assess which of their out-of-print titles are most frequently downloaded, and, seeing the demand for specific titles or artists, reissue the relevant albums. But Freeman has it backwards: MP3 blogs don’t measure or create demand; they satisfy it. The idea that someone with a freeloaded MP3 file will then spend $20 for a legitimate CD is a serious misreading of consumer behavior, particularly in the current brutal economic environment. Subsequently, given the real threat downloads pose to labels large and small, such an exercise is more likely to activate the majors’ legal departments than its reissue teams, presuming the latter haven’t already been pink-slipped.
Advocates of MP3 blogging argue the absence of downloading fees is absolving, that their actions are a service, if not a mission. The absence of fees is merely mitigating. Still, burying a few bloggers alive in legal fees and judgments would be counterproductive, driving freeloading deeper underground, but without substantially slowing its pace. MP3 bloggers would be wise to further inoculate themselves – at least in the court of public opinion – by requiring users to make contributions to organizations supporting jazz musicians in need such as The Jazz Federation of America or the locally-focused, Philadelphia-based Jazz Bridge Project. It many cases, it is next to impossible to find artists or their estates to pay them a few bucks when their albums are freeloaded; but surely users can pay it forward with each download.
If there’s credence to Freeman’s throw-down that “(t)he existence of MP3 blogs proves the existence of an audience for avant garde jazz,” then whole-album bloggers can demonstrate how much positive economic activity they can muster through such a donation system. If the numbers are large enough, it will motivate interested parties to develop not a structure for squatter’s rights, but one that shields bloggers who cross a verifiable Good Samaritan threshold. Currently, however, whatever contributions to community the MP3 bloggers might claim are overshadowed by their exploitation of musicians.
This is not, as Freeman proclaims with his final flourish, a situation we should “embrace.” On the contrary, it is one that we need to change.