Friday, April 30, 2010

Ethics vs. Law

Sleepers Awake!I was surprised by Randy Cohen's Ethicist column in the recent Sunday New York Times Magazine about the ethics of media piracy. Since the woman who wrote in had bought a hardcover copy of the new Stephen King novel and the publisher had decided to withhold the e-book version (to increase hardcover sales), the columnist decided her piracy of the e-book was illegal but ethical.

The dilemma this woman faced isn't unique though it's typically couched in terms of fairness or usability. However reframing the debate about digital media format-shifting as ethics vs. legality gets to the crux of the issue for me.

Today I was making a mix CD and a few of the songs were iTunes files. There are easy ways of breaking digital rights management protection on iTunes files, but the ones I tried weren't working. I had bought the songs - so the artists were paid - and I wanted to share them but couldn't because of the DRM. Which it's illegal for me to break. Now, if I'd ripped my own CDs, then turning these songs into mp3s would be easy and questionably-legal-but-ignorable. In short, there's no way to legally share those songs. For those that try to answer this need, well, the experience of muxtape is a cautionary tale.

Once you start thinking about all the ways people use music, it's not hard to think of other cases where what seems like a perfectly reasonable consumer desire is illegal. What about DJs who buy vinyl and then pirate mp3s? Some manufacturers bundle mp3s with vinyl to cater to that audience, but the rest are violating copyright law. Even President Obama most likely violated copyright law to give an ipod with some showtunes to the Queen of England.

Predictably, Randy Cohen's remarks inspired blog posts with lots of comments wherein each person placed the line between legality and ethics in a slightly different spot. They're an interesting bunch of comments though precisely because so many of them recognize that there is a difference between legality and ethics.

What most people want to do with their music is pretty simple: listen to it, share it with their friends (not the world), and listen to it again in another place/on another gadget. Readers will want essentially the same thing. It's odd to me that any industry would proactively choose to make their consumers become pirates to get a product that they're selling.

To be continued as the film and book world wade into the bog...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Positive Feedback

YeasayerI went to a couple of shows recently where I found myself thinking about how much venue choice impacts the audience, which in turn impacts the musician's performance.

First show in question: The Holmes Brothers played The Barns at Wolftrap. The Holmes Brothers are friends from my days working at their management/booking agency Concerted Efforts. I used to do advance work on their dates, traveled with them when they went to Singapore, and I'm a fan as well so I go whenever they're in town - to say hello and get my musical fix. They're a blues/gospel/R&B trio known for their three-part harmonies, a killer take of Amazing Grace, and a style that zigzags between sacred and secular. The Barns is a beautiful, great-sounding, converted barn in Virginia not far from DC that holds 300ish in a seated room. I'd never been there before because it's not accessible by public transport.

The key word in that description is seated. The more concerts I attend and put on, the more I believe there's no better way to kill the energy in a popular music performance than to make everyone sit down. Even if you can have a drink in your seat.

Of course, whether the venue is seated or general admission is only one of many factors that go into which venue an artist plays: which venues are available, how big are they, where are they, is the date standalone or part of a longer tour, how is the tour routed, who else is playing in town that night, how recently has the band played the area, what's the ticket price, who's the intended audience...and hardly least of the factors: how much does the venue want to pay the artist.

The second show in question: I saw Yeasayer at the 930 Club a few days later. Yeasayer is the "it" band of the moment and the show had been sold out for weeks in advance. (I scalped a face value ticket in front of the club the night of the show.) The place was packed with people who wanted to dance. But there was no room to dance because it was too crowded. This isn't strictly the club's fault because some government third party sets capacity on a performing space, but have you noticed that club capacity according to fire code is always so much more than seems possible?

So much of live music is about the exchange of energy between musician and audience, where each feeds the other to create a unique experience. Which is why I get annoyed when people are forced to chair dance because dampening that exchange of energy doesn't serve either artist, audience or venue.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


ParasolsBack from New Orleans trip #6 and it feels refreshed this time. As in previous posts, I was there to hang out with a smart, thoughtful, committed group of musicians about activism for a few days culminating in a fantastic rock show at One Eyed Jacks.

Our opening night party at Mother-in-Law Lounge had the best pick-up band of all time with George Porter, Jr. from The Meters, Terrence Higgins from Rebirth Brass Band, three members of Bonerama, keyboardist Brian Coogan, a crawfish boil, and lots of dancing.

Other highlights: meeting David Montana, the Second Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe (read more - my photos were taken with permission), visiting Ronald Lewis and a Mardi Gras Indian and Social Aid & Pleasure Club Museum called The House of Dance & Feathers and po-boys. Leah Chase made the best dinner I've ever had at the legendary Dooky Chase restaurant. From there the night segued into wild dancing to the Stooges Brass Band (listen here) at the Hi-Ho Lounge and a nightcap of beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde.

I know it's easy to forget about New Orleans when it's been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina and there have been earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, and China, a tsunami in Southeast Asia, not to mention all the smaller and man-made disasters that don't inspire telethons. But New Orleans is ours - the music community's and America's. It's the birthplace of so much American music and we stand to lose a part of what makes us unique if we let it slip away for lack of effort.

Just over a year post-storm, my first trip was so devastating it was hard to imagine that the sky was ever bright over that city. I'm sure it was sunny but my memories of that trip look like this.

This time around I could see progress. Brad Pitt's and Global Green's houses don't look as lonely as they did last time. There is, of course, still plenty to do and there's plenty of anger that it's still undone. There are still people living in Houston and elsewhere. The economic downturn has no doubt slowed down the recovery process. Still, there were also fewer houses with spray paint on them, more traffic, more people out, the sounds of construction, and a feeling of normalcy and hope all around.