By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For it is not Chuck Berry but corporations that have turned music -- the sound of falling rain and a young man's howl -- into objects, frozen sound they hope to hold rights to even beyond the solar wind. Here, for example, is how a contract might explain the Company's relation to "Johnny B. Goode": "Each Recording made or furnished to Company by you or the Artist either under this agreement or during the Term (a 'Master Recording' hereunder), from the Inception of Recording, shall be considered a work made for hire for Company."
To "clarify," that contract might add, "The Company shall have the exclusive right to copyright those Master Recordings in Company's name as the author and owner of them and to secure any and all renewals and extensions of copyright." And here's where the spacefaring civilizations might run afoul of terrestrial jurisprudence: "All rights not specifically granted to Licensee by Licensor are expressly reserved to Licensor, in perpetuity, throughout the Universe."
These are all direct quotes from the language of standard music-industry contracts. While the above-quoted terms are especially onerous, they're not unusual in the kinds of legal documents a young artist might be asked to sign while wending his or her way through the machinations of the industry.
Only a lawyer could put these odd documents into context and explain how U.S. copyright's tainted roots reach back into British law, such as 1710's Statute of Queen Anne or 1556's chartering of the Stationer's Company. (The latter sought to prevent "sedition and heretical books, rhymes and treaties" by providing a mere 97 individuals the right to print books and by creating a Stationer's Company to burn the books and destroy the presses of all others.) That same lawyer might also explain how the major labels have, in the wake of Napster's emergence, begun using "artists' rights" as a smoke screen masking their desire to maintain control of artists' copyrights and, through those copyrights, a cartel-like hold on the profits reaped from the distribution of recorded sound.
But I'm no lawyer.
I do realize, though, that it flouts common sense and decency to grant Sony Music, Universal, Warner Bros., et al., rights that extend beyond the solar winds. Better to simply assault an industry that uses dense contracts to gain ownership over an individual's creative work, and better to look to the logic of Chuck Berry, a true author of songs.
In 1955, Berry's label, Chess, signed away a large share of the publishing rights to his classic song "Maybellene" to radio host Alan Freed in exchange for airplay. Berry eventually became so paranoid about being cheated out of such authorship rights that by the '70s he had stopped looking to things like publishing to pay his way. Instead he began demanding prepayment, in cash, before taking the stage. He has, of course, been labeled "difficult."
International conglomerates are not in the music game to do the good thing; when dealing with them, money on the table is the only thing to trust. There should be little sympathy for any pleas from any major label ever. Worrying about them is like heeding the boy who cried wolf, only far more stupid: They are the wolf and they cry and they eat young boys who hold guitars and try their best to hoot and holler their way from the heart of the woods into the solar wind.
With all this in the back of your mind, you can begin to understand why so many look upon using Napster less as theft than as a new inalienable right. When I first tried it, I felt a wave of untrammeled possibility. Where else could I scan through -- without toll -- music I had only heard about and was dying to hear? Where else could my selection not be limited by a record store's shelf space, a record label's promotional budget, or whether a particular store manager thought a particular artist had a pretty smile or nice ass?
How else could I so easily connect the dots among the Georgian bubblegum of Tommy Roe's "Sweet Pea" ("Oh sweet pea/C'mon and dance with me/C'mon c'mon c'mon and dance with me"); Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" ("Forget this dance/Let's go upstairs"); and the foul bounce of DJ Assault's "Ass-N-Titties" ("Ass. Titties./Ass-n-titties./Ass ass titties titties/Ass-n-titties"), all without programming a track, flipping a record or tuning in to some magic station?
What could provide an easier way to relive the sweet release of my old records, like the part in The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" when the verse slams into the chorus? Or the rubber-legged bass runs of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "White Lines" -- a song whose bass lines were lifted from Liquid Liquid's "Cavern," initially with neither permission nor payment?
The more I thought about Napster, the more it seemed to me a distant relative of an earlier, similarly venerated bootleg, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. A collection of long-forgotten hillbilly and race records from the '20s and '30s, the Anthology was a carefully curated collection of unloved 78s drawn from Smith's private stock or lifted from public libraries, then laid end to end. Its 1952 release was made possible by another piece of groundbreaking technology, the then-new long-play record. Again, it was an artistic work assembled with neither permission nor payment. (It was unavailable for decades after various labels came calling for royalties. These were labels that had happily let the original 78s -- by artists most often forgotten or dead -- fall out of print. It took Smith, a fan who died in poverty, to resurrect them.)
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