This afternoon, a music professor from my university took a few of us out for lunch. I was invited along because I’d edited the biographical info for her new CD’s liner notes; the other two professors had translated the lyrics of some English-language songs on the CD to Korean for the liner notes, and coordinated the whole process. Anyway, she took us out for lunch at this amazing little place in Bucheon, the name of which I will have to get. The food was all made with special herbs and leaves and plants grown in places like Kangwon Province and Ulleung island, some of them especially for that restaurant. It was amazing food, great company, and my comprehension of the Korean-language portions of the discussion was better than I’d expected, consider the range of discussion topics.
What was cool was the passion this singer, a coloratura soprano, felt for the music. And the intellectual interest in the intersection of music, culture, and history. Music as art. How often do you get to sit at a table with people who feel that way about music? That it matters?
So anyway, after lunch but with that still hanging thick in my mind, I headed home, wrote an email, and then walked down to my favorite local coffeeshop to grade some student work. Specifically, the last pile of panel discussion reactions, dealing with User Created Content and with the discussion I titled, riffing on a course title by Cory Doctorow, “Are You a Copyright Criminal?”
It’s not rare that I feel I’ve learned something from my students’ reactions. With so many bright minds all plowing into a single topic at once, there are always nuggets I carry off with me. (Which is one reason I want to make the whole “discussion/reaction” thing so much more communal. I need to find a way they can share their reactions and thoughts in a more interactive way, while still writing responses of the quality and length that they’ve been doing so far.
Anyway, someone was writing about copyright and she pointed out that the main reason she doesn’t feel obliged to pay money for music is that she actually gets sick of most popular songs relatively quickly. She raised the question of whether the inclination to downnload without paying for songs might be linked to a decline in the qualityb of popular music in Korea, and something clicked in my head, with regard to all pop music industries around the world. That is: planned obsolence is a killer when suddenly free (or potentially free) alternatives pop up.
In my response to her comment, I wrote, “Well, they don’t make music to last like they used to in 1950… or 1750, that’s for sure.” And it’s true: certainly, the music industry isn’t the only culprit behind the utterly planned, institutionalized obsolesence of popular music today, but at the same time, it’s not blameless. People would be much happier paying for songs if they felt like they would get the same joy from them months, let alone years, later.
Which is not a defense of considering copyright in a blasé manner, but it certainly must go some small way towards explaining why so many people feel so little guilt about downloading songs. In a sense, it’s only a kind of time-reshuffling of the same constancy of exposure to songs that one finds in the rest of their environment. I hear Korean pop songs on the street, on TVs in shops, online, all the time. What’s the difference if I’m hearing them on my MP3 player as well? People will be leery to pay for a product that effectively saturates their environment already, especially when they know they will be sick of it in a few weeks or a month.
And this is not to say that all pop music is disposable crap. This is something I learned only in my 30s, basically, but I’m as willing to pay for quality pop music — stuff I think I will love years down the road — as I am to pay for jazz, for classical music, for any other audio media. but the majority of stuff out there is utterly disposable, and in a way that is necessarily engineered into the music, as well as into the distribution and publicization system. No effort has been made to seek out and bring forth products that will mean as much to someone ten, twenty, forty, or more years later in life.
Art? Sorry, but the whole aspiration to art has been tossed out the window. I’m sorry, but as someone who has looked at and listened to a good sample of the last thousand years of music in the West, and good chunks of non-Western music as well, I can say this with complete confidence: most of what people listen to these days — and take for granted as what we talk about when we talk about music — is a sad case of, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I’m not saying what I like is best. I’m saying some music use to be built like cathedrals or teetering human pyramids, but now a lot of it is designed to be more like Dixie Cups. While not a moral or even necessarily an ethical problem, it is bound to impact on the business of music, and its sustainability…
So when the turkeys come home to roost, who’s going to cry?
I say we build something better on the ruins.