The Democracy of Music

I spoke in an earlier blog about my love of radio and how I felt that at its best, radio is a very democratic format for music.  Well, I understand that many people see radio as antiquated and impractical.  Why count on frequency modulation (fm) when cables, satellites and wi-fi can bring us music without any noise or interruptions or distance impediments?  Fair enough.

Getting music has never been easier thanks to computers, cables, satellites and wi-fi.  We can access music from anywhere, from any time in a few clicks.  Our hand-held devices can store and play more music than most radio stations have in their libraries.  We are never out of range.  I get it.

My music collection began with 45’s: a small vinyl disc that had a song on each side.  When I could earn money mowing lawns, shoveling snow and doing household chores, I began buying albums.  I loved that they typically had 10-12 songs, many of which I loved but hadn’t heard on the radio.  The artwork was compelling and they often included the lyrics.  They just weren’t very portable.  A large record collection was heavy and records were fragile.  You needed electricity and a record player, many in those days actually doubling as a piece of furniture.  Our solutions were to have record parties and dances. Yes, we actually got together and shared our music (and our “dance moves”).  It was fun.

When you hear “music sharing” today, the law is often in the next thought or phrase.  Lots of criminals have made a ton of money by pirating music and selling it without the rights.  Musicians are understandably upset; those songs are their creations, their intellectual property, and their deepest expressions of feelings.  The music is also their livelihood; it’s how they pay their bills and buy soccer uniforms for their kids.

So computers have made it easier to become a music consumer AND easier to be a music thief.  Are you a music thief if you download from those “free music” sites?  Many would say yes.  Are you guilty if you “burn” a copy of your favorite cd for a friend?  Many would say yes to that as well.  Can we blame computers?  That’s ridiculous.  That’s like blaming Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison for the electric chair.

You can’t blame a tool or technology for its improper use.  Some people will always find a way to commit crimes, and everybody likes easy.  But with only a handful of huge corporations holding all the rights to distribution, transmission and sales to most music these days, you had better be looking over your shoulder. Big money and big business have ways of influencing how law is interpreted. Ever wonder what that Gracenote pop-up on your i-tunes screen is all about?

Records were replaced by 8-track tapes and then cassette tapes for many music consumers.  We made “mix-tapes” from our albums: the best songs, the grooves we wanted, the moods we were trying to capture.  Making them wasn’t easy.  But you didn’t have to stop dancing to flip over the record and you could take your battery-powered player to the beach, the mountains, in the car, anywhere.  If making mix-tapes for my friends had been ruled a crime, I would be serving life without parole.

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