Thursday, June 20, 2013

Black Sabbath: 13

Black Sabbath: 13
Get it here.

     I grew up lower middle class in a mostly white New Jersey suburb in the 1980s. Generally speaking, two musical communities influenced me there. The first was the high school concert band and its various offshoots (marching band, pit band, a weak attempt at a “jazz” band). The second was the high school metal scene. Officially, I belonged to the former group—playing bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and piano. I liked it because it was my first exposure to “serious” and complicated ensemble music—we had a somewhat adventurous bandleader, who programmed pieces by Hindemith, and the overture to Bernstein’s Candide, for instance. But secretly, I wanted to be one of the metal kids. Many of them were great musicians—especially the ones who took it seriously enough to form their own bands, to develop “chops,” to get real gigs, and, presumably, to pick up other trappings of the lifestyle. It felt like we concert band kids were still, to some extent, playing by the rules, no matter how strange the music we made. The metal kids had gone farther in creating their own subculture. When I finally got around to forming my own musical projects, I always felt honored when one of them was involved—I took it as a compliment, proof of the music’s viability.
     All of which may explain the vested interest I feel in the reception of Black Sabbath’s latest album, 13 (possibly their last album, given guitarist Tony Iommi’s cancer). Sabbath was the quintessential metal band in my neighborhood. I say this fully cognizant of how fraught it is for me, a jazz composer—albeit one who shuns genre—to claim an affinity with metal. It can be annoying when “art music” people profess such affections—not because it’s inauthentic, but because it implies an extra-musical agenda, in which one music has deigned to legitimize the other. It reminds me of the impulse to push back against the “jazz was born in the brothels” myth. That’s a valuable counter-narrative, insofar as it responds to a racist stereotype of sexualized black musical creativity. But the same gesture implies a problematic need to rationalize our musical pleasure—as if we couldn’t truly care about the music if it didn’t have the appropriate pedigree.
     What if some early jazz took its cues from the transgressive mores of a culture that permitted brothels—even if it did not literally emerge from within their walls? And what if some metal has precious little relevance for jazz? Would either music be less valuable? Hardly. I don’t have to love 13 because Tony Iommi’s playing is “jazzy.” I love it because of how it helps me come to terms with my own musical history. Indeed, the older I get, the more that effect trumps any question of artistic “greatness.” Does 13 “need to be good?” H. P. Taskmaster asks in a thoughtful critique. Taskmaster is ultimately a little coy about the question, but for me the answer is no. The album doesn’t need to be anything. At this point in my life, having listened to probably tens of thousands of musical works, I can think of no more tedious thing to ask about any one of them than whether it is good or not. I care about music because I care how it makes me feel. What does being “good” have to do with that?
     To me, 13 sounds like high school. And while I don’t miss high school even a little, there are aspects of it that I recall fondly, because I survived. That’s how I excuse the album’s crisp, too-clean digital sheen—very unlike early Sabbath, but not at all unlike the 80s, when the overproduction of pop seemed to trickle down to all genres. And even through that veneer, something about the band still sounds, to quote Ozzy Osbourne, like “a lucky bunch of guys that got together and something magical happened.” (This even though one of the original “bunch of guys,” drummer Bill Ward, is sadly not on the album). I hear echoes of the metal kids I knew, and still know, in this music. I hear their conversations, their taste in clothing and food, their general aesthetic and philosophical interests. It’s not all my cup of tea, but I know it; it’s a real cultural reference point for me, and it’s good to be reminded of that. And there is something endearing about the mix of grandiose and simple—from the parallel fifths of the opening four notes to the psychedelic blues of “Damaged Soul” to the unwieldy song structures to the more-minor-than-thou harmonic sensibility to Osbourne’s nearly punk monotone (I always preferred him for this band) to the heavy lifting done by the monstrously good playing of Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler. 
     I understand how the album might be disappointing to some. Unrealistic expectations being what they are, how could it be otherwise? In their heyday, Black Sabbath gave voice to hopelessness—but they also gave the false impression that doing so was in itself a way out of hopelessness. And 13 may be proof that there is no way out. More than forty years after Sabbath’s debut, and after four decades of their noisy resistance, the world retains its bleakness. How could this new music help but sound less rebellious, and more of a dead end?
     Maybe the seeds of that disappointment were there all along. In my first year of college I had some clean-cut ROTC dorm-mates who locked themselves in their room every Saturday night, watching Headbangers’ Ball loud enough that you could hear it down the hall. (I only know this because I usually didn’t have much to do on Saturday nights either.) It was a little creepy, but metal could seem like that—immature masculine rage locked in a dorm room on a Saturday night. That dumb earnestness has doomed much of it to ironic appreciation now, tossed into the hipster dustbin with trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
     Call me naïve, but I say one of the strengths of 13 is that it resists irony, in spite of its bombast—in spite even of the album title, emblazoned in flames on the front cover, just in case you missed the symbolism. Rather, it’s a record that lives defiantly, in the face of its own mortality. And that’s enough. Whether or not it is high art (or even decent metal) hardly matters; all it is, and all it needs to be, is a testament to itself. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It

Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It
Tight Natural Production 101
Get it here.

     I am ashamed to say that though I lived in LA for ten years, I never crossed paths with the band once known as “The Negro Problem,” and now as “Stew & the Negro Problem” (highlighting the role of front man Mark Stewart, who co-writes most of the band’s music with bassist Heidi Rodewald). I have some recollection of them on the cover of a local alt-rock music rag in the late nineties, but as I was primarily interested in such publications for their sociological interest (rather than for their aesthetic advice), I never took the bait. 
     Fast forward a decade and a half, and I’m sitting in my living room, scanning aimlessly through Netflix. I find something called Passing Strange (2008). Strangely, I almost pass. But the blurb indicates it is about a musician, so I’m curious. The blurb says nothing about it being a musical; about it being an offshoot of a cult LA band; or about it being as riveting as it was (due at least in part to Spike Lee’s tight direction, and a superlative cast). I watch and listen in one sitting; I buy the album; I am hooked. The show is deeply tuneful—most every song sticks, like Ben Folds’ music at its best. It’s also a bittersweet Bildungsroman and a witty cultural commentary. But it's more, too. As a kid, I learned a lot about collective music making from doing community theater, but was frustrated by the plastic turn Broadway had taken in the 80s and 90s. Passing Strange is welcome evidence that musicals can still be good in the wake of that era, in this case by opening up to the gritty narcissism of rock. (If only more Broadway composers would take the Stew character’s lead when he sings: “I let my pain fuck my ego and I called the bastard art.”)

     It has been a month or two since I discovered S&TNP, and I haven’t yet caught up with all of their music. I’m working on it, though. After Passing Strange I moved on to their debut, Post-Minstrel Syndrome (1997), which did not disappoint, packed as it is with power pop, and plenty of axes to grind. That one actually made me wish I could go back in time, to hear it in its original context, when I was still a faltering graduate student, new to LA and unsure of how to balance my academic and artistic lives. Struggling to form the band that would eventually become the IJG, I would have drawn sustenance from lines like “What does Robert Hilburn know about rock and roll?” (Hilburn was the LA Times pop music critic at the time; I didn’t like his writing much.) I would have fallen in love with the eerily psychedelic “Submarine Down,” the punchy New Wave anthem “Buzzing,” and the hushed rage of “Doubting Uncle Tom” (“Just got out of surgery
/ Mother University
/ But last night in my dream I saw
/ Garvey on the cross
/ Woke up and called my mom
/ Doubting Uncle Tom”). No matter; it says something about the power of these songs that I’m able to fall in love with them all these years later.

     More recently I tried the band’s latest, Making It (2012). Informed by the romantic (but not artistic) breakup of Stew and Rodewald, this one was initially a bit harder to warm to. At first listen, I think I agreed with Noel Murray’s assessment that it was “overworked lyrically and underdeveloped musically.” I found myself asking, for instance, how many rhymes for the word “nurse” does one song (“Pretend”) really need? (The answer? Six—“hearse,” “worse,” “converse,” “terse,” “purse,” and “curse.” And that last is repeated five times, just for good measure.) Too much of the album seemed to bog down in that kind of nervous obsession, obscured by Stew’s gift for aphorism, and by an overabundance of four-bar phrases.
     And yet there was a rationale too. The case is made elsewhere in “Pretend,” when Stew sings of needing “a stupid song to pull me through, like a childhood dog when you had the flu.” It’s the logic of McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” or Sting’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” but in reverse—tilted toward misery, an attempt to purge a bad feeling by wallowing in it. While other themes are treated on this record—race (the acerbic “Black Men Ski”), drugs (“Speed,” which rivals Lou Reed’s “Heroin” in its evocation of what it’s like to be in the grip of chemically-induced self destruction), and culture (“Suzy Wong,” a stream-of-consciousness meditation on power and sexuality)—it is the backdrop of interpersonal crisis that gives Making It its bite, and, finally, its appeal. In the end, that title seems less as some critics have assumed—a comment on the broader success the band attained with Passing Strange (which in my opinion still has not gotten the attention it deserves)—and more a way of documenting the process of just surviving.

     Survival depends on identity—and that’s probably the biggest theme in S&TNP’s work. But identity can be hard to forge. Stew is a Black guy who happens to be more comfortable as a rocker than as a hip-hop or R&B artist; on top of that he’s quirky as hell. Rodewald too seems committed to her own path; one can only imagine what it takes to stay in a band with an ex-lover, and to have your former relationship with him publicly analyzed in performance after performance. Together they are an interracial co-ed songwriting team; surely one of the more unlikely scenarios in the annals of art rock. Yet their writing is not merely a quest for uncompromising self-definition, but also for unconditional acceptance. Thus they brilliantly answer what I consider the primary challenge of underground rock: how to write music that people like without giving the impression that you want them to like iteven though, of course, you do?
     We are entitled to wonder why a band that can pull off such a sophisticated trick as that has yet to attain the acclaim of contemporaries like the aforementioned Folds (or Spoon, or Radiohead, or Elliot Smith, or the Flaming Lips). In a culture that can momentarily break free of its past by electing a Black president, while devoting a significant portion of its national conversation to idiotic suspicions about his legitimacy, the answer may seem too obvious, and too familiar. The “Negro Problem” is really America’s problem—our inability, or unwillingness, to embrace the range of beauty of which we are capable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To see and be seen

“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”

(Edward Snowden)

“We must be prepared to find, therefore, that the patient yields to the compulsion to repeat, which now replaces the impulsion to remember.”

(Sigmund Freud)

     Last Thursday, my beautiful wife performed in a tap dance recital at our local community center, with a large crowd of supportive friends and family in attendance. Before the recital, it was agreed that I would make a video recording of the evening. Since we have a daughter who is in third grade, I’m no stranger to the documentary possibilities of modern consumer grade video technology—the sheer volume of data you can record, how easily you can edit it, how easily you can store and share it.
     All of that power comes with a cost, though. Sometimes when I find myself behind the camera at an event or outing, I have to resist a nagging thought: am I really experiencing the thing I am filming? We have one of those cameras with a three-inch LCD monitor, so you can see what is being recorded without having to shove your eye up against the viewfinder. It’s a neat feature, but it creates the false impression that you can actually step back from the device, and just enjoy the experience as any other audience member would. In practice, the moment you step back from the device is the moment your wife dances out of the frame. So long as the camera is in your hand, and you have something to film, and you take that mission seriously, you are trapped in the role of “camera operator”—beholden to the tiny screen, and its rendering of the machine’s real-time copy of the performance. You may became so wrapped up in that puny facsimile that when the thing you are filming is over, you feel as though you missed it—even though you had been there, front and center, the whole time.
     I certainly felt that way on Thursday—thrilled by the dance but unsettled by the technology. This even though I knew full well that ultimately there was no ideal audience experience that looking at the LCD screen could have been unfavorably compared to. What would it have meant for me to “really” experience the dancers’ dance? Let’s say I had imposed upon a friend to film it for us, or decided to purchase the DVD that the arts center staff would be making. That would have freed me to focus my own eyes directly on the dancers—but I would still be in my uncomfortable seat, in a hot auditorium, fielding whispered questions from my nine-year-old, and trying not to accidentally kick over the cup of coffee that was on the floor beneath my chair. And suppose for the sake of argument that I could have escaped all of those distractions? The most perfect possible experience of the dance would still be the copy that my brain wanted to show me, only made up of firing neurotransmitters rather than liquid crystals.
     Perhaps the problem—the unsettling feeling—isn’t the elusiveness of authentic experience, but the mania for documentation. Or perhaps the two are related—maybe a deep, immitigable fear of missing the “real thing” leads us to want to use the new tools at our disposal to make as many copies as we can, in a vain attempt to know a thing from every possible angle. Maybe it no longer matters which angle is best.
     So is that unsettling, or beautiful? To sit in that dance recital audience was to see the old idea of integrated reality exploded into a thousand reference points. From the back row you could direct your attention to the stage, or to any of the other LCD screens on any of the other cameras being anxiously thrust into the air alongside mine. One person in the front row even had a Skype feed going, streaming the show to an elderly relative. In that sea of bobbing, glowing devices, somehow we had all been compelled to follow the same unspoken fiat: copy everything. Were we looking into the future?

Friday, June 07, 2013

Mike Keneally: Wing Beat Fantastic

Mike Keneally: Wing Beat Fantastic
Exowax 2413
Get it here.

(H/T to Jason Crane, who first alerted me to the existence of this record in a post on his own blog.)

I first came to Mike Keneally’s music through long-time IJG member Evan Francis, who played in Keneally’s band, Beer for Dolphins. (Coincidentally, Evan contributes clarinet to one track on Wing Beat Fantastic.) This was around 2000. I was already a serious Frank Zappa fan, but had yet to get to the later albums, or at least the ones that featured Keneally—the guy Zappa referred to as his “stunt guitarist.” Yet I was immediately attracted to the measured exuberance of the man’s playing, and indeed his whole approach to music. Like many Zappa alumni, that approach seemed driven by an underlying aesthetic omnivorousness, even (sometimes) to the point of liability. Perhaps there’s a downside to being so enormously talented—when you’re able to do everything, is it easier to lose focus?

Yet the first thing I noticed about Wing Beat Fantastic was its gorgeous coherence. “This is a nebulous term, but to me it really feels like an album,” as Keneally puts it on his website. Could that have been the influence of his collaborator, the famously picky Andy Partridge, of the British band XTC? Hard to say: collaboration is always obfuscatedeven, or perhaps especially, to those doing it. Here’s mundane evidence of that confusion: the liner notes and the back cover of this album credit a few of the tracks differently. (“Land,” for instance, is credited to Keneally/Partridge in the booklet; on the back cover it is credited only to Keneally.) But keeping a tally of these things is a ruse anyway; we write differently just by having someone else in the room, whether or not she overtly contributes a note. Best to assume it is all collaboration.

By “coherence” I do not mean that all of the tracks do the same thing. Some are comparatively brief instrumental interludes, dropped throughout the album just frequently enough to allow us to savor the songs proper. And one of those, “You Kill Me,” is much sharper than its companions. Incongruously cloaked in the bright colors of lilting, tight pop, it treads a line between cynicism and something more like despair—a tension captured in the double entendre of the title, which we can hear as both slang for being brought to laughter or surprise, and an implication of literal violence. When Keneally sings, “I don’t mean to vote for you, but your machine will fix it so I do,” we may recognize ourselves, trapped like flies in the amber of twenty-first century political inertia. (Do we want “it” to be fixed? Well, that depends on what you mean by “fix.”)

That sting is salved by several of the more impressionistic songs, by a child-like wonder at words (“Inglow / snow motion snow crow / Inglow / Did we ebb and flow there?”), by a melodic richness, and by one track in particular, which captures the oddly tender spectacle of a middle-aged man yearning for companionship, while he is simultaneously self-conscious enough to tread lightly. This is the poignant “Your House,” an awkward snapshot of courtly love on par with other masterpieces of modern art song (McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” all come to mind). “What if you should see me here?” Keneally asks, his voice rising as he stands outside the home of an anonymous and none-the-wiser beloved, suddenly sensing his own ridiculousness. Is it self-awareness that causes him to “whirl blue and disappear”? We are left only with the failure to connect; “I won’t be back again,” the song concludes.

Guitarists will at least appreciate, but more likely adore, the power and intricacy of Keneally’s handling of the instrument on this record. Texturalists will respond similarly to his production; the album is full of subtle sonic details, and while headphone listening is not essential, it is rewarded. Of course, we all listen for what we can take from music, even if what we take is partly of our own making. In my case, the recordings I love best are usually the ones that compel me to go straight to the piano and start working on something that sounds like that—first a clone, then an homage, then a distant relative (but a relative nonetheless). Last week, I hadn’t written pop music in a while. This week, Wing Beat Fantastic has already changed that.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Reviewing: a rationale

Now that I have returned to blogging I’m thinking of writing about my own experiences with art again. I’m going to try posting semi-regular reviews (mostly of music, maybe some film and books) in this space soon. I have no intention of turning JtMoU into a proper review site per se; please don’t send requests! (I already get inquiries from publicists every few days; I have no idea why.) Instead, I will more or less follow my whims.

But I should probably clarify my decision to review anything at all. Why do it? I have had enough negative things to say about the culture of music reviewing, both on this blog and in my book, that a reader is certainly entitled to be surprised to see me participating in it, even if only occasionally.

Here’s my philosophy. I generally think reviews are misleading in terms of their implicit goal of helping to delineate between the “best” and “worst” in culture. The underlying flaw with the genre is that aesthetic perception is always subjective—a platitude that is rarely followed to its logical conclusion. We can’t speak authoritatively about how other people experience art, so how can we know what is authentically “good art”? The best we can do is make claims for our own experience—and even there, thanks to the limitations of language, and our poor understanding of the human mind, we inevitably lack clarity.

Here are the six reviews I wrote for All About Jazz back in the aughts. They are nice enough examples of the genre, but they also suffer from the problems I’m describing. Take, for example, my piece on Jean-Michel Pilc’s Follow Me. “A former scientist,” I wrote, “Pilc plays with a precision that in places is reminiscent of Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. More importantly (and also like Evans and Peterson) he avoids sounding dry or academic despite the fact that he rarely misses a note.”

What exactly does “dry” piano music sound like? Does it have to do with the attack? Note selection? Timing? Recording quality? And why should one not want to sound that way? It’s amazing how many unstated assumptions fit into that one little word. And it’s more amazing how the unstated assumptions pile up as I go from phrase to phrase: What is musical “precision”? What would it mean for a jazz musician to “miss a note”? And why is any of this “important”?

The standard response to such questions is either to tautologically cite the record as an example of the thing the record is supposed to be, or to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But that’s a cop-out: if we can’t talk about it, why did you bring it up in the first place? Could it be that the review helps to create the context in which a work can be enjoyed—that it helps to construct the pleasure you attribute solely to the music? Would you have liked the album well reviewed by a respected reviewer if you had heard it before reading the review? That’s a counterfactual problem in every case, but I can’t help but think that sometimes the answer is definitely no.

My complaint is not that all of this is necessarily a bad thing, or that I have a better idea for how reviews should be done. It’s just that writers and readers pay little attention to how the genre actually works. Good writers, I think, understand the influence their work can have, particularly if they are widely read. But there is the danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from that influence: of coming to believe your own rhetoric, rather than accepting it for the flight of fancy it is.

If I am to post reviews here, I need you to understand that I have no illusions that my opinions on art matter any more than yours, just because I happen to be lucky enough to have this space, and some readers, and a willingness to work hard enough to put words together in a moderately pretty way. My reasons are baser: I write for the pleasure of it. I find that if I enjoy a recording (and sometimes if I don’t), I will usually enjoy writing about it. And there’s a blatantly self-serving utility to the enterprise: it helps me keep track of my listening (which is out of control most of the time), and gives me the false but comforting impression of having made sense of my affections.

If my reviews inspire you to check out the art I write about, great. When that has happened in the past, it has been personally flattering, and felt vaguely like an accomplishment. But that’s not the reason I do it.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems

So apparently we are now to be treated to another reconsideration of copyright law (my life has been so busy of late that I completely missed this announcement last month). The basic question facing Representative Goodlatte and the Judiciary Committee, I presume, will be whether current copyright law (much of which is still fairly new) is well suited for the (rest of the?) digital age. Here’s my prediction of how things will go: the RIAA, MPAA, and other rights holding institutions will argue that copyright is not strong enough. Google, Pandora, Spotify, and other new technology companies will argue that it is too strong. Artists and audiences will be caught in the middle, while prominent commentators (professional and otherwise) will have a new chance to vent, sometimes childishly. Someone somewhere will be unhappy when the whole thing is over.

Change happens fast; faster, perhaps, than anyone expects. How easy it is to lose sight of the ways things were. It is one thing to be annoyed by the occasional glibness and snark of the Free Culture folks (which I am, even though I find myself in philosophical agreement with that movement, most of the time)—but how much more frustrating it is to have to deal with the revisionism of the other side. Consider writer and filmmaker David Newhoff, who runs the blog The Illusion of More. In a recent post on the abovementioned hearings, Newhoff castigates Google and its peers, who have betrayed a mania for consolidating their own ridiculous power. It’s a mostly valid critique. Still, Newhoff’s framing of the issue is woefully incomplete. In taking on big technology, Newhoff argues that the “copyright system” (a phrase that comes close to reifying a body of law that has in fact been revised numerous times since its inception) produced “more than two centuries of tremendous social and economic benefit.” That generalization nearly took my breath away. Elsewhere, Newhoff insists that though the powers that be, acting under the imprimatur of said system, may have made mistakes in the recent past (e.g. the “RIAA lawsuits of the aughts”), those are to be taken off the table when considering what to do about copyright law going forward.

How easily we forget. The RIAA lawsuits of the aughts were not an accidental moral detour in an otherwise honest journey. They were, rather, symptomatic of a chronic commercial psychopathology: the bitter and predictable result of a long history of power tripping by recording industry elites. Evidence falls to the ground like overripe fruit: from the in-your-face pushiness of Tin Pan Alley song pluggers (see for instance David Suisman’s Selling Sounds), to the industry’s mob-inflected golden years (see for instance Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men), to the genre of anti-music-business music that emerged in the 1960s (see for instance the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”), to the BPI’s paranoid anti-home-taping campaign of the 1980s (see for instance the scathing parodies it inspired), to the scare tactics meant to demonize bootleg culture (see for instance Clinton Heylin’s Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry), to the strain of mediocre, pre-fabricated “product” that came to a head in the nineties, and was a strong incentive for the many kids who flocked to Napster in the first place. (I remember that last argument very clearly: Who wants to get stuck buying an entire album, when the popular bands mostly seemed to care about producing songs, only a few of which were any good?)

I don’t mean to single out Newhoff (whose blog I actually enjoy, even though I disagree with much of what he writes). In his selective sense of history, he is by no means alone among those who would see copyright strengthened. Last year, David Lowery included a similarly naïve vision of the past in his much-circulated open letter to an NPR intern. Lowery made some pretty fishy claims in that piece, not the least of which concerned the standard recording industry contract, which, in his telling, had suddenly morphed into a benign, artist-friendly document. According to the typical deal, Lowery wrote, “if there are no or insufficient record sales,” an artist’s advance “is written off by the record company.” Really? Colin Frangel, in a trenchant response, turned this fantasy right way round by reminding us of how many rich doo-wop musicians there are (“That’s right, none”). The sad truth is that most doo-wop artists, most blues artists, most jazz artists, most country artists, most pop artists—most of the great musicians in all genres—ended up as economic casualties of the twentieth century culture machine that Lowery was defending, victims of creative accounting and underhanded legalese. A mere decade and a half into the new century, and all we want to remember are the old system’s success stories?

Now, I know the Internet is supposed to be a rough place, but I’m prepared to give both Lowery and Newhoff the benefit of the doubt. They do fall into the trap of revisionism, but both men are artists themselves, and I suspect their intentions are good—driven by a keen awareness of the current situation on the ground, which is undeniably dicey for anyone trying to make a living in the arts. RIAA attorney Steven Marks, on the other hand, ends up in the same trap, but not by falling; he jumps. In a recent Wisconsin Law Review article critiquing the idea that copyright limits innovation, Marks claims that record companies have been “a critical part of the creative process,” because “record company employees scout hundreds of thousands of artists, help develop repertoire for recordings, and actively participate in the recording process.” 

That is certainly an ideal vision of how things could work. But it is not a vision that exactly aligns with the experience of those who have gone on record to complain about the industry. Would Marks say that testimony was delusional? Is Steve Albini (cited also by Frangel) talking nonsense in the opening paragraph of his well-known 1990s screed?

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke.” And he does of course.
What about Hunter S. Thompson, who also described the culture industry as a trench? Granted, Thompson was not talking about the music business, as is usually assumed. But in a way it hardly matters. The viral adaptability of that telling phrase—"a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps runs free," indeed—says something about its relevance.

As we evaluate copyright law, we should push back against attempts to portray the musical culture of the past as one big happy family of endless aesthetic bliss. With any luck, that pushback can remind us of something else, something about which I am in agreement with Newhoff and Lowery: any discussion of the future of copyright should include the input of artists, not just the giant corporations who have a financial stake in the matter. And that inclusion should be honest and complete, taking into account more than the material impact of piracy, problematic as that impact is. We need to think carefully about where art comes from in the first place, and what sort of system best “promotes” its “progress” (to cite the language of the original copyright clause). That's a subject for another post, but the bottom line is that people who define themselves as creative professionals are in a unique position to testify about the time-honored artistic value of sharing art—the very activity copyright is increasingly concerned with restricting. That too is an important form of remembering.