I play a bit of fingerstyle guitar as a hobby, and a while ago I found a nice arrangement of The Tennessee Waltz which I’ve been trying to learn. The other day I went to YouTube to check out some other arrangements. Wow. There’s a smoking version by Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones, a classic Patti Page version, a jazzy version by Kirk Whalum, a soul rendition by Otis Redding, this sweet one by Dan Hardin, and a bunch more. It’s astonishing to be able to sample all these different arrangements. It’s also, very likely, an anomaly. What happened to Napster, and what’s happening to Internet radio, will very likely happen here too.
We can argue until the cows come home about fair use and the appropriate scope of copyright, but the current regime has serious momentum, and significant change could be a long way off.
Meanwhile, a profound new kind of collaboration — enabled by Internet video — is trying to emerge. Sure, you can use Internet video to share cute animal movies1, but you can also use it to share knowledge about lawnmower maintenance or — as Lucas Gonze notes here — guitar playing.
In that post, Lucas reacts to an NPR story about the YouTube takedown of video guitar lessons. And he writes:
When a music publisher prevents musicians from learning a song, they are destroying the value of the song. There’s no reason to learn the Smoke on the Water riff except that everybody else knows it, and cultural ubiquity isn’t possible unless learning is absolutely free and unencumbered. Notice that the song in the original quote is by the Rolling Stones, a band that couldn’t matter less if it weren’t part of pop culture canon.
One result of copyright extremism will be the disappearance of cultural icons like the Rolling Stones. They haven’t contributed anything fresh to the culture for close to forty years, and without third parties reusing their old work in ways that make it fresh they hardly exist. In terms of 2007 pop culture, all those covers of “Paint it black” *are* “Paint it black.”
This is why I am resurrecting 150-year old songs and posting them, along with sheet music, on my blog — it’s possible for those songs to be used as source material for new work.
Although most of my friends disagree with the premise that out-of-copyright material can interest modern audiences, Lucas had me at hello with this project. That’s probably because, though I wouldn’t have thought Episcopal hymns would be toe-tappers, I love to hear — and play — John Fahey’s arrangements of tunes like In Christ There Is No East Or West.
Now I learned that one from a book, so the arrangement is copyrighted by the publisher, although the tune itself is available for reuse. But as I watched and listened to all those different versions of The Tennessee Waltz, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if that dynamic were applied to out-of-copyright tunes. Can more of the old tunes be reborn? If so, will our new ability to share, teach, and learn turbocharge the creative process surrounding them? If so, will that process in turn lead to the production of new tunes? If so, will some of those new tunes achieve cultural ubiquity? If so, will some of those conceivably remain outside the copyright regime?
That’s a whole lot of ifs and, as I said, most of my friends think none of this will ever happen. As for me, I dunno. Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, props to Lucas for having the vision and taking the shot.
1 At 41000 views and climbing steadily, I sometimes worry in dark moments that, when all is said and done, I’ll be known as “the guy who made that cute video with the kittens and the bunnies.”