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Soundcheck: Between the binary

Music is what we’re made of. Let that one sink in.

Last week, T Bone Burnett – musician, songwriter, record producer, proud owner of enough Grammy Awards to cover the most substantial of mantelpieces – stood before a room full of music industry folks gathered in Washington, D.C. and dropped a few verbal mind-bombs.

Speaking as a representative of the Music First Coalition, Burnett’s remarks aimed to support the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, which, in Music First’s parlance, “establishes free market pay for all music creators, and creates fair, technology-neutral rules for music services,” a jargon-heavy way of suggesting that today’s terrestrial radio market is getting away with paying lesser, and in some cases, zero performance royalties to artists, particularly if their music was recorded prior to February 15, 1972, the cut-off date for recordings covered under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The idea that terrestrial radio should be forced to follow the same royalty guidelines as digital and satellite radio seems like a no-brainer, and the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, currently before Congress, has the support of a wide variety of artists – many of them, not surprisingly, older artists whose pre-1972 recordings comprise their life’s most significant work.

Burnett - whose resume includes a tenure on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, and production credits for the likes of John Mellencamp, Elton John, Diana Krall  and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, among dozens of others – made several salient points during his impassioned speech in support of the passage of FPFPA. But what he did most effectively was bring a sort of poetry, an almost metaphysical bent, to the discussion, as if what he truly sought to do was point out to all of us what has been sacrificed in our complete devotion to the digital world.

“Beneath the subatomic particle level, there are fibers that vibrate at different intensities,” Burnett said as he entered the core of his speech.

“Different frequencies. Like violin strings. The physicists say that the particles we are able to see are the notes of the strings vibrating beneath them. If string theory is correct then, music is not only the way our brains work, as the neuroscientists have shown, but also, it is what we are made of, what everything is made of. These are the stakes musicians are playing for.”

One might argue that Burnett is taking a leap of logic here, by equating String Theory with the idea that we are all made of vibrations, and therefore, of music. To which I’d respond, “Thank god someone is bothering to take such a leap.”

Burnett clearly takes the Romantic view of music, technology and the gaping chasm between them, that space where, one might extrapolate, the true meaning of artistic creation resides. He also took a few shots at the entire Technocracy – a creeping feeling the sentient among us might recognize, one that suggests  the music industry is being controlled by an elite group of technocrats.

“Life is not a binary system,” Burnett insisted. “The things that matter happen between the binary. Mercy is not binary. Mercy cuts across the binary. The same goes for love and music and art and flowers and trees and rivers and all of the things that make life beautiful and worth living- that make life possible.”

One can almost hear the collective groan on the music industry right, a group comprised of folks who see music as a meal ticket, not an essential elixir for the betterment of the human condition. For them, Burnett’s core assertion - that “The Captains of the Internet have been ordering our lives and declaring themselves above the rules for the last twenty years. And they’ve made a hash of it — because they’re so occupied in publicizing what they have built that they fail to come to terms with how much they don’t know” - must sound like the whining of a petulant child.

Musicians, after all, are supposed to be satisfied with their lot no matter what, because what they do isn’t considered “real work” by folks whose definition of real work involves moving around other people’s money and exploiting other people's creations as “content.”

Burnett pointed out the Digital Emperor's lack of clothing when he basically told Big Tech that it would be nothing without music. "Drain the music out of cyberspace and you’ve got an emotional desert," he said. "And an economic one too. Think about this — tech’s biggest event every year is a music festival. Because they know in their hearts that music is what people really care about."

Will FPFPA pass? It should, particularly when you consider, as just one of many possible examples, the fact that classic rock and oldies stations pull the majority of their playlists from pre-1972 recordings. I'd argue that streaming services - all of 'em - should be considered a form of radio station as well, and should be paying double royalties, as both a music service provider and a radio station. I won't hold my breath, naturally.

Regardless of what happens with FPFPA - which you can support, should you care to, through - Burnett's remarks should resonate with anyone who cares about art as something other than "content" for tech companies.

Yeah, we live in a digital world. So what? When it comes to music, the internet ain't all that. It needs us more than we need it.

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