On The Perverse Effects Of An Upside Down Music Business


I began reading Mohamed Sadek’s piece A Musician’s White Whale: Perfectly Recreating the ‘Funky Drummer’ Beat with piqued interest, as a music maker, session musician, composer, etc. and was initially positively intrigued. But as I read on, I became less so intrigued, increasingly frustrated then ultimately somewhat disgusted with some now established aspects comprising the state of what once was an industry vibrantly comprised of creative players who convene to make original magic.

During that classic process, an ideal was pursued by each session participant wherein a respectful and respective appreciation, veneration and perhaps appropriation of suitable influences from our cultural canon.

Production processes constantly change with innovation and adapt to the times, which are further dictated by fashion/style trends etc., then propelled by larger economic concerns. But the real innovators and pioneers (such as the oft cited and reasonably artistically worshiped Clyde Stubblefield) were bringing their own body, mind, heart and soul to render something truly original, albeit informed by vast and myriad influences, such as ever was the case.

The forensic aspects of re-conditioning recorded music have always been fascinating, as any conversation with a “remastering” engineer will bear out, especially those who technically revitalize older, deteriorating ad/or primitively recorded pieces (hello Smithsonian Folkways).

Rap and Hip-Hop brought sampling into the process, which led to further “needle-drop” tactics that were, and are still, exciting within the paradigm of anything becoming art, with and to which I truly  agree and subscribe. Digital recording has accommodated further and admirable “democratization” of music creativity with prerecorded loops that undoubtedly allow less-funded and otherwise under-resourced artists to create on a higher and, dare I say, competitive level. I am a proponent of live and let live, live and let play. But I’m also an advocate for Fair Play/Fair Pay, and have been to Capitol Hill lobbying for the rights of my fellow musicians who’ve been historically screwed out of the performance royalties that terrestrial radio had never been required to pay, based on a legal loophole unchanged since the 1920’s. Those and other efforts have been somewhat successful despite, and perhaps due to, the confluence of transitions in market paradigms precipitated by digital streaming and subscription platforms which, by the way, have been the culprit for a tragically decimated income stream for songwriters, musicians. Maybe not as much for deejays, but that’s another story.   

But when this current niche market emerges (and I’m surely not intending to disparage anyone’s admirable work ethic here, much less those cultural and arts-based) whose very existence was born from being “more affordable” than the statutory norm—in this case not only sidestepping fees and royalties that would be paid to the owner of the master recording, which would perhaps (alas, probably not) trickle down to the artists, players, producers, etc—but  goes elaborately, intricately further to laboriously recreate as many nuanced aspects of that original artistic expression as possible, the line from homage-like appropriation is brazenly crossed into the realm of “just business”-based cultural appropriation and exploitation, all artistic veneration and admiration notwithstanding.

I have repeatedly seen my own work as a writer, arranger and player become part of a larger licensed cash cow for the interests of another business, seen musical notes that required much artistic deliberation and many hours formulating, creating and expressively performing end up as notes on commercially marketed sheet music, the proceeds from which I saw nary a cent. These situations aren’t rare. Artist recording deals are signed and sessions (contracted and not) eagerly occur, and by the time the lucrative “back-end” is in someone else’s pocket, the efforts to reclaim some rightful share require lawyers, energy and time. As any struggling (as most are) artist might attest, we’ve got better things to do. The litigious process can not only sap one’s creative muse, it can eat one alive.

In light of all this, I read of a fellow musician, surely with formidable talent and craft, profiled with great entrepreneurial admiration for his process recreating what someone else has already created. On the one hand, it’s quite impressive, but it also sheds scorching light on a vampiric era that I find more often, on the other hand, somewhat depressing.