This weekend, the annual Face the Music conference took place at Melbourne’s Arts Centre with Steve Albini featured as the keynote speaker. His speech focused largely on how the Internet has both changed and saved the music industry by putting power back in the hands of bands. Near the end of his address, he brought into question how copyrights exist in this new environment, and he used Prince as his prime example of how it’s all gone tits up.
Albini was highlighting the “absurdities” that result from exclusive intellectual property rights, including the idea that footage of a father’s first dance with a new bride or even a student video project technically violates said rights. “If your little daughter does a kooky dance to a Prince song don’t bother putting it on YouTube for her grandparents to see,” he said, “or a purple dwarf in assless chaps will put an injunction on you. Did I offend the little guy? Fuck it. His music is poison.”
He never quite got into the idea that Prince’s “music is poison,” though he went on to take a shot at Miley Cyrus by saying “they don’t print money big enough” to make him listen to her music. He also laid out some interesting arguments about copyrights and the state of the music scene as a whole during his address. You can read the whole speech at The Guardian, and check out the part about intellectual property below.
From my part, I believe the very concept of exclusive intellectual property with respect to recorded music has come to a natural end, or something like an end. Technology has brought to a head a need to embrace the meaning of the word “release”, as in bird or fart. It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitised material and I don’t believe the public good is served by trying to.
There is great public good by letting creative material lapse into the public ownership. The copyright law has been modified so extensively in the past decades that now this essentially never happens, creating absurdities whenever copyright is invoked. There’s a huge body of work that is not legally in the public domain, though its rights holder, authors and creators have died or disappeared as businesses. And this material, from a legal standpoint now removed from our culture – nobody may copy it or re-release it because it’s still subject to copyright.
Other absurdities abound: innocuous usage of music in the background of home videos or student projects is technically an infringement and official obstacles are set up to prevent it. If you want a video of your wedding reception – your father’s first dance with a new bride – it’s off limits unless it is silent. If your little daughter does a kooky dance to a Prince song don’t bother putting it on YouTube for her grandparents to see or a purple dwarf in assless chaps will put an injunction on you. Did I offend the little guy? Fuck it. His music is poison.
Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation. Well, not unless the rights holders are willing to let me turn the tables on it. If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I. Play a Phil Collins song while I’m grocery shopping? Pay me $20. Def Leppard? Make it $100. Miley Cyrus? They don’t print money big enough.”