Saturday, May 31, 2014

The most ridiculous sign within 5 miles of me

Join me on the other side of "more" for  the discussion.
I saw this sign this morning at a little coffee shop near my home that is delightfully quirky, accomodating, and fun.  My neices spent many high school nights learning about the blues there.  My nephew got much deserved applause for some Nirvana covers (don't tell ASCAP!) while still a young 'un.  And it's been my brother's go-to home base for his professional artistry when he's here from New York.  And the flyer is right about its importance on "community"; because of the good coffee and baked goods (and crepes to order on Saturdays---which is why I was there---it's quite the neighborhood cafe klatch emporium.

It's been a long time since I played open mics myself....I was addicted to them at the turn of the century, because I was cultivating the bile of multiple broken hearts and had a lot of fuel for my amateur  croonings...not so much after I got emotionally better, and bored with my own angst.  I'm happy to have others perform for me.

But I do remember those days when I had about a half-quiver full of catchy tunes that I was eager to play for the listeners, drinkers, and fellow songwriters on my new Yamaha accoustic guitar with built in hook-up, knowing they'd be absolutely enthralled and want to make me queen of whatever tavern or coffee shop or Unitarian Church social room I was playing at.  And I remember the people who were a lot better than me, including recording artist Chris Buhalis of Ann Arbor, in charge of one of the better Open Mics nearby, who told the rest of us:  "Always do at least one cover [in your 3-song set].  I know you really think they will, but not everyone is gonna like your new stuff.  But they might be impressed with how you cover a classic."

Flash forward to a few years later, when I'm not really going to open mics, but while I'm still writing.  I came across an essay from Steven van Zandt on the importance of professionalism by young artists, and again came the advice to pay your dues by playing the classics.  Steven bemoans the days of old when NOBODY, even established recording artists, played all their own songs at first

The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums. Let me say that again. The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums! Then the Rolling Stones were a bar band for three years and played covers for their first five albums. Do you think you’re better than them?

The people who Steve is addressing in this essay, and those Chris was in an Ypsilanti bar, weren't professional, established artists or even likely to ever become professional, established artists. If they did put the work in to make that happen, and if luck cooperated, it wouldn't be without a lot of mentorship from others....sometimes just virtually. Their own untried songs weren't going to get them there.

So not being able to play covers is a big deal.  It's even a big deal in encouraging family, friends, and other band members to come and hear you at the next open mic....your established ability to play well on the guitar or to sing is going to bring them in, and a lot of audience members at a lot of open mics are going to be disappointed in the fare if the music isn't good.  Yes, there are a lot of people doing open mics who are good, but given the fact that they haven't been able to get a record contract yet, their own compositions won't show their talent as well as standards and classics.

This is one of the many consequences of copyright.  The law that keeps my neighborhood coffee shop from hosting true open mic nights does not protect artists.  Bob Dylan, Keith Richard, and the estate of Kurt Cobain don't lose any money from the neighborhood garage band crooning their tune.  And it's frequent that people in the audience have not yet heard the originals covered at the open mic, and that they go home and download them.  Even if copyright had some legitimate purpose, or if it really did what it was supposed to do and kept the writer and artist from losing money, the uber industry's rent seeking fun vacuum that is going around trying to find every little way it can to charge people for sending wind through their vocal chords is not doing that.  Bob Dylan wasn't going to come to Plymouth, MI and go into a little coffee house and sing "Blowin' in the Wind" with a cup out for change at his feet, anyway. And ASCAP and BMI weren't gonna bring a turntable and speakers to let us hear the wonder of vinyl playing " Rocket to Russia' or "Leanord Cohen's Greatest Hits" for a reasonable fee.

Remember the joke about Puritanism?  That it was the fear that someone, somewhere was having fun?  Maybe that's why copyright has slinked in so easily to strangle free trade in the Land of the Once Free.  It feels right at home!  Only now, it's the record execs nervously worrying about how kids are accessing music they believe belongs to them, and absurdly suggesting that through hearing some kid sing a poorly chorded version of "She Talks to Angels", some dastardly nerd with an 8 track and a mike will make 20 bucks or something by recording his own version and not ponying up to the company.  And the union.  And the artist, somewhere down the line.

Ironically, their next meal might be coming from one of those kids at an open mic; they just haven't got their paws on her yet.  

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