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Tagged: songwriting

The lyric attempts the impossible – to stop time

One of the sources that has forever shaped my view on songwriting — on lyric writing in particular — is the introduction to the lyric poem in this lecture from University of Toronto English professor, Nick Mount, on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, published by TVO:

While studying English at the University of Toronto, I unfortunately never took a course with Nick Mount. Mount opens the lecture with a description of the lyric poem that resonates with me and is forever etched in my memory:

When you’re reading a novel, your attention is on the progression of time, the forward movement of the plot through its complication and its resolution. A lyric poem… is less about the progression of time than it is about the attempt to stop time. The lyric tries the impossible. It tries to temporarily stop time, to slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception — sometimes a moment of confusion, of understanding, sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, often a bit of both. For me, that is the main virtue of poetry — and in particular of the lyric poem — its ability to get me to stop and pay attention to life, to everything that I’m rushing by because of time, because of the inevitable tick of the clock. And that is what a lyric poem excels atcapturing the things, the experiences, that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time.

Then, channeling the famous University of Toronto English professor, Northrop Frye, Mount continues:

Frye says that the lyric poem gets written because some normal activity has been blocked, the normal progression of time, and the poet has to write about that block before returning to the world of time.

This is my experience as a songwriter explained by the University of Toronto Department of English. Furthermore, while I have yet to fully wrap my mind around this yet, I think a pair of U of T theology professors have something profound to say about this too.

Fr. Bernard Lonergan from Regis College wrote in Insight about four fundamental forms of bias that can impact our consciousness, the first of which is dramatic bias, which operates at the level of elementary feelings and passions. From Insight (emphasis added):

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can also be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters. Nor has such a bias merely some single or isolated effect. To exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it, and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint. To lack that fuller view results in behaviour that generates misunderstanding both in ourselves and in others. To suffer such incomprehension favours a withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy. This introversion, which overcomes the extroversion native to the biological pattern of experience, generates a differentiation of the persona that appears before others and the more intimate ego that in the daydream is at once the main actor and the sole spectator. Finally, the incomprehension, isolation, and duality rob the development of one’s common sense of some part, greater or less, of the corrections and assurances that result from learning accurately the tested insights of others and from submitting one’s own insights to the criticism based on others’ experience and development.

Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, p. 191.

Biases are the kinds of things that emerge and prevent authentic insight, and dramatic bias in particular has to do with that level of passion and feeling in one’s own psyche. These are barriers, but the sort of thing that when not ignored but worked out, can lead to insight. Furthermore, dramatic bias is dialectical, as there’s some tension between two competing things that needs to be worked out is dialogue.

As one of my Regis College professors, John Dadosky, once put it in a lecture: “Once a bias is removed, then you can get on with the business of authentic living with that area of life in which you were stuck.” This comment is what sparked the connection for me and reminded me of Nick Mount’s comments on the lyric poem, calling to mind Northrop Frye’s notion that the normal progression of time has been blocked and you are stuck and cannot return to the normal world of time until — or unless — you work out the block with the lyric poem. What is a lyric poem but that dialectical attempt to resolve the bias, to resolve to block – to get unstuck?

Lonergan, in his transcendental precepts, describes the method through which any individual transcends himself or herself to live in reality:

  1. be attentive to experience;
  2. be intelligent in understanding;
  3. be reasonable in judgment;
  4. be responsible in decision-making;
  5. be in love with God, self and neighbour.

A good artist – a good lyricist – is attentive to human experience, as a prerequisite for being intelligent in our understanding of the human experience (and, thus, a prerequisite of being reasonable, responsible and in love). Insofar as art is good, insofar as it is attentive to our lived experience and it authentically expresses that, it is the raw material for reflection that can lead to intelligent understanding of the human experience.

Is the lyric poem not a dialectical attempt at being attentive to the experience of dramatic bias? To be attentive to that experience that stops the normal progression of time and removes us from the world, so that we can work through that experience and return to the world — unstuck — with the bias removed through a dialectical engagement with the blockage?

For the lyricist, the world of time has stopped — the dramatic bias “blocks… the normal progression of time” — and the lyricist experiences a “withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy.” That dramatic bias is worked out in a dialogue between fantasy and reality through the lyric, so that the lyricist can “return to the world of time” and “get on with the business of authentic living.”

For the listener or reader, lyrics that are truly attentive to experience cause us to “stop and pay attention to life,” to “slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception” — a mix of confusion and understanding, of emotion and intellect — in order to draw our attention to the dramatic biases in our own lives, the “experiences that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time,” so that the listener themselves can, through engaging with the lyric, work out a similar block or dramatic bias in their own life and return to the normal progression of time (whether or not the lyricist is similarly successful).

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to wrap my mind properly around what Lonergan is saying and how this relates to lyric poetry, but… is that not what a lyric poem does? Is that not the experience and the role of a songwriter? Is that not what lyrics are for you?

That’s what lyrics are for me.

Canvases is a song about the normal progression of time being blocked and the need to “paint all of these unknown voices” before returning to the world of time — written four years before I heard Nick Mount’s lecture, while I was attentive to my own experience but before I understood it in the way I do now.

Thank you, Nick Mount, Northrop Frye, John Dadosky and Bernard Lonergan, for furthering my understanding of my own lyric poetry and experience as a music lover.

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Interview on Music Manumit Podcast

Thanks to Tom and Doug for inviting me to chat on the Music Manumit podcast this past weekend! You can listen to our discussion here about being creative about the career and business side of being a musician.

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Free Doesn’t Mean Devalued

I’ve tightened up my post on why free music doesn’t mean devalued music for Techdirt. If you’ve read the original, it’s largely the same content, but cleaned up a little and much more concise.

Free Doesn’t Mean Devalued:

The concept of zero took ages for societies to recognize, let alone understand. Mike has explained before how it’s been a stumbling block in economics for some libertarian and “free market” types more recently. People who think about economics in terms of scarcity get upset when abundance pushes price down towards zero, as if the economic equation were broken. But if you flip the equation and think of it as a cost of zero, you realize that the trick is to use as much of those abundant goods as possible, adding value to complementary scarcities for which you can charge. Zero doesn’t break economics, it just requires a different approach.

But artists and other creators hit a different stumbling block than libertarians (libertarian artists aside…). Zero is a problem because they feel like their art is worthless; they aren’t hung up on scarcity, they’re hung up on “devaluation.” We’ve heard it from journalists. I hear it most often from fellow songwriters. The economic theory makes them feel as though their work is just viewed as some sort of cheap commodity. The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price is what gets driven down to marginal cost, but value factors into the demand side of the equation. Expensive things aren’t necessarily valuable, and valuable things aren’t necessarily expensive. I value oxygen a lot, but it seems silly to pay for the air I breathe each minute, given the abundant supply.

More importantly, songwriters who get hung up on “devaluation” confuse recordings with music. They equate the two. A recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings to files. As important as recordings are, there’s so much more to music. When you think of a song, do you think of the recording, or a memory you had connecting with the music? Do you think of the file and how much it cost, or the emotions, people and experiences that the music conjures up? The recordings are just a means through which we experience the music. Songwriters (of all people!) should know that the value in music is so much more than the price of a recording. It’s not devaluing music to give it away for free, but it can increase its value by allowing more people to connect with it, to know, love and understand it — to value it. It’s through that experience that music is valued, not price!

Ironically, the underlying concern ends up being economic — how will we make money? A price of zero for digital audio files doesn’t mean that no one values the songwriting profession, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep songwriters in business. Sharing digital audio files makes the music more valuable and leads to more opportunities for monetization. When you give music away and connect with an audience, the opportunity for monetization is in the associated scarcitiesaccess, containers, community, merchandise, relationships, unique goods, the creation of new music, etc. — by giving people a reason to buy. Getting hung up on “devaluation” is a distraction from the opportunity — the necessity — to experiment with new business models.

So, can we please stop complaining that free means devalued?

Check out the lively discussion in the comments. Also, usually I’m pretty obsessive with backlinks, but somehow I missed an obvious post worth a link: Free Doesn’t Mean Unpaid

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Free Music Doesn’t Mean Devalued Music

Update: A more condensed version of this post was published on Techdirt.

Mike Masnick does a great job of explaining why some libertarian and “free market” types freak out when they see a zero dollar price tag. The concept of zero took ages for societies to even recognize, nevermind understand. It’s not a number, but the absence of a number. A stumbling block for mathematics and physics in the past, it’s now misunderstood in some economic circles. Economics is often defined by scarcity, but with digital goods and “intellectual property,” we have an infinite supply — abundance instead of scarcity. Prices gets pushed towards marginal cost in a competitive market, and these “infinite” goods have a marginal cost of zero… so that’s where the price gets pushed. This upsets some people, as if it were a “divide by zero” type error that breaks the equation.

But a lack of scarcity isn’t a problem. Instead of thinking of it as forcing a price of zero, you “flip the equation” and think of it as being a cost of zero. If something can be reproduced for free, the trick is to use as much of it as possible — give it away, leverage the abundance to add value to other complementary scarce goods. Zero doesn’t break economics, it just requires a different approach. (This is all just a condensed version of Mike’s post.)

Songwriters, however, hit a different stumbling block than libertarians (songwriting libertarians aside…). Zero is a problem because they feel like their music is worthless; they aren’t hung up on scarcity, they’re hung up on “devaluation.” A lot of artistic types hear the economic theory and feel as though their work is just viewed as some sort of cheap commodity.

The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price is what gets driven down to marginal cost, but value factors into the demand side of the equation. An expensive thing isn’t necessarily a valuable thing, and something that’s available for free isn’t necessarily without value. I value oxygen a lot, but it seems silly to pay for the air I breathe each minute, given the abundant supply.

More importantly though, songwriters who get hung up on “devaluation” confuse recordings with music. They equate the two. A recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings, to files. As important as recordings are, there’s so much more to music. When you think of a song, do you think of the recording, or a memory you had connecting with the music? Do you think of the file and how much it cost, or the emotions, people and experiences that the music conjures up?

When I listen to Reflection, I am in Rosedale Valley, running a cross country practice in Grade 11 with a friend, as the meaning of the final verse hit me in all its pain and glory. When I listen to Dispatch live albums, I’m at the Hatch Shell in Boston, or Madison Square Gardens, at one of the reunion concerts. When I listen to the Good Lovelies, I’m in Ottawa at the OCFF conference in a packed hotel room full of folk musicians listening to a raw, passionate acoustic performance. You don’t connect with the files, you connect with the music. The recordings are just a means through which we experience the music.

I would hope that songwriters, of all people, could realize that the value in music is so much more than the price of a recording. It’s not devaluing music to give away your music for free, but rather increasing its value by allowing more people to connect with it, to know, love and understand it — to value it. It’s through that experience that music is valued, not price!

Furthermore, a price of zero for digital music doesn’t mean that no one values the profession, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep songwriters in business. When you give music away and connect with fans, the business opportunity is to monetize the associated scarcitiesaccess, containers, community, merchandise, relationships, unique goods, the creation of new music, etc. — by giving fans a reason to buy.

Music still has value, and there are still plenty of ways to monetize it. Getting hung up about “devaluation” is a distraction from the opportunity and the need to experiment with these new business models. Recognizing that digital recordings are an infinite good and giving them away for free only makes the music more valuable, and only leads to more opportunities for monetization.

So, can we please stop complaining that freeing up music devalues it?

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ASCAP’s Bill of Wrongs

(Update: This has been reposted on Techdirt.)

ASCAP has published a Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers, which, unfortunately, seems to be more like a bill of “wrongs”.

Just as citizens of a nation must be educated about their rights to ensure that they are protected and upheld, so too must those who compose words and music know the rights that support their own acts of creation. Without these rights, which directly emanate from the U.S. Constitution, many who dream of focusing their talents and energies on music creation would be economically unable to do so – an outcome that would diminish artistic expression today and for future generations.

Which U.S. Constitution is ASCAP reading? The U.S. Constitution provision says, “the Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution to suggest that copyright law has anything to do with protecting artists natural rights, copyright hardly exists for a limited amount of time anymore, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were quite skeptical of the concept.

And the claim that such laws are required to make a living as an artist is very debatable, and I’d beg to differ. There was art before copyright law existed, and many artists are making their living today despite copyright law (rather than because of it).

At this time, when so many forces are seeking to diminish copyright protections and devalue artistic expression, this Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers looks to clarify the entitlements that every music creator enjoys.

Who is seeking to devalue artistic expression? Price and value are not the same thing. Just because the economics of digital goods have pushed the price of music towards zero (the marginal cost) does not mean that music no longer has value. This sort of statement needs to be substantiated.

1. We have the right to be compensated for the use of our creative works, and share in the revenues that they generate.

Why? In what other industries do creators maintain control over their creations after they reach consumers? Lenovo has no right to be compensated for the use of my laptop or to share in the revenue I generate through developing software. This is not a given.

2. We have the right to license our works and control the ways in which they are used.

Again – why? How many other industries control the way their works are used? This is not a given.

3. We have the right to withhold permission for uses of our works on artistic, economic or philosophical grounds.

This is not the purpose of copyright law at all, especially since it’s supposed to be for a limited time. This, in fact, is a restriction on artistic expression. Though it may be troubling to have a work associated with something that you don’t agree with, I believe that freedom of speech is more important for artistic expression than total control.

There are defamation and libel laws for serious abuses.

4. We have the right to protect our creative works to the fullest extent of the law from all forms of piracy, theft and unauthorized use, which deprive us of our right to earn a living based on our creativity.

Theft and copyright infringement are not the same thing. And the sharing and spreading of music through digital channels is natural and, more importantly, does not deprive artists of their right ability to earn a living.

Bad, out-dated, obsolete business models based on artificial scarcity deprive artists of their right ability to earn a living.

(I’m not sure if this is a “right” because they seem to be confusing royalties and salaries.)

5. We have the right to choose when and where our creative works may be used for free.

Why? Coca-cola doesn’t have the right to determine whether its products can be given away for free as part of a promotion after a pizza store purchases them. This is not a given.

6. We have the right to develop, document and distribute our works through new media channels – while retaining the right to a share in all associated profits.

Wow, that started off great, but the ending sounds like Billy Bragg’s whining in the New York Times. The phrase “all associated profits” seems quite overarching. This sounds like musicians claiming that MySpace and Bebo owe them money for their success, while denying that the reverse could ever be true, that a new media company would be entitled to share in “all associated profits” of an artist it enables to succeed.

Double standard much?

7. We have the right to choose the organizations we want to represent us and to join our voices together to protect our rights and negotiate for the value of our music.

Excellent! I actually agree with this whole-heartedly. I do not want ASCAP to represent me!

8. We have the right to earn compensation from all types of “performances,” including direct, live renditions as well as indirect recordings, broadcasts, digital streams and more.

This sounds like Viacom’s misunderstanding of the difference between content and communication. ASCAP is treating the Internet like other forms of broadcast, but the Internet isn’t a broadcast medium. It’s a communications medium. When it comes to communication, the idea of using copyright to restrict content gets weird in a hurry. Royalties are not the answer for the digital age.

9. We have the right to decline participation in business models that require us to relinquish all or part of our creative rights – or which do not respect our right to be compensated for our work.

Sure you do, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make any money. Economics aren’t about what you want to happen, or what you think should happen. Economics are about what is happening. Business models that don’t make sense given the economics won’t succeed. Of course you have the right to choose whatever business model you like, but that doesn’t mean it will be successful or that it should be protected by copyright law.

The end of that statement sounds like another case of confusing royalties and salaries.

10. We have the right to advocate for strong laws protecting our creative works, and demand that our government vigorously uphold and protect our rights.

Of course you do, but again, I don’t think it’s a great idea if you subscribe to this “bill of rights”. Moreover, consumers also have the right to advocate for better laws that protect their interests and vigorously uphold and protect their rights, which our current laws fail to do.

Artists can advocate whatever they want, but it’s a bad idea to advocate the opposite of what your fans want.

Conclusion

This supposed bill of rights is really just an assertion of the status quo by those who depend on copyright law to protect their obsolete business models. If people in the music business could only realize that they’re in the business of providing an enjoyable experience surrounding music, rather than trying to control and monetize every possible use of art, they might open up to new business models that make sense rather than whine about the fact that their current business models don’t work anymore.

This isn’t a bill of rights. It’s a stage and symptom of the grieving process.

Signing this and, worse yet, living by it, would be an economic and ethical mistake for any songwriter or composer.

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Types of Music

Part of the reason I set up this blog was to be able to ramble about music and the music industry every now and then. I’m not 100% geek. Well… yes I am.. but part computer geek, part music geek! Anyways, I figure that I may as well start by explaining or exploring some of the ways that I think about music.

When it comes to different types of music, there are a few distinctions that I’ve come to notice which have helped me to feel comfortable with my interest in a wide variety of music while still maintaining certain standards. They’ve also helped me to better understand my musical interests and my music listening patterns and helped me find a balance that I consider healthy between being a snob and a sell-out.

By ‘types of music’ I don’t mean different musical genres, but rather different purposes, functions or goals behind the music, different categories of music. It’s nothing that isn’t really self-evident, but it’s something that I have only been actively thinking about recently.

There are different types of music just like there are different types of reading. You can read for knowledge, which can be timeless (e.g. Plato’s Dialogues) or timely (e.g. Toronto Star). You can read for instructions (e.g. reading a manual), or you can also read simply for pleasure. And there can obviously be lots of overlap between these types of reading. I think there are similar types when it comes to music.

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