From Waves to Wax to Ones and Zeros

In the beginning there was music. It happened all by itself and it went completely unnoticed. The sound of thunder echoing off a distant canyon. A waterfall pouring down into a clear deep pool. Dragonfly’s wings beating the night air. Then early man began banging rocks together and, later, he stretched some hides over hollowed […]

Last Updated: March 23, 2009 @ 2:07 PM

In the beginning there was music. It happened all by itself and it went completely unnoticed. The sound of thunder echoing off a distant canyon. A waterfall pouring down into a clear deep pool. Dragonfly’s wings beating the night air. Then early man began banging rocks together and, later, he stretched some hides over hollowed out logs. After a while, the gut string harp and a wooden flute came to be.
 
Those were simple times. The music was there for the hearing, and when the hands and the mouths of the players stopped beating and plucking and blowing, everything went quiet.

Several thousand years later — give or take a few — Alexander Graham Bell comes around and decides he’s going to do something that’s never been done; he’s going to trap a moment in time and preserve it as though it were a fly in amber. Invisible sound waves that for years had existed in the domain of the mystical could now be preserved forever in wax.

Thus began more than a hundred years of begging a question that up until that time had never been asked, namely, who owns these captured sounds? Sounds that exist long after the music stops; oftentimes long after the musician who created them ceased to breathe.
 
Those whose job it was to preserve the sounds,to copy them, and to exploit them, have had a good long run. They’ve used those captured moments to provide for their children. They’ve fed themselves well and perhaps had occasion to sate every last desire. But now something’s gone wrong. Entropic forces have been unleashed that eroded empires and swung the hands of the clock backwards as it were — even as the technology grows wiser and more complex.
 
You see, it’s hard to trap the sound waves these days, or at least to claim ownership when everything’s been converted into ones and zeros — and everyone has access to them  — and the only safeguard that remains, is people’s respect for the sanctity of intellectual copyrights … which is to say no safeguard at all. There are those who resist the shift and long for the days when any person between the ages of 12 and 55 who isn’t brain dead couldn’t figure out how to get just about any piece of music for free off the internet. But times have changed, and what’s an artist to do about it?

Well for one thing, he or she needs to go back and discover what hasn’t changed. People’s love for and need for music. If anything, the ubiquity of music has made it more valuable and more essential to people’s lives. It’s an axiom (at least I think it is) that the more valuable a thing is, the more of it there is and the less it costs … start with air and water, for example. Perhaps by stripping music away from its embodiment in wax, or vinyl, or plastic, and letting it revert to its spiritual essence (which in a sense is what the ones and zeros really are), listeners might develop a new respect for the artists who create it.

Now I’m no utopian, and I’ll admit I’m mostly pretty cynical, but when all the protections are lost, and the way technology is progressing, it seems likely they soon will be, it’s still possible that people might continue to pay something for music they love if they feel a connection to the one who created it. It’s possible that by building a real sense of trust and community, an artist may still ask for some form of patronage for their recorded music from fans — and receive it.

Patronage!? Isn’t that the same as begging money? Not quite, but if access to free music gets easier and even more unpoliceable — as I think it will, those artists who develop this deep and lasting connection with their audience may be the only ones still able to make a living.

Wait, I think I hear the dragonflies …
 

A truly multi-faceted musician, Peter Himmelman is a critically lauded rock troubadour, a Grammy nominated creator of children’s music, and an Emmy nominated film and television composer. His online live variety show "The Furious World" showcases talent straight from the studio, Tuesdays at 7 p.m. PT (@furiousworld on Twitter).