Production and Copyright – Don’t Give It Away

I was just talking with someone today about the line between music production and cowriting. You probably all know my views on this, but I wanted to put my rant into a blog as a reference. Hopefully this will help someone from making a bad mistake.

A lot of my clients have songs in their head and they don’t play an instrument.  They sing the melody to me, I record the raw version, and we go to work from there.  Their melody implies a rhythm. We talk about the tempo and the beat and I show them some examples. They decide what it was that was closest to what they were hearing in their head.

Their melody also implies harmony – chords. I’ll try some simple ideas suggested by the melody and again, they will tell me what is closest to what they were hearing. I see my part in this as a sort of musical detective – trying to uncover the rest of the music that wasn’t heard in the raw recording. I am NOT acting as a cowriter, but as an interpreter of sorts.

Sometimes I’ll hear something that the writer didn’t hear. I’ll play that, too, and if they like it better we’ll use it instead. Now, that is treading on the line, IMO. But they didn’t come into the studio looking for a cowriter and I don’t look at what I’ve contributed as earning me a part of the song even if it makes a drastic difference in the way the final product is perceived by listeners.

Some producers think differently. Afraid that they’ll miss out on a piece of the pie or some recognition, they feel that any contribution they make that isn’t specifically spelled out is cause for them to be a part writer in the song. I feel this is wrong, but at the same time there is nothing stopping the uninformed or timid writer from making a bad decision at this point and giving up part of their copyright.

No matter how the law may be written to protect your rights, if you enter into an agreement that is not to your advantage, you must live with the consequences. Case in point – when my song “Taking Our Own Sweet Time” was recorded by the Kinleys back in the 90′s, the record label sent me a form that stated I would agree to being paid a sub-statutory rate on my royalties. The choice for me was whether to sign an agreement that earned me less money than what I was entitled to, or not sign and be excluded from the album. I signed. I got paid. I’m OK with it, but I still don’t like being another victim of record label leverage.

So, understand your rights. But also be aware of your situation and what kind of leverage you may have. You may be able to negotiate and keep more of what’s yours in the first place.

Copyright Dilemma

There’s an excellent article on the Jammie Thomas-Rassett file sharing case at the Wired web site.

The RIAA may have won the legal victory, but it has spawned a lot of bad PR from the heavy handed judgment against a lone individual. Thing is, they didn’t really want it to go this far in my opinion. I’m sure they thought that she would settle out of court for the $3000-5000 penalty that they had been able to extract from the other violators. Instead, she fought the machine – and lost big time. If there was any doubt that the laws of copyright do not apply anymore, this was the proof that they indeed do.

There is the law. Then there is human behavior.

In the days of Kazaa and Napster, anyone with a computer could participate in the sharing of “free” music. It hasn’t stopped. BitTorrent sites still abound and are starting to eat at the video and software industries as well as the music business. Most of us don’t think a thing about sending an MP3 of a song we like via email to our friends, but it is technically the same thing – distribution without consent from the copyright owner.

I’m glad to see the copyright laws being upheld. At the same time, our behavior is bound to modify the way those laws are enforced. You just can’t take 90 percent of the online population to court for infringement.

The direction indicated by media futurists is that the ISPs will be the ones that will pay for our use of music. Modeled after the radio and broadcast businesses, the idea is that they will be levied a fee based on usage, and that fee will be distributed according to the tracking of the usage. Maybe so.

Laws will have to be written to pave the way to levy the fees against the ISPs. That’s the telecoms and entertainment conglomerates we’re talking about. I don’t think that will happen without a substantial fight.

Then there has to be a way to track the usage so that 1) you can determine the amount of traffic and 2) who should get payment. Gracenote (the owners of the CDDB – compact disc database) have developed a widely used musical fingerprinting technology that could enable this kind of tracking. It’s the technology that brings the artist information from the internet to your music player software. That would mean that every web site that deals in music in some way would need to license and incorporate the Gracenote software so that the music could be tracked.

Then there has to be a central place where the information gets collected and from which artists and writers are paid. ASCAP and BMI currently do this for performance royalties in the U.S., but there is nothing in place for the internet. The closest is SoundExchange, but it is still in its infancy.

In short, “music like water” is in reality a long ways off in my thinking. This case proves the Copyright Act still has some teeth, but it may have to coexist with millions of mom and pop pirates.

Japan’s new Copyright Law

Japan is strengthening its copyright law to include a clause that makes it illegal for a private user to download copyrighted material that has been uploaded without the copyright holder’s permission.  The full article is here.  I don’t know how it will be enforced or what the penalties will be for infringement, but it’s in place.

For years I’ve considered the internet as it is to be like the “wild wild west” in the 1800′s where existing laws kind of adapt to the new landscape.  It makes me think that there will be a parallel  internet created soon which will be much more tightly  controlled, all content will have a price structure attached, and the convenience and availability of things will make us choose to use it over the relatively unstructured web that exists now.

To use an  analogy, it might be thought of as being similar to the difference between AM and FM radio.  When commercial radio began, AM was all there was.  FM appeared in the 60′s with better fidelity for music including the ability to broadcast in stereo – the new music format.  College stations  encouraged piracy in their own way by broadcasting entire albums and notifying listeners when to begin taping on their cassette recorders.

AM radio still exists, but as a sort of voice rant wilderness.  I think the old web will still exist, too, but only by those who would still dare to  risk getting a computer virus or battle having their privacy invaded.  Feel free to disagree..

News Thoughts

It’s interesting to me to see the evolution of things in my lifetime. When I was growing up, there were three sources of broadcast news – CBS, NBC and ABC. They were characterized by their scrupulous reporting and impartiality. There was a time alloted for editorializing, but by and large the news was, as far as we knew, researched and accurate.

Ted Turned changed things with CNN, the first 24-hour news channel. At the time I thought, how can you fill up 24 hours with news? At first, it was through repetition of the day’s top stories, but soon it became hour-long shows with different slants on the news.

That splintered off into 24-hour channels about every topic you could think of, from movies to fishing to golf, etc. And the news channels themselves became more or less entertainment channels and in an effort to differentiate themselves, opinion channels.

Our participation in the social aspect of the internet has introduced another change. Our opinions are the news. The facts of what has happened take only a fraction of the day to report. But our reaction to the event can provide a week’s worth of opinions, debate, and ranting. That’s where the money is. And by keeping themselves in the black this way, the news channels (in my opinion) are encouraging us to shout louder and be a part of an ever smaller community – those people who only share our opinions.

So, at the same time that the internet has brought us together globally, it has also helped foster a splintering that is driven by our desire to be respected for our uniqueness.

Is iTunes or Windows Media Player destroying your music?

This has been coming up frequently lately, so I decided to post my usual soapbox here. iTunes and Windows Media Player are great tools, but if you’re not aware of how things are set up, you may be actually hurting the quality of your music.

 

Everything in our computers is geared nowadays for communicating over the internet. The most common format for music is the MP3 file. It’s great for sending in an email and it sounds pretty good. When you place an audio CD in your computer, iTunes or WMP may automatically “rip” the digital audio tracks to MP3 files for you. Here’s what that means.

 

A track on an audio CD is actually a special digital file that is comparable to a WAV file on a PC or AIF file on a Mac. Technically, it has a 44.1kHz sampling rate (a snapshot of the sound is taken every 44,100 times per second), and is sampled at 16 bits (every snapshot is described as a digital word that is 16 characters long). It takes up about 10 megabytes per minute of music, so for a 3-minute song, that’s about 30 megs. That’s way too big to send in an email.

 

The best sampling rate for a music MP3 is the same sampling rate for the CD – 44.1kHz. The bit rate is the amount of data that is streamed per second – the higher the bit rate, the better the quality, and the larger the file. The lowest acceptable bit rate for music MP3s is 128 kbps (kilobytes per second).

 

An MP3 file is a compressed streaming data file based on a “lossy” compression formula. The MP3 convertor uses psychoacoustic tricks to remove over half of the information in a WAV or AIF file. The size of a 44.1kz 128kbps MP3 file is about 1 megabyte for each minute of music, which means a 3-minute song will only take up 3 megs of space. In other words, you’ve lost 90 percent of your content.


Still, it sounds OK, right? Right. Until you forget that it’s an MP3 and decide to burn an audio CD from it. So now the little 3 meg file gets expanded to 30 megs again, because that’s the CD format. It’s lost 90 percent of the information, yet gets blown up 9 times as large. Imagine taking a picture on your cellphone and blowing it up the size of a billboard. The big jagged blocks you would see are comparable to the badly defined audio that is now on your CD.

 

Now your friend gets the CD and puts it in their computer, and iTunes or WMP rips it back to an MP3. Only this time, the MP3 convertor is converting crappy jagged block audio data, and out comes a crappy MP3. You start to hear litle gurgling sounds and wonder where your high end went..

 

The lesson is to always create CDs from uncompressed WAV or AIF files for the best quality. You can change the settings in iTunes or WMP to rip your audio CDs as WAV or AIF or, if you need to save space, choose a lossless compression scheme (Apple Lossless, WMA lossless, or FLAC).

 

Create a separate folder for your MP3 files that you want to add to your player or send over the net, so that they don’t get confused with your best quality, uncompressed files. Or just don’t use lossy compression schemes like MP3 at all if you can help it.