View From the East: Second Thoughts



Greg Sandow

Disagreement can be fascinating. Take, for instance, the response to my recent column about piracy. I put forth some grand theories, about how piracy serves, in effect, as publicity, without clearly hurting anyone whose music is pirated. Behind those theories lay an unspoken idea, that pirated music is a reality, unlikely to be stopped. Not that I stated that assumption, but as I reconsider what I said, I realize that I made it.

Meanwhile, two people who posted disagreements with me took what I thought was an absolutist position—that piracy is of course bad, of course violates artists’ rights, and of course steals their income. I think that’s absolutist because it’s far too literal. It assumes that even one illegal download hurts the artists involved. But what, precisely, is the injury? A further assumption is that sales are lost, when there’s no clear evidence of that. Finally, the absolutist view (as I call it) doesn’t seem to notice that a brand-new situation has developed, with music getting to people in brand-new ways, creating a new artistic environment, whose effects we don’t yet know.

Though really the situation isn’t absolutely new, since free or illegal distribution has been with us quite a while, often with good results. Think of Maria Callas, nourished, toward the end of her life, by bootleg live recordings of her best performances, treasures that wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been for pirates. Think of the Grateful Dead, encouraging fans to tape their shows, and to trade the tapes. They didn’t think that this was piracy. They thought it fit their philosophy—and also, just maybe, their marketing plan. Finally, think of the Houston Grand Opera, setting up video screens outside its theater, so people could watch their performances free. That didn’t hurt ticket sales; it stimulated them. Free distribution sometimes increases sales, the question then being what, exactly, you’re offering for anyone to buy—whether it’s worth the money, and how you’re going to interest anyone in buying it.

But what’s more important, at least to me, is that these disagreements made me think. And one of my thoughts, for which I thank my severest critic, is that I don’t know enough about the issue. I’d said, for example, that file-sharing networks that don’t maintain their own servers—with lists of files you can download—are immune from prosecution or lawsuits. That’s not true, as my critic pointed out. Audiogalaxy had just been sued, and (as I’ve since learned) other, similar suits have followed.

So I thought I’d learn more, and one thing I did (besides following links recommended to me) was to resume reading Billboard magazine, which of course is the trade journal of the music industry. I’d read it religiously from 1988 to 1995, when I was a pop music critic, and I’ve read it sporadically since. It’s the best journalistic source, bar none, for detailed information on how the music business really works, and I was fascinated to see that there’s no agreement at all (at least in the stories Billboard reports) about piracy. There’s especially no agreement that piracy is the central problem afflicting record companies. Sure, sales are down, but why is that?

One theory, which Billboard discussed at great length in mid-June, is that CD prices are too high. Record labels, many people in the industry think, have lowered prices, but only because they were forced to, and not nearly enough. Small retail stores were especially angry. They didn’t blame piracy for any lack of sales; they blamed high prices. (Fascinating, since one of my critics thought small retailers would be exactly the ones that piracy would hurt.)

And what data is there to support any conclusions about piracy, my own or anybody else’s? Yes, CD sales are down—but there have been cyclical dips in the past, and also dips due to long-term factors like the end of the era when people replaced their vinyl albums with CDs. How do we know piracy is responsible for the current dip? (Especially since, as one link recommended to me says—see, I really do read them—CD sales in France and England are up, suggesting that local factors (such as, to quote the link, “strong demand for local artists”) may affect sales more than piracy. The whole thing, I have to say, makes me giggle. If sales are down, says the IFPI (the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), that’s because of piracy. If sales are up in some countries, that’s because of strong demand for local artists—though if sales are down in Japan and Austria, maybe that’s because there wasn’t strong demand for local artists there. Consistency, anyone?

The IFPI did do a survey, showing that 35 percent of the people who download music illegally say they buy less because of that. But another, more recent study by Jupiter Media Matrix (a company that sells research on how the Internet affects commerce) says the opposite. I haven’t read it myself, because Jupiter sells its research for far more than I can afford. (And, I have to add, tongue in cheek, no one, as far as I know, has pirated any of it.) But I’ve read reports of it in Billboard, in PC Magazine, and online, and it directly contradicts the findings of IFPI. Thirty-four percent of people who download music, it says, say they spend more on music now than they did before they started downloading. Fifteen percent say they spend less. And people active online who don’t download pirate music say they were less likely to spend money on music at all.

Is Jupiter Media Matrix biased because, someone might say, it promotes the Internet? Is the IFPI biased because it represents record companies? Did the studies use different methodology? Did they survey different groups of people? Who do we believe? If you ask me, we still don’t have enough information to know what the effect of piracy—and, to be fair, the entire new situation facing record companies, consumers, and artists trying to get their work around—really is.

One more example: On the very day I’m writing this, The New York Times ran a piece in its “Circuits” section about software piracy. That this piracy occurs was amply documented, with names, modus operandi, and jail sentences duly set forth. But there wasn’t one word of evidence that software piracy stops any sales. The story quoted the head of a small company that makes specialized engineering software, and charges $9000 for it; he was shocked, he said, when he found out his product had been pirated and could be downloaded free. But how many potential customers actually got it that way? The guy didn’t say, and I’m guessing he doesn’t know.

I can sympathize with his shock—I was dismayed when somebody stole part of my website, adding it to his own site without any credit to me. As it happened, I had no trouble stopping that. My pirate was a college student, who maintained his site on his college’s server. I just e-mailed the dean of students and the head of the college computer system, and very quickly the kid took my stuff off his site; software companies of course can’t stop pirates that easily. But still, how do they know they’ve lost any sales? Take that engineering company. All of its potential customers, we have to assume, can afford the software. Otherwise, how could they be potential customers? So why, then, wouldn’t they buy the product, instead of enduring the risks and hassles of piracy? (I mentioned some of these last month: The software takes forever to download, might be corrupted, might not be the latest version, might have virus infections, doesn’t come with tech support, often doesn’t include manuals or helpful add-on files (like examples of how to use it), and might not be upgradeable.)

Common sense, of course, suggests that some people would rather not pay if there’s any way to get something free. But then common sense isn’t always right, and to really understand what’s going on, we need real data—and data, I’m afraid, is what we don’t have. Most people who opine about piracy, including me, simply pontificate. For example (to once more cite some links one of my critics recommended) we’re told that children who download free music will lose respect for the dignity of work. Or that songwriters, who, if their work is pirated, won’t be paid, won’t write any songs. Or, again, that small CD stores will be hurt more than large ones.

But is any of that true? I’m reminded of debates in earlier times, about the effect of movies, TV, and televised sports. Movies, people thought, would kill live theater. TV, years later, was going to kill the movies. And TV sports would empty the ballparks. None of that happened, which doesn’t mean that piracy won’t have any of the consequences people fear.

But the situation, as neither my critics nor I clearly said, is really very complicated. The most useful reactions, I think come from people who understand that—like (to cite two very outspoken people I’ve read) John Dvorak, the obstreperous computer columnist and Michael Wolff, the equally provocative media columnist for New York magazine—who think the entertainment industry needs a new business model. The business model would be based on answers to the questions I asked earlier. What music is being sold? How is it being sold? Why should anyone buy it? The crisis, to say this once again, goes way beyond piracy. It includes, for the record industry, the high price of CDs, and the concentration of major labels into a few, increasingly troubled conglomerates (which, more than any loss of sales, is the main reason labels don’t take chances with new artists). The crisis also includes serious problems at retail stores, some of them caused by record company policies (read Ed Christman, Billboard‘s retail columnist, for details); and many other factors, including, according to the July 13 Billboard, maybe the most fascinating change in music usage that the Internet has helped bring. People now choose songs, rather than albums. And in the record companies, in their wisdom, have cut way back on singles!

One solution, out there for years, is what’s called the subscription model. For a monthly fee, record companies would offer lots of downloads, or maybe even all the downloads you could eat. That’s controversial right now. With their typical flair, the major labels so far have offered limited downloads, with restrictions on how you can use the music. Sometimes the sound file you download is rigged, so you can listen to it only a few times. (How, by the way, does this stop people from simply recording the audio stream to a new, unprotected file? Anyone with Creative LabsAudigy sound cards can do that easily, by picking “What U Hear” as the sound card’s input. So when you play music back, it goes right from the card’s output onto its input, allowing you to record what you’re hearing, no matter what kind of protection the sound file has.)

Which leaves the indie labels—supposedly the ones most hurt by piracy—to allow unrestricted downloads, of course for a fee. Or as the general manager of one indie label (Matador) put it, again in one of the links thrown at me: “Once it became apparent that [our titles were] going to be available free anyway, the philosophy was (1) Why not get some money out of it and (2) Get some promotion out of it.” The crisis over new developments in the music industry (of which piracy is only one) ought to be an opportunity, a chance to figure out new and better ways of getting music around.

And here’s another subject that gets people angry—Schoenberg and atonal music. I say atonal music needs to be understood, and that Schoenberg can be criticized. My critics then say I hate atonal music and want to destroy it. What’s this argument really about?

Well, I think my critics, from their own point of view, have a valid point. Atonal music came out of an important moment in music history. It stood apart from popularity, from commerce, and from any kind of artistic cheapness. That’s not to say it didn’t have a cultural position of its own, but that position was powerfully noble. It was a position of just about pure artistry, held by composers who felt they were following their artistic impulses, and nothing else. Hence Schoenberg’s eager, baffled metaphors about artists (like himself) producing art the way apple trees produce apples. What else could he do, he kept saying, except compose the way he did? It emerged from him like a force of nature.

Meanwhile, classical music was threatened. The culture that nurtured it was badly hurt during World War II. Richard Strauss felt it most keenly when the opera houses in which he’d conducted and premiered his works were bombed. Schoenberg, of course, lost even more—his home, his roots, his support. He had to live in the United States, where he suffered two profound insults. He was retired from his teaching job in California and given a pitiful pension; he applied for a grant to complete Moses und Aron and was rejected.

As classical music began to lose ground to popular culture, many of the serious people in the field identified with atonal music, precisely, I’d think, because it was so serious. And who could blame them? If classical music was going to offer an artistic alternative, what could be further from mass-market sentimentality than Schoenberg, Webern, or Elliott Carter? People who think this way might feel, when they think I’m attacking Schoenberg, as if I’m attacking the value of art itself.

I sympathize with that. The struggle I’m having is how to figure out what really is serious. Or, rather, what being serious means, in a time when all kinds of music coexist. Take the godawful music that accompanied the ceremony at the start of this year’s All-Star Game. It was falsely grand and falsely evocative. But then that’s exactly the criticism that advanced 20th-century composers made of people like Sibelius, who wrote in more traditional styles. These styles still haven’t died out. Somehow the musical vocabulary of the 19th century is still with us. What does that mean?

I could say, then, that part of my quest is simply to define the difference between Schoenberg and Sibelius. Schoenberg would never have written anything like the last movement of the Sibelius second symphony, where, in a sense, nothing happens – just the introduction of the big theme, some contrasting stuff, then the big theme again, and finally some of the contrasting stuff, building up to a huge conclusion. Come to think of it, Beethoven wouldn’t have been satisfied with that design, and neither would Tchaikovsky. As a structure for a traditional symphonic movement, it’s nothing but a meringue shell. The big theme cries out to be something more than just a tune, and the contrasting stuff cries out to be connected somehow to the theme, or, alternatively, to grow (like the big theme) into something more than simple, repeated statements.

From a Schoenberg point of view – or, really, to the ears of any modernist from the first half of the last century — that could easily sound cheap and empty. And of course Sibelius was damned that way by composers and critics; he was a popular favorite, so the book on him went, with very little substance. And I can find other things in the piece that raise my modernist eyebrows. All his flurries in the woodwind, to create a background texture, or his scales going two ways at once in the strings (first movement, measure 106, last movement measure 103, for example), also to thicken the sound…these, from Schoenberg’s point of view, look primitive. One of Schoenberg’s points of compositional honor was always to feature some musical idea. So any background texture in Schoenberg is created out of thematic material. That’s a big technical difference between modernist and non-modernist 20th-century works, and it makes the Sibelius Second look, by comparison, compositionally empty.

But this whole discussion could be turned on its head. There’s something very modern about the last movement of the Second Symphony. That big final theme interestingly recapitulates the sound and feel (if not the actual music) of a fleeting climax in the first movement. It’s as if Sibelius planted the seed of a larger climax. If you look at the symphony that way, then the last movement can’t be looked at only on its own. You have to look at it as the fulfillment of the entire piece, and if that’s the case, maybe it doesn’t need the kind of internal development a symphonic movement would have had in earlier eras.

And Schoenberg’s incessant weaving of musical ideas isn’t just compositionally noble. It’s tiring. His music is conspicuously not relaxed. Missing from it – and from most modernist scores – is any flavor of everyday life. Schoenberg’s music (and Webern’s, even more) is, in this sense, highly exotic. Or else you could say highly refined, but now we face something both curious, and, I think, crucially important. The great composers of the past had no problem with everyday life. Beethoven (in the late quartets, for instance) could get so rarified few people in his time could follow him. But even in his most advanced pieces he could get simple and write in the vocabulary everyone understood. He could sound like a folksong, or like someone whistling in the street. Same with Wagner, the great radical of his time, or Mahler.

Twentieth-century radicals, though, stepped apart from everyday concerns. Maybe that’s even more important than questions of atonality, or or serialism (which, in this discussion, would seem like consequences of the move away from everyday life, rather than causes of it). This, of course, is a bigger issue than I can deal with right now, though it strikes me that something similar has happened in rock, where alternative bands and exotic dance music become critical and artistic favorites, precisely because they’re far from the common music that most people listen to, and which is used in everyday settings, like movies, commercials, or pop radio.

In one way, the move away from everyday life is healthy. It allowed us, and may still allow us, to define a protected zone, a zone of insight, and searing honesty. Certainly that’s what Schoenberg wanted to create. (And in this he felt a great kinship with modernist painters.) If everyday life is shallow, corrupt, and self-satisfied, then art should stay away from it. But in the largest conception of living, this isn’t healthy at all, because everyday life ought to be better than it is. Thus, art should, in an ideal world, combine the simplest, most everyday feelings with the greatest penetration and complexity. If it doesn’t do that, it stands doomed, or so I’m convinced, to become artificial, and just as empty, in its own way, as the compromised, mass-market art we see all around us. Theodor Adorno just about said as much, when (I think it’s in Minima Moralia) he suggested that anything opposing mass culture is bound to be, in its own way, just as unhealthy as what it opposes, because if everything isn’t whole, then nothing can be.

But that’s a story for another time. For now, since I’ve heard acres of Schoenberg in recent months, I’m changing my focus, and listening – hoping that I’ll learn a lot—to Sibelius.