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Who owns culture? A chat with Lessig and Jeff Tweedy.

Just got back from seeing Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Larry Lessig, and Steven Johnson talk about “Who owns culture?” at the New York Public Library. They webcast the event, so if you’ve never seen Lessig wield his formidable PowerPoint clicker, you may be able to catch it archived there at some point. I’m not going to try to weave this into something narrative, so here are a few random thoughts/observations:

My favorite quote of the evening, from Tweedy (I think I got this down accurately): “I’d like people to hear my music and say they don’t like it rather than not be able to hear it because they can’t afford it”.

Tweedy: “Music is finished in the audience”. He credited the audience with 50% ownership in the creation of a musical piece…the creator is not much until someone listens to the music they’ve created.

Lessig: Fair use doesn’t apply to music or movies like it does for text. I can excerpt a book and critique it, but if I wanted to play a clip of a new Fischerspooner song on a podcast and then review the album, I’d need to secure the rights ahead of time.

Johnson: Why isn’t there a company that has come along and basically done what the record companies do for artists (distribute and promote records) but do it without all the overhead and let the artists keep the rights to their material? This is probably being done on a small scale (Factory Records comes to mind), but at first blush, this seems like a fantastic business opportunity. All the economies of scale without the monopoly.

Wilco’s cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper. I think it goes without saying that it needs more cowb, ah screw it.

Tweedy: Wouldn’t it be great if an artist like Paul McCartney decided that he had made enough money and just started giving his music away to people to enjoy because that’s what music is all about for him. Quote from this Wired article: “If Metallica still needs money then there’s something really, really wrong.”

Tweedy: What the music and movie companies are asking of artists, to create in a vacuum, is impossible. Not being able to sample, use a piece as a jumping off point for another piece, borrow tunes from other songs, or otherwise be influenced by an artist or poet or writer, it’s not possible because that’s what art is.

Lessig/Tweedy: Legislating against things like remixing and sampling is racist (also mentioned briefly in this Wired article). The argument goes that genres that tend to rely heavily on sampling and remixing (like hip-hop and rap) tend to be practiced by minorities and that legislating against them is de facto racism. More generally, it’s about the powerful (who, in the US, tend to be middle-aged white men) trying to keep their power by limiting the powerless (i.e., the poor and otherwise disenfranchised, who, in the US, tend to be minorities). (Apologies if this is confusing or I misrepresented Tweedy’s views on this or overused the word “tends”…racism is one of those hot button issues and I don’t want anyone to fly off the handle and say Tweedy or I said that all poor people are black and like rap music or some nonsense like that. Anyway, tried to be careful with it, but the above may not necessarily reflect the nuance of Tweedy’s views on this issue.)

At one point, Johnson and Tweedy started talking about alternative models for music distribution and Tweedy made the point that music has been around for a lot longer than the record companies and there’s lots of ways that music (and other forms of media) has traditionally been distributed, like via subscriptions and patronage. And Steven missed the perfect opportunity to say, “a friend of mine is exploring a micropatronage model for blogging….” ;)