Free Music

“Free” and “Music.” Two words that go together in very different ways these days.

Music that flows freely in our world is a beautiful and inspiring thing. Music, that exquisite sound, that enchanting muse, today liberated by technology to ring out everywhere, enriches every corner of our lives. The more we share music, the better we are; we could not imagine a world without this inexplicable, gratuitous, extravagant gift to us all.

Recently a music publishing executive was interviewed on a network news magazine show about the state of the music enterprise in America. He made the observation that with a smart phone and a little finagling you can now download, for free, any piece of recorded music, ever recorded in history. He argued this as a beautiful thing: the more music out there, the more enlightened and civilized people and societies will be. Your smart phone will get you tacky entertainment on the web, but it will also get you the masters, the monster stars, the pinnacles of centuries of music, and yes, by god, it’s all free. That is really something, and it’s worth realizing that this is very new in history; not to be taken for granted. Think about it…. nothing in music is forbidden you, and it’s free.

Of course, there has always been some music that was free, a lot of it. When I was about 12 years old my grandma gave me a record of Burl Ives playing guitar and singing folk songs. I was very moved by the music, but I was astonished when she explained that many of these songs were very old, so old that the composer was long forgotten and we were singing songs sometimes centuries old that came down to us, singer to singer, in a long historical process.

Wow, what a realization… this old folk song may have been sung in Elizabethan times and it lives on in our living room or around our campfire today. That was a piece of information that changed my life: besides loving the guitar, I was in awe of songs that old, that free. Today the scholars and the musicians continue the debates and discussions about how to preserve and honor old songs. These songs are the very definition of free, even recognized in law as in the “public domain.”

Then when I was about 13, my folks discovered a music program in Kansas City, MO parks called “The Show Wagon.” The city had created a very elaborate portable stage on a trailer with lights and sound that they hauled around every weeknight in the summer and put on a free show for the kids and adults in neighborhood parks. The Show Wagon was well-organized, fast moving, and we amateur kids played some pretty decent music. The audiences were usually a few hundred local neighborhood residents, and onstage there were a couple of paid pro musicians available if you needed a piano backup. But for the audience and for most of us earnest kids performing, The Show Wagon was free.

Beautiful: Inner city neighborhoods got some relief from the summer heat, the entertainment brought people in off the streets, and we young performers got experiences and learning that still influence us 60 years later.

And so on: thank god for the music that is free, that flows unencumbered in families and jam sessions and worship services and community groups and yes, in government sponsored concerts. Oh, and not to forget those priceless moments alone in our music corner when we plunk a little on the old flat top guitar just for the love of it. That guy in the interview was surely right: the more music comes to us and involves us, the better off we are.

And then there is the rest of the story: after that music company guy had said how cool it is that technology has put all music in reach of everybody, he went on to suggest one qualification: ‘said the only part of free music we haven’t figured out is, how to pay musicians and composers?

And there, my friends, is the other side, the perfectly opposite, the 180 degrees off horn of this dilemma: in a world of free music, what do you do about paying musicians and composers?

This issue has come up with my colleagues in professional music, over here in the independent, folkie, grassy, songwriter-ish music area. I am lucky to know these musicians, some of the best players and pals in the world. I want to say a word about how the freeing up of music affects them. These musicians play gigs that are often small concerts, sometimes bars, many house concerts, some summer festivals, and if lucky, the occasional established folk or bluegrass concert series.

Lately, they have been talking to me about “free music,” and connecting it up with “nobody wants to buy recorded music anymore.” And it’s sorta’ true: CD;s seem to be a quaint thing of the retro past, fading into antiquity like cassettes, 8-tracks, LP’s, 78’s and cylinders. Man, to guys like me it seems like yesterday. Wait a minute, it was yesterday.

So the future that became today has some surprises: as Lee Hayes famously observed, “the future ain’t what it was cracked up to be, and what’s more, it never was.” These musician colleagues didn’t anticipate a future without “product sales,” sales of CD’s, books, and other concert-related products to cover their travel costs, offset otherwise modest fees, and provide the obvious advantages of an hour of one’s recorded music with one’s picture on it going home permanently with your fans.

These indie, folkie, grassy professional musicians do not, of course, command national media exposure or enjoy the trappings of pop music stardom. But in their arena they are major: these indie men and women are creating beautiful and virtuosic things never before seen or heard in traditional music. Occasionally one of them is recognized by a presidential medal or a Macarthur grant or other rare bit of national attention. But most of them work quietly on, playing to comparatively small audiences, accepting modest payment, selling fewer and fewer CDs. But you and I know that their stamp on traditional music is permanent and lasting and profound. We don’t want these people to disappear.

So the question raised at the end of the music business exec’s interview is an important one. I intended to try to answer that question here. But now I realize, after attempting three or four answers and tearing them all up, the full answer will be complex and multi-faceted, and it will be long-term historical.

So instead of trying to see the end, therefore, maybe I can contribute something here to the beginning: most solutions to great issues begin with attitudes, those predispositions we all have that send us off in one direction or another. I would suggest to us that we adopt some attitudes in common, points of view that unite, rather than divide us over that difficult question of free music. In the ancient Greek dramas there was often a chorus who whispered warnings of doom when the hero was about to make a bad choice. Here, please let me be the chorus and whisper some suggestions.

So here goes (he says, whispering): first, let’s declare that the best answer to the dilemma of free versus paid professional music is not either/or, but both/and. We want music to be free because of the humanizing, civilizing, enlightening effect it has on people. And we want those special, unpredictably brilliant pro musicians who show up on a stage somewhere to continue to be there to inspire us. Instead of getting loyal to only one of these, let’s promote both. Most people who come together for a friendly jam or make music in church or hum along with the radio were inspired by some pros. The number of non-pro guitarists out there who were inspired by Doc Watson in his lifetime must be astronomical. And it works both ways: most professional musicians started out as little kids playing for free where they could. They were helped and brought along by communities of free music, jams, church, friends, and so on. It is a system: do not let the virtuosos disappear.

Second, let’s look for ways to support the cause of music itself, free, pro, semi-pro, whatever. Non-pros and pros alike, we can get ourselves in community groups that jam, contribute to organizations that provide instruments to struggling kids, organize music for charitable institutions, and get music in all its rough and imperfect manifestations to thrive.

And yes, as the bumper sticker has it, support your local picker, ante up for a concert ticket if you possibly can. And listen up, musicians, we can contribute to this in an important way: we can resolve to play better, search for the elusive echos of the voice of god down inside our instruments. Be grateful for fans who will pay to hear us. And we can strive to be worthy of what is one of life’s greatest gifts, the fact that you and I actually get to be musicians. And the greatest musicians I have ever known have all been people who encourage kids learning to play, they’re gracious to their fans, and they are earnest in their work to make their music make people happy.

Well, whew… that was a pretty long whisper. But it’s my rant on free music. And now, I’m reaching for that CD of the Stanley Brothers’ 1950 Mercury sessions; ‘haven’t heard “Daybreak In Dixie” for a while.

‘Reminds us that all answers to all these questions will come to us when we let the music speak.

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