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Downloads challenge musicians' money but spur innovation

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | JULY 29, 2009 7:15 AM

1969: Go to the record store. Flip through new releases. Buy an album. Go home. Listen.

2009: Go to the Internet. Type in a band name. Click download. Listen.

As Dylan told us — “For the times, they are a-changin’.”

When I was a child, my home housed an illegal business — but not what you think. Drugs weren’t sold, hookers weren’t rented, and gambling didn’t roll. Instead, my brother was one of the first to figure out how to acquire music files. He scoured the web for the latest top-40 hits and burnt CDs for his friends for a nice profit.

All this mischief occurred before Metallica got angry and sued Napster, so I’m not sure if my brother even knew what he did was against the law. One thing was for certain — a new wave of acquiring music began overtaking the world. Once people understood they could go to the Internet and download their favorite music for free, my brother’s business died, and the war on copyright began.

Before going any further, let’s make one thing clear: Stealing music is illegal. People shouldn’t think I believe everyone should be allowed to share music for free. Would that be cool? Of course, but it’s not feasible. We can’t expect artists to not want some type of compensation for their work, and that should be respected. Sample artist Deepak Mantena, who performs under the name Junk Culture, hopes fans understand that concept.

“My policy is to buy records by bands you like — everybody does that, I hope,” Mantena said. “You can’t deny people getting access to it by downloading it, but you can’t deny that will help make an artist in a lot of ways … But for my music personally — if I had a choice between nobody hearing it or a bunch of people just downloading it for free, I would totally be cool with them downloading it.”

What needs to be examined is how the wave of file sharing continues to change culture — and music. Mash-up artists such as Girl Talk or the Hood Internet have found ways to sample clips of songs that they themselves did not create. Instead, they creatively paste them together to form new, exciting sounds that hardly — if at all — sound like the original versions. Is this making new music or breaking the law? When it comes to art, it’s hard to know where to draw the line.

The U.S. Copyright Office’s website states that “copyright is a form of protection provided by the law of the United States to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.”

With that definition, if people create pieces of “intellectual work,” they have the rights to them. If they use other artists’ work to make theirs happen, it’s possible the new art doesn’t exist in the copyright world because somebody has the ownership on the old art.

Since the birth of file-sharing and mash-up artists, this re-creation of art has become more noticeable, but it’s happened for years. Artists have been reusing music since cavemen started slapping sticks together and howling. For example, “No One,” by Alicia Keys, “Soul to Squeeze,” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “With or Without You,” by U2 all have the same chord progression in each song — I, V, vi, IV.

We see the influence of technology all over our world, and now it’s taking over music. Without file sharing Girl Talk, Junk Culture, and other popular mash-up artists may not have emerged. But are these artists creating new pieces of art or even stealing? As a music lover I’m not sure, but my policy has always been if it sounds good — I’ll listen.


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