Tuesday, July 7, 2015


West Germany signs up for its 50% debt reduction in 1953
What, exactly, is debt? The question takes on new urgency as, yet again, the economic wise men of the European Union declare that Greece must submit to their terms -- for, after all, is there not a great debt at stake? Not to address it in the EU's terms, clearly, would be irresponsible and disastrous -- and so, their ministers speak to Greece -- the cradle of the civilization they claim to represent -- as one would to a child.

The Greek government has debts, indeed, and Greek banks have still more. But what does this really mean? Nietzsche was hardly the first to notice that the German word for guilt (schuld) derives from the older concept of debt (schulden). In English texts, "forgive us our debts" was an older and more common form of the Lord's Prayer's "forgive us our trespasses." Debt is sin, Christ is our "redeemer," and entrance into the kingdom of heaven is to be -- in these terms -- a forgiveness of debts.

We in the U.S. like to pillory the profligate -- it's almost a national passion. Republicans in the US Congress took the lead in making personal bankruptcy more onerous, and have harped, from the Reagan era to our own, on the evil of deficits, and the need to cover any expense with a parallel cut. It's become almost a mantra with the Tea Party set.

But there's a problem here. For one, the debt of nations is not at all like the debt of people. Ordinary people can't print their own currency, or re-value it, or issue bonds to fund their new chimney. Nations can do this, because they have the larger essential reserves -- a labor force, roads, cities, minerals and other natural resources to generate future wealth, and that creates the ability to evaluate their worth, and trade in it.  But even more than this, the debt of nations is not guilt, nor is their spending like the profligacy of private persons.

Greece has suffered. It has suffered for its overspending (which, as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has pointed out, was no so much more horrific than that of many other nations), for its failure to live up to the expectations of the creditors who loaned it and its banks generous funds during what seemed to be boom times. The EU forces have imposed austerity to an amazing extent -- cuts in pensions, tax increases, cuts in social services, privatization of national treasures -- its entire economy has shrunk by more than a quarter. If Greece today is less well-prepared to pay back its debts -- or rather, the debts of its banks -- than it was several years ago, it's largely because it's taken the EU prescription of austerity.

And what is "austerity"? Very clearly, it is a special sort of punishment, one reserved to errant nations. They must be made to pay! Even if every last citizen is to starve, even if the cure kills the patient, pay they must. The latest statements from the German finance minister make it quite clear that the goal of the latest agreement, is not to make it more likely to recoup Greek debt -- rather, it is to punish the Greeks.

One should see at a glance how much this sort of "debt" is like "guilt." But there's one way in which "debt" is different, when it's money that's at stake: those who loan money expect a profit from it. They don't lend out of kindness, nor was the debt incurred out of errant sins. They gave because they expected to receive, and then some.

But let's not focus on Greece -- let's look at Ireland, a country which willingly accepted the EU's austerity prescriptions. Now, seven years later, we are told that there are "signs of recovery" -- signs evident to economists, its seems, but hard for the ordinary Irish citizen to see. Any number of years is too much to endure such pain, the more so when all it really does is satisfy the creditors (who, one might imagine, might prefer to be satisfied sooner -- but not, it seems, as much as they prefer the glee of punishing another).

And seven years, interestingly, the the time laid out for Sh'mittah -- the traditional forgiveness of debts in the Jewish Torah. In that year, debts are to be forgiven, and the poor welcomed to glean in the fields. Seems to me it's time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Lines

Blurred lines, indeed. The jury verdict of 7.4 million dollars against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke offers yet another example of how juries -- that is to say, how most people -- misunderstand originality in music. Because, in fact, music is by its very nature unoriginal -- every melody line, every hook, every grace note is but a variation on a number of ancient themes, progressions, and melodies. And in fact, that's why we like music -- precisely because it feels both new and familiar. As former Vandals drummer and present-day entertainment lawyer Joe Escalante remarked to the LA Times, it's a dark day for creativity, and in the end, this will be a net loss for music fans" -- but "good news for lawyers and the bitter everywhere."

There are, contrary to popular belief, only a limited number of musical possibilities out there. Nearly all pop music is in 4/4 time, and relies upon a number of common 'progressions' -- chord sequences -- I/V/vi/IV, I/V/vi/iii (the "Pachebel's Canon/Lighter Shade of Pale progression), vi/V/IV/V, and so on. There are a few less common ones, and of course jazz and other genres use a wider variety of them than popular music (though, it's been argued, all jazz essentially derives from the basic blues pattern). Within these, there' a restricted number of possible melodies -- many, but far from infinite -- and, like some robot throwing vast amounts of spaghetti against the fridge to see if it sticks, songwriters and composers have tried out them all. Some, it seems, are stickier than others -- and stickiness is what listeners want, after all -- so they are turned to repeatedly.

So of course we've been here before. And before. And before. Perhaps the most egregious example until now was the case of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" vs. the Chiffons "He's So Fine" -- or, as it's officially known, "Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs Music" -- details at USC's fabulous Music Copyright Infringement Resource). In that case, it came down to a few of what were called 'grace notes'(actually appoggiatura), which suggested the possibility of what the judge called 'unconscious  borrowing.' The damages awarded for this were spectacular: 1.6 million dollars -- 6.5 million in today's currency, nearly as much as the Gaye case.

Such an award is justified by its champions as discouraging 'illegal' infringements, but in fact it does no such thing. If they had lawyers enough, there are tens of thousands of songs whose authorship could be litigated in this way -- and almost any new pop song you can imagine would be a fresh candidate. Instead, it will stifle creativity -- Harrison himself admitted he was 'too paranoid' to write any new material for years after the lawsuit --by preventing the natural and inexorable process of fusing the old and the new that's what Joni Mitchell called 'the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.'

Part of the problem is the way music copyright is handled. The songwriter rights, also known as publishing rights, date back to the era when sheet music sales were a key source of revenue. That's not true today, but these underlying rights still apply, since any recording of them -- including the 'original' one -- relies on a license to to 'use' them. It's why, when "My Sweet Lord" was in dispute, the parties weren't Harrison himself or the Chiffons, but Harrisongs and Bright Tunes, the music's publishers. And, when boiled down to sheet music, songs look a lot more similar than they in fact are -- since part of what makes a song a hit is the arrangement and performance of a particular version. Ins some cases, a cover version does better than the original -- Richie Havens's "Here Comes the Sun," for instance, was a bigger hit on the charts than Harrison's own version -- but in that case, the 'publisher' portion of the royalties went to Harrison anyway -- as would be the case with any covers.

But the problem is, almost all music is a 'cover' of something. Boiled down to sheet music, the similarities are greater than the differences -- but in this modern era, when sheet music isn't even printed in most cases, this hardly seems the point.

What we need, I'd argue, is the throw out the entire existing copyright system for music. Get rid of the 'sandwich' -- publishing rights/performance rights/broadcast rights/non-earthbound communication rights -- and replace it with a system in which 10% of all royalties for all new songs are placed in a fund available to those who can make a case for similarity to older ones; damages should be capped. Then, pay a fixed portion for any performance or rebroadcast, accounting for the (divided) writing royalties. This may sound complex, but in fact, it's been tacitly done within the industry for decades -- which is why cases such as the Gaye/Williams/Thicke one are rare. Let's 'fess up, folks -- when it comes to pop music, there really isn't anything new under the sun.