guitar lessons as the transmission of culture

guitar teacherPer NPR

Thousands of guitar students lost a valuable resource last week. The most popular guitar teacher on YouTube saw his more than 100 videos yanked from the site. The reason: a music company accused him of copyright  infringement for an instructional video on how to play a Rolling Stones song.

Culture relies on shared references. Sharing requires copying. When a new guitarist copies the way that a skilled guitarist plays a well-known song, culture is being transmitted from one generation to the next.

When a music publisher prevents musicians from learning a song, they are destroying the value of the song. There’s no reason to learn the Smoke on the Water riff except that everybody else knows it, and cultural ubiquity isn’t possible unless learning is absolutely free and unencumbered. Notice that the song in the original quote is by the Rolling Stones, a band that couldn’t matter less if it weren’t part of pop culture canon.

One result of copyright extremism will be the disappearance of cultural icons like the Rolling Stones. They haven’t contributed anything fresh to the culture for close to forty years, and without third parties reusing their old work in ways that make it fresh they hardly exist. In terms of 2007 pop culture, all those covers of “Paint it black” *are* “Paint it black.”

This is why I am resurrecting 150-year old songs and posting them, along with sheet music, on my blog — it’s possible for those songs to be used as source material for new work.

But I suppose that this is needless worry. Waves of takedowns for items like free but unauthorized guitar lessons are usually part of licensing business deals. Nobody bothers to ask for the takedowns unless they have a competing commercial product for which they have paid to license the source materials. If unlicensed guitar lessons featuring Rolling Stones songs are being knocked down, it probably means that licensed ones are coming up behind them.