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.

15 thoughts on “guitar lessons as the transmission of culture

  1. Culturally, I think it’s a big problem that copyright terms are not less than 28 years, let alone how absurdly prolonged they’ve become. After 28 years, if your music hasn’t been recapitulated by the next generation of artist, it’s pretty much lost to nostalgia or historical artifact.

    The Stone might still rock today, but no one is *rocked* by their music today the way we (as kids) were when it was new. No one is legally allowed keep making sure that people are *rocked* by the Stones, and so now it’s hard to get more out of their music than a last millennium nostalgia trip.

    And, shit, is Elvis gone? When I was a kid, the adults I knew were still totally blown away by him. Now? No one remembers what it felt like well enough to pass it on. . .

  2. I think the solution of returning to PD material and of generating new CC and PD material is the way to go. The real challenge will not be for a body of such material to arise, but instead in effective marketing to create a culture of people who insist upon it.

  3. About creating a culture of people who insist upon it, it seems to me that Creative Commons and public domain material comes with a rebel angle that would be easy to market. There’s even a purism to it that could be sold to the organic foods crowd.

    The problem is that you get pulled into conversations about copyright and technology. Also, infringement is such a standard part of life that doing things in a non-infringing way sounds fussy and pointless.

    About shorter copyright terms, the majority of music isn’t valuable enough to have been tended carefully on a legal level over the years, so can’t be used at all because of the risk that some lost heir will sue you into oblivion. You guys know this already, I’m just repeating it because it’s relevant to the issue of cultural memory. Anything which wasn’t enough of a hit to yield persistent revenues over the decades is legally radioactive.

  4. I just watched a Cory Doctorow speech that he gave at google on May 21, 2007 and thought of this post.

    If you have an hour you should try and watch or listen to the whole thing. It’s amazing the type of scope this guy gives to the whole debate and the future of our culture in general.

    He basically outright just tells all the Google Genuises that DRM is a waste of time, and that America is going to kill itself if it keeps trying to fight it’s own people.

  5. And guess what formats the NPR story is posted in? Real or Windows Media, both licensed proprietary formats. Why not post it as an mp3?

    Also, there’s more to the story. There were two people with guitar videos. One was selling paid internet lessons, the other was not.
    As far as I can tell, Sandercoe (who wasn’t selling guitar lessons on his site) just moved certain videos to a new YouTube channel on their UK site ( “so that the main channel at YouTube is not violating any terms of use.”
    The blogger linked to above points out that YouTube shut Taub down, not anyone from the music industry. While there was a letter about ‘Brown Sugar’, YouTube simply closed Taub’s account when they got the letter. It’s more complex than a simple “music industry bad, Internet good”. (Not saying you’re doing that, but there are people who do.)
    What I want, for myself and as a resource, is a solid explanation of the ins and outs of using copyrighted music. For example, Justin Sandercoe claims the ‘fair use’ argument on his YouTube page. Is he correct? I have no idea.
    It’s my belief (based on very little actual data) that posting a cover version of a song, not for sale, in a non-commercial way, is acceptable. Unless the copyright holder asks you to take it down, at which point you can either do that or fight them. Again, am I right about this? I don’t know.
    I love the idea of recording public domain sheet music rather than pop songs as a way to get that music back into the listening world. And it would be nice if Mick and Keith and the rest would allow others to futz with their work. Barring that, some clarity as to what is likely to get you a cease and desist letter would be nice.

  6. There are ways in which the overall output of YouTube could be fairly assessed to provide a royalty payment and give permission for all covers. A snapshot of the music content on a given date could be analysed (a hell of a task) and YouTube pay an agreed overall royalty, divided in the usual way according to the analysis. This is grossly unfair to unsigned, minority interest stuff as what always happens is that the big copyright holders get all the money.

    It’s how PRS (Performing Rights Society) do it in the UK. On September 7th, one of their reps is due to visit our folk club. Our crew has been briefed – no Beatles, no Elvis, no Elton John etc! Not too much traditional either (it goes nowhere, they still charge the same fee). Phil Ochs, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Billy Bragg, Ewan MacColl, Dick Gaughan stuff – great! Make sure the PRS rep lists a set of deserving copyright holders instead of Sir Paul, Jacko, and corporate friends. Then until the next spy is sent to asses us, our playlist will make sure the £6 a week royalty fee provides a few pence to worthwhile songwriters…

    And, of course, people can then play as much commercial cover stuff as they like thereafter. You can’t stop ’em, it’s what the average pub audience wants. ‘Dae somethin’ we ken, can ye?’

  7. Its a bit extreme to have to take down 100+ videos being that only one of them was the problem. I see what you mean by sayin that the licensed ones are coming up, but its all amateur product, and most people don’t want to deal with licenses.


  • Dae somethin’ we ken, can ye? « the Wordpress of Lucas Gonze
  • Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell
  • Brett on guitar lessons as culture « the Wordpress of Lucas Gonze
  • Guitar Lessons As The Transmission of Culture

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