Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell

Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell

As I watched and listened to all those different versions of The Tennessee Waltz, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if that dynamic were applied to out-of-copyright tunes. Can more of the old tunes be reborn? If so, will our new ability to share, teach, and learn turbocharge the creative process surrounding them? If so, will that process in turn lead to the production of new tunes? If so, will some of those new tunes achieve cultural ubiquity? If so, will some of those conceivably remain outside the copyright regime?

This is indeed a long shot. But in another sense it’s just a matter of patience. Think of it as a disruptive technology:

Sometimes, a disruptive technology comes to dominate an existing market by either filling a role in a new market that the older technology could not fill (as more expensive, lower capacity but smaller-sized hard disks did for newly developed notebook computers in the 1980s) or by successively moving up-market through performance improvements until finally displacing the market incumbents (as digital photography has begun to replace film photography).

For readers not from the tech industry, the classic example of a disruptive technology is that weak little PCs ended up replacing ultrapowerful mainframe computers.  Songs like Ella Waltz doesn’t have to be as obvious a source as songs like Proud Mary, they just have to outlast them.

Jon has the perfect example:

though I wouldn’t have thought Episcopal hymns would be toe-tappers, I love to hear — and play — John Fahey’s arrangements of tunes like In Christ There Is No East Or West.

It happens that this is a reasonably simple tune to play, the song has already lasted for an improbably long time, there is an easily accessible recording online, and not only is there guitar tablature available for Fahey’s version but the tab is published on Fahey’s own site.

It’s not an accident that we’re discussing this particular bit of music. For a song that isn’t a pop hit, it has an incredibly high chance of survival over the long term. And not just surviving but reproducing, in the form of lots of little baby covers which may themselves be covered and end up displacing our current generation of pop hits.

It’s true that next to current chart toppers this song doesn’t stand much of a chance of being covered right at this moment, but over time the odds will grow in its favor. The monster hits of 2007 will disappear from cultural memory, while coverable songs will hold onto their niche.

Try starting your view of history in 2006, as if you were born last year and had never lived in a time when music and physical media were tied together. The internet era has barely begun.

8 thoughts on “Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell

  1. about half (more?) the magnatune catalog is pd, sometimes directly reaching deeply into ethnic roots and indirectly in 18/19th century classical which used ethnic melodic ideas.

  2. If you look at

    you’ll see that Classical + World + Baroque genres, by sales, make up 46% of Magnatune’s sales, and all of that is public domain repertoire.

    And the new age stuff on Magnatune is largely world-music-borrowing, so another 12% of our sales can be at attributed to “heavily leaning on PD”

    As far as the # of albums go, I think about 40% of Magnatune’s albums are PD repertoire. I’d have to count the # of albums on the various pages to get the exact count.


  3. The lesson I take from this is that public domain material is so common that we don’t notice it. Even though there is virtually none in the pop charts, the pop charts represent a surprisingly small portion of real listening.

  4. I enjoy taking a MIDI melody of a classical or traditional piece from mutopia.org, dropping it into a synth, and remolding it into something completely different. It’s fun how different and yet likable “different” can be.

  5. dude, you’ve been living in LA long enough, you should know this: the ‘pop charts’ are rigged ;)

    or more accurately (and seriously) easy to manipulate.

  6. But if the pop charts are rigged, then the consensus reality that comes with them is bogus! Are you telling me that T-Pain and JoJo aren’t really household names?

  7. I’m guessing we’re saying the same or similar things

    the consensus (or ‘cultural ubiquity’) is manufactured, so yes, it is, in a way bogus — which makes it all the more vulnerable to disruption.

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