The latest Whispering Johnson recording project is finally complete!
You may recall I wrote previously about the actual experience of being in the studio, and how the technology had changed the way music is recorded.
Now we’ve seen the process all the way through – we have several boxes full of shiny shrink-wrapped CDs and a redesigned web site.
I have to admit that there’s something very emotionally gratifying about actually having the tangible physical items representing the product which I don’t get from just the web site. But perhaps that’s just the old fuddy-duddy in me. I noticed as I was listening to the pressed CD for the first time that one of the things I missed from making records in the old days was being able to watch my band name on label in the middle of the record spin around on the turntable.
The web site features downloadable files of all of the tunes we recorded, and also has the scanned images of the sheet music for most of the tunes. All of this has been released under the Creative Commons ReCombo (which apparently got renamed Sampling Plus 1.0) license, which allows others to “sample, mash-up or otherwise creatively transform this work” as long as the authors are given credit and as long as the work is not used to advertise for or promote anything but the created work.
How are we going to make any money on this? Well, we probably won’t – but what’s new about that? As musicians, we’re a lot more interested in getting the work heard and appreciated than we are in making money from it (that’s why we have jobs ).
As far as I know, this is the first time that the sheet music for original tunes has been released under Creative Commons licenses. We’d be very excited if people actually played these tunes, and even better, evolved them into new iterations. For instance, it would be cool to see if somebody could put words to and sing some of these tunes!
This, of course, is no different than what musicians have always done, appropriating what they’ve heard and fashioning it into something new. There’s a great video of a presentation from composer Anthony Kelley of Duke University (available from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain site) called “Great Composers Steal” where he talks extensively about this topic. The whole history of jazz is full of examples of jazz’s greatest geniuses taking chord progressions from popular tunes and writing new melodies for them – for instance, Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee is a rework of Back Home In Indiana. And if you look back in the history of music and intellectual property, you find that there have been long and intense battles over the legalities of all these kinds of appropriations of intellectual content, most of which end up having only a tangential relationship with actual practice by musicians.
There’s a very good article in Wired by Chris Anderson called The Long Tail about the effect that new distribution technologies are having on sales of popular media. Anderson notes that with the abundance of inventory carried by online distribution freed from the constraints of shelf space (think Amazon, iTunes Music Store, Netflix)
Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.
The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.
This is the Long Tail.
You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. There’s the back catalog, older albums still fondly remembered by longtime fans or rediscovered by new ones. There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre: Imagine an entire Tower Records devoted to ’80s hair bands or ambient dub. There are foreign bands, once priced out of reach in the Import aisle, and obscure bands on even more obscure labels, many of which don’t have the distribution clout to get into Tower at all.
So I’m hopeful that our little recording project will find an audience out there and that the tunes will touch some responsive parts in people we wouldn’t ordinarily come in contact with, and I’m proud to be a small part of changing the way music is shared around the globe. And if you want a real CD, let me know.