Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings - Book Review

The Democracy of Sound: Music, Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century Century by Alex Sayf Cummings (Oxford University Press, 2013, 272 Pages, $29.95) makes a persuasive argument for the positive elements gained from bootlegging and even piracy in democratizing the distribution of recorded sound, particularly music, to the broader world created by the creation of new technologies and its spread worldwide. In a book based on his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, Cummings examines the history of copyright law back almost to Gutenburg, with emphasis on the legal precedents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the effects from the rise of new media and popular culture through the influence of the counterculture, Deadheads and Hip Hop, and the globalization of piracy. Much of the text is critical of court support for establishment capital and organizations against the urge to democratize sound, but is always balanced and scholarly in its discussion of the role of the courts and business interests. The book is remarkably free of cant and extreme rhetoric in its exploration of this explosive topic.

One of the main issues that emerges in this cleanly written text, is the difference between the interests of the companies who reproduce and distribute music and those individuals and groups who compose and perform it. This struggle has persisted from the time sound was first recorded on foil and in piano rolls in the nineteenth century through wax cylindars, 78 rpm records, LP records, wire and tape recording, CD, and various schemes of digital recording and distribution. At every technological advance, there have been those who wish to reproduce the sounds and distribute them for artistic and commercial purposes. The major differntiation between piracy and bootlegging lies in the profit motive of the former. Earliest bootleggers collected and traded elusive copies of early jazz and blues performances to other collectors, archivists, or curators wishing to save and distribute these recordings to others of the same bent. These were usually recordings that record companies did not find financially rewarding. The invention of wire and then tape recordings made it possible for such people to record entire operas from the Texaco Opera, a popular feature in New York radio offered on Saturday afternoons (remember Milton Cross?). They filled an important gap for grand opera fans until recording companies found it profitable to make and distribute opera recordings, an event that required LP, and later CD, recording.

On the other hand, pirates, who have been around for quite a while themselves, operate under a different set of rules and motivations. Typically, a pirate would remake masters in order to press cheaper editions of hit music or repackage it to produce “all-star” or “hits” recordings to bypass the recording company practice (especially after the introduction of long playing and then compact disk recording) of producing one or two hit songs in the company of eight or ten lesser songs to fill out a product, even though customers were only interested in owning the hits. Such, usually illegal, reproduction was done entirely for profit, which was possible for pirates who didn't bear the expense of producing recordings or the losses incurred because an estimated ninety percent of all recordings don't sell enough to recoup their costs. Depending upon the time period and the state of the industry, pirates have either been relentlessly pursued or quietly ignored.

Since the invention of the printing press made the transcription and reproduction of music possible, changing it from pure sound into a written medium, copying of music has been a problem and a boon to musicians and composers. After each technological change in music transcription, the courts have made it esier to copyright works, extended the length of copyright protection, and strengthened the recording industry's hold and control of the composers and performers who make the music, always arguing that it was they who took the risk. Cummings writes, “Piracy and home recording are the new frontiers of the production of music, harnessing technology and labor to make more music.” He also argues that the effect has been to make music more available to those of limited means who cannot afford corporate reproductions or who live in the developing world not served by these companies, thus enhancing the distribution of musical works. “Piracy filled the cracks between official supply and real demand” on a worldwide basis.

The unofficial release and distribution of a bootleg recording of Bob Dylan's unreleased cuts in 1969 called The Great White Wonder (GWW) was the first rock bootleg release, and became a huge hit and an avidly sought after collectible for Dylan and rock fans. Compiled from a number of sources, it is now a collector's classic. The Grateful Dead also represent an important milepost in the history of bootleg recordings, since they encouraged recording of entire concerts, which were later reproduced and distributed widely. They also retained an archive of high quality recordings of these same events which are now being released in small batches by the current legal entity representing the band. A third major element in the contemporary spread of bootlegging/pirating has been Hip Hop music, much of which originated in urban clubs where DJ's mixed cuts from a range of contemporary and historic recordings into a highly listenable and danceable format. These mixes were later released as recordings, serving the purpose of distributing the work of emerging rappers. Recording companies soon found this market irresistable and tried to limit its to the distribution of live mixes.

Cummings details the development of copyright law from the late nineteenth century until the present. Early copyright battles concerned the machine on which recordings were made. Copyright law developed, always somewhat behind the development of technology, and almost always to the benefit of the corporations over the artists and composers. ASCAP and BMI were founded to regulate the use of music in restaurants, bars, and stores, only including radio in 1917. The advent of digital distribution of sound over the Internet has only complicated distribution of royalties, with artists coming in on the low end of the scale. The history of the development of copyright law is long, complicated, and essential reading for anyone wishing to gain a thorough understanding of the current confused state of affairs in the recording industry. 

Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is a historian of law, media, and the American landscape. His work examines how the ideological transition to an “information society” reshaped American political culture and economic policy, as well as the built environment. He received his BA (2003) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and PhD (2009) from Columbia University, studying with Elizabeth Blackmar and Barbara Fields. His first book, a history of music piracy and intellectual property law in the United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He has been the recipient of the Torbet Prize, a Whiting Fellowship, and, most recently, a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

Alex Sayf Cummings has written a controversial and arresting book presenting the arguments for and against restrictions on reproduction and distribution of the work of artists and composers outside the established norms of established patent and copyright in the most highly developed nations. He concludes, “When an individual or corporation's right to maximize profit becomes the only goal of public policy, any stake of the broader community in the vast store of human creativity, whether music, art, writing, or technology, disappears from view.” He argues his case strongly and persuasively, supported by careful scholarship and broad references. Agree or disagree, this book deserves attention. The Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century by Alex Sayf Cummings is published by Oxford University Press (2013, 272 pages, $29.95). I received the book as a digital download from the publisher through Edelweiss.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gibson Brothers in Lenoir, NC - April 5

The Gibson Brothers will be performing at the J.E. Broyhill Center in Lenoir, NC on Friday April 5, 2013 at 7:30 PM. With a new CD "They Called It Music" hot off the presses and receiving air play everywhere as well as rave reviews on line (Jim Bourey on his blog, Dave Morris in Bluegrass Today, and Jim's Roots & Blues) the 2012 IBMA Entertainer of the Year as well as 2011 Vocal Group of the Year is set to continue their phenomenal success, earned after twenty years of honing their singing, songwriting, and style into the clearest and most recognizable in contemporary bluegrass. I talked with the box office this morning, and there are still plenty of good seats available in the 1000 seat auditorium. This is a great opportunity to see one of the foremost groups in bluegrass music today. Don't miss it.

The release of They Called It Music is the eleventh recording by The Gibson Brothers. The last seven have soared to the number one spot on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts, where they have often remained for months. Noted for their brother harmony sound, exceptional song writing and selection, and entertaining patter from the stage, this group from upstate New York has achieved remarkable recognition in the past few years. The title song of this album, They Called It Music, much of their special quality. The Gibsons, in their choice of songs through the years, have transcended labels. Although they are not "in your face" kinds of guys, this song is a pleas for direct and real response to the songs themselves rather than for categorization into a specific genre.

The Gibson Brothers - They Called It Music - Video

Supported by a band which features superb musicians at every position, the Gibson Brothers make demands on their audience for careful listening and their sidemen for creative musicianship. Joe Walsh, a creative contributor on the mandolin seems to throw in just the right phrase or lick that makes the audience sit up and ask "Where did that come from?" while never breaking the flow of a song. Clayton Campbell at fiddle, whether he's soloing or providing backup never plays a note that doesn't fit. His soaring tones often raise him to his tip toes as he reaches for higher plateaus. Mike Barber, on bass, has been with the band since its inception, and is often referred to as the third Gibson Brothers. He's strength is sometimes underestimated as he's not flashy with the bass, but Eric and Leigh have made him co-producer of several of the albums, testifying to his deep importance to the band.  Eric Gibson says that the band members are so good "they don't have to show all they know" on the record to make it come out right.

Joe Walsh

Clayton Campbell

Mike Barber

Eric and Leigh Gibson, born within eleven months of each other, are part of the rich musical tradition of New England and upstate New York reaching back into the early days of bluegrass in the late forties and early fifties.  People often ask us, "Do they have bluegrass up there?" Dan Tyminski, Peter Rowan, Bill Keith, Pete Wernick and David Peterson come immediately to mind as homegrown bluegrass musicians, but there's been cross pollination between New York and New England and the rest of the country since the earliest days.  There's no irony in the Gibson Brothers taking bluegrass music to North Carolina.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

The J. E. Civic Broyhill Center
The Broyhill Center is a 1000 seat modern auditorium in Lenoir, NC. Tickets may be purchased here at $15.00 per adult and $8.00 for children.  We've never been there, but the picture suggests there isn't a bad seat in the house and that sound may be really good.

How to Get to the Broyhill Center

Monday, March 25, 2013

RenoFest 2013 - Review

Despite chilly weather and rain on Saturday, RenoFest's sixteenth annual run in Hartsville, SC was well attended, professionally produced, and provided all who attended with a good time. Hartsville is a small town with a bigger town feel thanks to a major Fortune 500 industry and Coker College, a good, small liberal arts college being located there. The downtown area features several quality restaurants and small shops which provide pleasant alternatives for strolling the area when the weather is fair. The Hartsville Museum, next door to the Center Theater where RenoFest is held, is a small, professionally curated gem of a local history museum, separated from the theater by a small, pleasant sculpture garden. 

We arrived at Lee State Park, about 18 miles from Hartsville, on Monday. This is a small jewell of a park with well-constructed sites on two loops surrounding rest room areas. One of the loops is devoted to equestrian activities. At this time of year Lee provides a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of other camp sites. Sadly, when it rains, the internal sites become more than damp, but otherwise it's a wonderful place to stay.

Marty Driggers, town attorney for Hartsville and Director of RenoFest, invited us to participate in a radio show hosted by Sharman Poplava at the Village Cafe, a charming breakfast and lunch spot, for an hour interview about RenoFest. This was a first for us, and we had a good time.

Sharman Poplava

On the Air

The Center Theater

Sculpture Garden

The Band Contest
Band Contest Coordinator and Promoter Rob Jordan

 RenoFest is a small festival with a big reputation, earned for its prestigious band and instrument contests and a small but high quality lineup of national bands for the concerts held on Saturday.  The band contest is open to both amateur and professional bands which must be an "organized band that has performed previously and available for booking. Cash prizes are awarded, and the winning band earns a booking at the next year's RenoFest.  This year eight bands competed on Friday afternoon, each completing a twenty minutes set with five finalists invited back for a second look before final judging. Criteria for judging are available here.  Bands this year came from Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Their performances were entertaining and the judging, based on the results, was professional and thoughtful. This year, the judges resisted the "cute kid" factor with the winning band presenting a fast-paced, tuneful, and varied performance.

No 1 U No

Samantha Casey & the Bluegrass Jam - Finalist

New River

Cabin Creek

The Smith Family Band

South 79 - Finalist

Most Wanted - Finalist

 Most Wanted is an outgrowth of the innovative, creative program called YAM (Young Appalachian Musicians) located in Pickens, SC and focused on introducing young people to old time and bluegrass music. It's the kind of program that requires increasing community support as music programs (aside from marching bands) in public schools have eroded in the past couple of decades.  Take the time to Like this band on Facebook and support your local bluegrass association or school traditional music programs.  They list their influences as Mountain Heart, Balsam Range, The Grascals, IIIrd Tyme Out, and The Boxcars, reflecting accurately the interests of many young bands we see along the road. These bands will, no doubt, be attracted to the roots of bluegrass as well as continuing to develop their own sounds and songs as they develop.

Highway 60 - Winner

Highway 60 from Cherry Log, GA won the band competition, demonstrating a strong combination of contemporary and traditional bluegrass delivered with first rate musicianship. The band is highly energetic and enthusiastic in its delivery. Jeff Partin, Dobro and guitar player for Volume Five as well as this band, is a standout musician in a fine group of accomplished pickers. The band won the 2011 Georgia State band competition and will be worth watching as it seeks to join the myriad of good young bands currently emerging. 

 Jonathan O'Neal & Jeff Partin

 Jay Shuler & Josh Hicks

Brett Cantrell
RenoFest is a community project with support coming from local business and industry as well as the local development organization.  As a part of the free event, therefore, a benefit barbecue and concert are presented in a town park to provide some music as well as present the winners of the band contest. A small, but enthusiastic, crowd showed up on this chilly evening for the event.  Entertainment was provided by the Four Virginia Luthiers and last year's band contest winner, The Hinson Girls. 

Band Contest Finalists

Band Contest Winner Highway 60
with Contest Director - Rob Jordan

Instrument Contest & Concert

This year's guitar and banjo contests were hotly contested with twenty high quality guitar pickers, perhaps attracted by the Henderson Guitar offered as a prize, who showed up to compete. Adam Wright, former winner of the National Flat Picking Championship in Winfield, KS won the guitar champrionship. Second place was taken by Andrew Hatfield of Peoria, IL, who won at Winfield in 2011. I'm told there were five national winners and several other people who have placed at Winfield in the highly competitive mix. Featuring blind judging, the contests are professionally run and fun.

Adam Wright - Guitar Winner

1. Adam Wright, Nashville Tn
2. Andrew Hatfield, Peoria Il
3. Scott Fore, Radford Va
4.  Matt Lindsey, Dunbar WVA
5. Matthew Taylor, Maryville Tn

Guitar Finalists

Banjo Contest
Winner - Steve Moore

 Competing at RenoFest for the first time, Steve Moore took home the beautiful Yates stressed banjo with an inspired and risky performance featuring  "Super Grouper" a Noam Pickelny original in the finals. Steve is a recent graduate in biochemistry from Marietta College in Ohio as well as a former banjo contest winner at Winfield, when he was fifteen, and at Rockygrass in Colorado. We've watched him for the past five years years, first as a member of the MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) Children's Band and then as an instructor there as well as with the Youth Band at IBMA's Fan Fest. His growth as a person as well as a musician has been a pleasure to watch.
Steve Moore Recieves Banjo Award
from Meredith Lanier

Steve Moore with Prize Banjo Maker Warren Yates

1.  Steven Moore, Bethesda Ohio
2.  Brandi Miller, West Jefferson, NC
3.  Weston Stewart, Anderson Alabama
4.  Alex Edwards, Salisbury NC
5.  Moses Dehart, Glenside PA

Banjo Contest Finalists

The Concert
The Hinson Girls

The Hinson Girls, winners of last year's band contest at RenoFest, have shown improvement since their upset win last year. Anchored by fifteen year old twins Melissa and Allison on bass and banjo, with thirteen year old Katelyn carrying much of the singing load on mandolin, and eighteen year old Kristin doing most of the emcee work. Their voices are becoming stronger as they mature and their instrumental work is solid.  

 Katelyn Hinson

Allison Hinson

Kristin Hinson

Mellisa Hinson 
Balsam Range

Balsam Range is fast emerging as one of the finest and most exciting bands in bluegrass music. Its consistently driving music and thought provoking ballads and story songs guarantee a varied and entertaining mix. Gospel Music Hall of Famer Tim Surrett on bass and Dobro handles most of the emceeing responsibilities with grace and humor. Hot guitarist (and rising guitar builder whose product is increasingly in demand) Caleb Smith sings, plays, and writes with the best. Buddy Melton's pure tenor voice and obvious passion are just plain wonderful to hear. Darren Nicholson's rugged mando chop helps drive the band with an always sure hand. Fans shouldn't let Marc Pruett's smile beguile them into thinking he isn't a monster banjo player. Ask your local promoter to book this band!

 Caleb Smith

Marc Pruett

Darren Nicholson

Tim Surrett

Buddy Melton

Balsam Range

Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition

Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition is the host band at RenoFest, representing his late father Don Reno, who, because of his early death and service during World War II, is, sadly, less remembered for his great contributions to bluegrass music on the banjo, guitar and as a song-writer, than he deserves.  Ronnie Reno has emerged as fine interpreter of his father's music as well as a bluegrass entrepreneur for his work on Blue Highways TV and RFD-TV on satellite and cable television. 

Ronnie Reno

Mike Scott

 John Mayberry

Heath Van Winkle

Steve Day

Promoter Russ Jordan

The Claire Lynch Band

Claire Lynch brings a fine voice (two time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year) and an ear for combining traditionalism with a cutting edge fusion of styles. Her band, composed of incredibly versatile personnel at each position brings youth and experience together under her leadership to provide an entertaining and musically varied program. At RenoFest the Claire Lynch band was absolutely on the top of its game, and the crowd's response was strong and positive. Her demanding standards of excellence are clear in every aspect of her performance. Mark Schatz, on bass, continues to be one of the driving spirits in bluegrass bass while contributing dance, hambone, and clawhammer banjo to the mix. Matt Wingate, a former winner of the Merlefest guitar contest, contributes on mandolin as well. He also sings both a clear and steady baritone lead in addition to his fine harmony work. Bryan McDowell won Winfield in 2009 on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar, an unprecedented feat. He also blends marvelously well vocally, adding tenor harmonies. This is a musically and personally superior band.

 Claire Lynch

 Mark Schatz

Matt Wingate

Bryan McDowell

Claire Lynch

Gary Payne - Sound

RenoFest is perfectly located in the season as a small and important indoor bluegrass festival in the central and enjoyable small town of Hartsville, SC. It belongs on the schedule of people who love great bluegrass music and wish to see emerging bands and pickers before they gain national reputations on tour.  Try to schedule it for next year.

Marty Driggers - RenoFest Director