David Byrne and Cory Doctorow Explain Music and the Internet
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David Byrne and Cory Doctorow Explain Music and the Internet

A chat between the two men as part of Authors at Harbourfront Centre was funny, educational, and wide-ranging.

David Byrne and Cory Doctorow are smart, well-dressed. Photo courtesy Readings.org.

Authors at Harbourfront Centre: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow in Conversation
Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen’s Quay West)
Wednesday, September 19

Paying $25 to watch two men chat seems like an odd idea, but over a hundred people went to the Harbourfront Centre Wednesday night to do just that.

David Byrne, former Talking Heads frontman and author of the recently released book How Music Works, took the stage with Cory Doctorow, a Toronto-born, U.K.-based blogger, journalist, and copyright liberalization activist. The event was part of the Authors at Harbourfront Centre reading series.

Ostensibly, Byrne and Doctorow were there to talk about how the internet has affected the music business. While that was certainly a large part of the discussion, the conversation also touched on all the ways technology and music interact, from file sharing to sampling.

Byrne started the conversation by saying that, at the turn of the millennium, interviewers would ask him for an opinion on “downloads” or “sampling.” That, he says, is entirely too broad a question.

“Which downloads? Which sampling?” he wondered aloud. Early in his career, Byrne said, he would sample a drum beat or a riff from another song, write an entire song around the sample, then not include it in the final recording. He added that sampling can act as the musical equivalent of quotation marks. Doctorow pointed out that two of the best-selling and most critically acclaimed hip-hop records of the 1980s—Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and the Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique—would have each cost roughly $12 million to make given today’s rules surrounding sample clearance.

“In the world of modern music, there are no songs with more than one or two samples, because no one wants to pay for that,” Doctorow said. “So, there’s a genre of music that, if it exists now, exists entirely outside the law. Anyone making music like Paul’s Boutique can’t make money from it, and is in legal jeopardy for having done it. Clearly that’s not what we want copyright to do.”

When the conversation turned to downloads and digital music distribution, both men were surprisingly passionate on the topic of digital rights management, and how it’s fundamentally a bad idea.

“One of the things artists strive to do when they make work is to make an ethical case for payment, to both the labels and their listeners,” Doctorow said. “Digital rights management really damaged that case. There were a lot of people who thought they’d bought stuff. They’d said ‘I’m not going to be one of those crooks who downloads,’ and then they change players and discover they can’t take their music with them. When they read the fine print on the 26,000 word disclaimer they had to click through to buy music, they find they haven’t bought anything. They’re tenants in the feudal field of some signeur over who actually owns the music.”

As an artist, Byrne said that he has had his own problems with digital rights management. Following the Sony/BMG rootkit scandal—which saw thousands of CDs recalled after the built-in DRM software rendered computers vulnerable to viruses and malware—he asked his label to make sure there was no DRM software on an upcoming release. They were less than obliging.

“I’ve run up against this a couple of times,” Byrne said. “I was in the process of negotiating a record contract at the time, and I went in to the subsidiary of Warner Brothers and said, ‘I’m adding a clause into my contract that you’ll never put DRM on my record.’ And they said ‘Oh, oh, oh…’ The record was done, and the negotiation went on for a year. The record just sat on the shelf. It was very frustrating for me.”

Doctorow argued that the way humans have historically shared music is totally antithetical to the idea of copyright laws. He pointed out that music predates not only the concept of copyright, but language itself. People have always wanted to share music, and, in an odd way, the sharing of someone else’s music is embedded in the industry’s business model, no matter how badly some may want to remove it.

“Music is the only endeavor where you get your start playing other, living people’s compositions, then send them a compulsory payment that they don’t get to set,” Doctorow said. “No filmmaker gets to make his start by making Star Wars in miniature, selling tickets, and sending a nickel to George Lucas for every seat.”

He added that the entire history of recorded music has consisted of innovators being accused of piracy by the music industry establishment.

“When recording came along, the [sheet music] composers, who had been the only industrial entities with regards to music, thought the people making recordings were thieves,” he said. “Every pirate eventually wants to be the admiral.”

The one rough spot in the evening came when the floor was opened up to audience questions. Many people seemed to take it as an opportunity to ask David Byrne a question about almost anything. Others used it as a chance to be really long-winded in front of an audience, without asking a question at all.

That small irritation aside, the event managed to be both informative and thought-provoking. Spending $25 to watch two guys chat isn’t such a bad idea after all.