Terra Sigillata

From BBC News,

“With the fight against illegal downloading of songs starting to pay off, the music business has set its sights on a new enemy on the internet – websites which transcribe pop songs into musical notation.”

Not content with suing Moms and kids who illegally download mp3s, the recording industry is looking to further alienate a core demographic, the amateur hack musician.

Millions of scientist and non-scientist rockstar-wannabes around the world make use of guitar chord and tablature postings (tabs) to learn how to play complicated and not-so-complicated songs, trade ideas, and teach others how to play.

i-fdd6d29711e43c4a2b66f3f290ff34f0-tab_0a.gifTablature is a very nice common language used to communicate specific guitar fingerings, a simple method as precise as standard musical notation but with the added content of what string and fret is used to play each note or chord formation.

My first use of these here internets in the early 90s was not for e-mail, but for surfing USENET newsgroups like alt.guitar.tab for tabs to specific pop songs. In the years since, aggregator sites have popped up such as OLGA (On-Line Guitar Archives) to make it easier to find specific tabs. OLGA has just received a take-down letter from lawyers representing two of America’s primary music publishing groups and is dead as of this morning.

The last time publishers threatened to prosecute tab users and posters, we all agreed to put the following notice/disclaimer in header:

This file is the author’s own work and represents their interpretation of the song. You may only use this file for private study, scholarship, or research.

So, rather than increase record sales by working with the consumer, another part of the music industry is clamping down on a core support of consumers who still fuel their failing enterprise.

Some musicians, like Glenn Tilbrook (formerly of Squeeze) and Piedmont blues guitarist, Jon Shain, even post tabulature of their own songs to enable others to play. (Tilbrook mostly only posts lyrics and chords since most of his songs were written together with compatriot, Chris Difford, perhaps to not get into a row with his own publishing company.).

A professional musician and guitar instructor sent along a very interesting question related to this issue:

What does this mean for guitar teachers? Is my interpretation of a song [by another artist] tabbed out in a lesson a copyright infringement if I am sharing it with a student and being paid for my time??

IMHO, this is complete and utter bullshit. It takes a significant degree of scholarly effort to transcribe a song into tablature and, to do so, you must already own a copy of the recording. Musicians already benefit when others play their songs because no one in their right mind is going to purchase a copy of me playing Squeeze’s ‘Up The Junction’ – if I don’t play it badly, they might even go buy a copy or two of some old Squeeze albums or learn about Tilbrook’s current solo career.

Sure, it is probably fair for a music publisher to charge $0.99 to access a tab and it would be great to actually have the actual artists sell tabs as well as standard sheet music. Guitar World magazines, especially Guitar World Acoustic, post tabs in every issue. Again, many are done with the input of the originating artists themselves.

But regardless, professional instructors should also be able to charge for the effort that goes into transcribing someone else’s song and using this material in paid lessons. I contend strongly, although not legally, that this use is ‘fair use.’

Hat tip: Eric and Jon.

Comments

  1. #1 pough
    September 6, 2006

    Thank you for the link to ‘Up the Junction’, a song that I’ve actually been wanting to learn for a few years, now! As for musicians prosecuting people who make and post TAB, they’ve put themselves into one of two positions:

    1) Congratulations! Your music is too shitty for people to want to play!
    2) Oh no! People like your songs! That’s BAD!

    You don’t have to be smart to be a musician, that’s for damn sure.

  2. #2 t. comfyshoes
    September 6, 2006

    I agree, this is getting ridiculous. I’m wondering where the line will eventually be drawn. (Having absurd visions of being listened in on while singing in the shower)

  3. #3 coturnix
    September 6, 2006

    Next target: needlepoint patterns of artwork.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    September 6, 2006

    pough, my pleasure – the key change led by the bridge into the “this morning at 4:50…” verse is worth the price of admission alone, but the Chris Difford words are priceless. I used the same site to learn “Piccadilly” more so I could simply appreciate the British colloquialisms.

    btw, any Squeeze fans or musicians who stumble on this post via Google should use their next $20 to buy the Glenn Tilbrook solo DVD, One for the Road produced by Amy Pickard, an Ohio local-access cable TV show host in the 80s with whom I seem to have led a parallel life. Watching Glenn as a solo performer during his US RV solo tours is remarkable as is his ability to make these big keyboard-based songs even better as done on solo acoustic guitars. His energy remains infectious and the DVD has some great extras with Chris Difford and Amy’s old interview with the duo back in Dayton.

    Anyone who knew me in the 80s is getting a copy this Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa.

  5. #5 milo
    September 7, 2006

    Hey, it is not my fault if I can listen to some Blue Oyster Cult and then figure out how to play it. So, if I show someone how to play “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, without using tab, am I violating something? What if I tell them the main riff is based on Am? Am I now a felon? Is BOC getting screwed out of a $0.10 royalty? I think not.