Forgive me for stating the obvious – and repeating what has, no doubt, been written many times before in these pages. Probably even by me. But I was struck this morning by the absolute absurdity of the music industry. Not the machinations, dodgy contracts, and double dealing. But by the underlying principle – namely ownership of music.
The absurdity struck me, with an astonishing clarity, almost like the proverbial lightning bolt, while playing Bach’s Prelude No1 in C major. If you think you are unfamiliar, find it online, and you will discover that you are not so unfamiliar. Which is exactly the point. This is inevitable music. Every note follows the preceding with absolute necessity. How could it be other otherwise? To play this is simply to be in touch with the source of music itself. How absurd that someone should own it. It is almost absurd to think that someone should have composed it. Which is not to diminish Bach’s undoubted genius. Maybe to increase it. For surely, he has simply allowed the music to compose itself. The notes of that piece are inevitable. How could there be a world in which they do not exist?
But why, my learned friends may ask, should he not “own” the notes that he has composed? Because they are not his notes. His notes are built on other notes, that have previously come into the world just as inevitably – and just as many other notes will inevitably have been built on top of his – like a house. A continuous flow of music. And to claim ownership is to try and dam up that flow. There can be no more notes because I own this row of bricks, so anything built on top of them is an infringement of my rights. Like damming up a river so that those downstream – in this case the next musical generation – have nothing from the river. Just pre-packaged bottled water, sold to them by some mega-corporation.
Fortunately, the flow of music is even harder to stop than the flow of a great river.
This argument may seem arcane – but if you sit there as I did this morning and play the notes of Prelude No 1, and it is as clear as day. In fact, I was not even playing Prelude No 1. It was playing me. My fingers were finding the notes faster than my poorly trained sight-reading could read the music. As if the music has always been there, and I have always been able to play it.
Such arguments do reach the courts. The recent lawsuit between Spirit and Led Zeppelin over the undoubted similarity between Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and Spirit’s Taurus (which they would have heard while on tour with them) eventually hinged, I understand, on the claim that the guitar chords are a common figure. Which is true. Although one might feel that this argument is somewhat complicated by the fact that Led Zeppelin (and Spirit) were, of course, both claiming to “own” them. And still do.
And does this not make me a hypocrite – earning my living within our own sunny pocket of the industry. Hopefully not. It is right that musicians and composers should be fairly rewarded. And if music is monetized, it is certainly right that they receive their fair share. And where there is money, there is also inevitably, theft and plagiarism. That is not the natural growth brick upon brick. That is simply taking an existing row of bricks and claiming them as your own. And when that happens, we rightly protest.
But thankfully not today – as it has nothing to do with the purity of pieces like Prelude No. 1.