Saturday, September 02, 2006

Amateur guitar players: criminals or cash cows?

In the US war against illegal music, the new public enemy are….amateur guitar player? Yes, both the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and the Music Publishers Association of the United States (MPA) are continuing a campaign to stop amateur guitar players from sharing self learned chording (called tabs) online due to “copyright infringement.” But this is far less about their hatred of garage bands or sorrow over loss of revenue than an attempt to corner a future market through making the current competition illegal.

The Music and Teachers Organization explain guitar tabs as “a rudimentary way for guitar students to show each other how to play a guitar part for their favorite song. These tabs are created by the users and as such are not akin in any way to the illegal downloading of music recordings. They are not copied from published music from a book, from the web or other pre-existing sources.” However, MPA President Lauren Keiser announced in December 2005 that these guitar tabs fall under copyright as being derivation of original materials and that “he did not just want to shut websites and impose fines, saying if authorities can "throw in some jail time I think we'll be a little more effective".”

Following last year’s attack on PearLyrics, a website showing song lyrics (but not music), this July and August the MPA and NMPA lawyers have sent threats and closed down several of the biggest guitar tab sites including: OLGA, Guitar Tab Universe and Guitar Ironically this has doubled the traffic of Ultimate according to the New York Times.

The NMPA and MPA claim these actions come from concern over theft and protecting musician's income rights showing as proof that guitar tab books have dropped in sales from 25,000 books in the early 90’s to around 5,000 a year. However, the NMPA and MPA protect the rights and royalties, through publishers, of hundreds of thousands of musicians. Why, instead of wanting the music of the hundreds of thousands of artists to be played and spread through guitar tabs, are they more intested in these 20,000 books? While it is very noble to employ not one but two different legal teams to protect the royalties of 20,000 books annually; the NMPA and MPA are not paid to be noble but to make money.

The NMPA and MPA are not just interested in current revenue, but wherever it may be found, now or in the future. Right now the MPA does not make more guitar tabs for an obvious reason: cost to profit ratio. The MPA president Lauren Kaiser “estimated that, including overhead costs, tablature could cost about $800 per song to produce, license and format for downloading.” Tim Reiland of the online sheet music store MusicNotes sells the limited number of licensed guitar tabs for $5 each but says "Less than 25 percent of the music out there ends up in sheet music because sometimes it just doesn't pay to do it". Well, currently it doesn't.

This fever of legal activity is not because guitar interest is waning, but the opposite. In Britain alone, just in the last year, almost 1 million guitars were sold. Online guitar lessons sites are listing their 10 millionth hit, and tab site Ultimate gets 1.4 million hits a month. Literally tens if not hundreds of millions of people are learning or playing the guitar, and that means money. Well, it would except that since the 70’s the traditional way to play the guitar is to get a guitar, listen obsessively to the songs you like, learn how to play them and then share notes on how to play them with your friends. The whole point of a guitar is that is inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to learn: the people’s instrument. Plus you can wave it around really threateningly and look cool on stage with one. Well, there isn’t a lot of money for music companies for people sitting around sharing how they learned to play “Stairway to Heaven” That is, unless you can somehow make doing that illegal!

The MPA, in response to the mass of petitions, letters, protests and frustration from guitar fans who point out that the internet is the ONLY place they can learn to play most songs, hold out both the stick and the carrot: “"it is the presence of the unauthorized free product that is largely to blame for that situation," implying that once it rids the Internet of the scourge of sheet music piracy, guitarists will be awash in a sea of accurate transcriptions.” At first it may appear that the MPA and NMPA simply want masses of people to stop learning to play guitar and instead return back to the revenue herd of listening to CD’s and legal downloads. Instead, I believe that MPA is sincere in increasing and securing guitar tabs. Because by cutting off the community of guitar players sharing with each other, MPA and NMPA envision a future where every single one of the tens of millions of guitar students and fans will have to play for each and every song they learn. That is a lucrative future, one any corporation would fight for. I am reminded of the Coca-Cola campaigns in third world countries to “transition customers from traditional beverages” (translation: stop drinking water and tea and buy coke instead). So, prepare to get out your green, garage bands, because the MPA has decided there is money in those strings.


GayProf said...

You know, the MPA seems to focus so much energy on these type of silly issues that it's no wonder they are losing money. Maybe they should, oh, I don't know, actually produce quality music.

Wiccachicky said...

Wow. Many of my most fun nights would be eliminated without guitar tabs on the internet. My partner's best friend is a pretty good amateur player, and we both sing pretty well together.