Music as roadkill in the Internet sphere

Posted on Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sandy Pearlman, the legendary rock-music producer credited with coining the term “heavy metal,” has been a visiting professor at the Schulich School of Music for the past five years. Among his contributions to McGill is the creation of an über-interdisciplinary course entitled The Treble Cliff: The Remonetization of Music and other Promiscuously Transportable Media Objects. The class, which draws about 20 selected students and a half-dozen professors from Music, Management, Law, Communication Studies and Information Studies, weighs “the technological, regulatory, economic and social issues in creating, performing, supplying, hearing, finding and making a living from music.”

As the syllabus for the most recent session noted, “Changes in music’s form and dissemination have had ripple effects, inspiring the creation of entirely new media and technologies, daring business models, new commodity forms and have tested the limits of domestic and international regulation.”

In an hour-long interview with the Reporter, Pearlman shared his views on how digitization and the Internet have turned music into essentially a free commodity.

The following are excerpts from that conversation:

Music as roadkill in the technology universe

(In the Treble Cliff course) I give an overall lecture on the history of music as roadkill in the technology universe – roadkill in the Internet sphere. And then I give an additional lecture on

possible solutions to the problem.

I believe there actually are things that could or can be done to remonetize this sphere so that musicians and writers and rights-holders in general, which includes the record companies, can actually be paid for their intellectual property.

I make the point that if the greatest social good is that more people have access to more music than has ever been possible in the history of the world, that the greatest social good has been long accomplished – because all the music ever recorded in the history of the world is available online to everybody for nothing. Occasionally somebody will say, ‘Well, somebody in an Indian village can’t get it.’ And, that’s true; but in a few years they will. So it’s essentially an unimpeachable statement.

So that’s happened. On the other hand, the group of people who used to make money as a function of doing this is contracting, and the amount of money that’s made is contracting…

On MP3 technology

Music is valued at nothing not only because it’s available for nothing, but because it doesn’t sound any good any longer. An 18-year-old freshman here was three years old when the MP3 era kicked in. So this is what they’ve grown up on. When I play music for them on analog or digital versions, it’s always kind of scary to the kids, because they realize that what they’ve been hearing, even if it’s a high-quality digital recording, is far less impressive as an experience than a high-quality analog recording. You know, it’s really alarming when people realize that analog got probably as good as it was going to get in the capability to record music on a convincing basis that would pass for real – that probably was completely achieved by 1959. And that nothing better has happened since then. I used to get laughed at, and get abusive emails and postings when I used to say this, but it’s not happening any longer…

On the Treble Cliff course

The students are vetted by their faculties: Law, Music, Management, Arts and Education. Just yesterday, I was in a class and I pointed out that Steve Jobs spent his time at Reed College auditing every class that he wanted. He didn’t graduate from Reed, but they liked him so they let him stay around and he audited everything so he got the best education in the world, and he hooked up with a great technologist, Steve Wozniak. It’s a good paradigm … cross-fertilization across all sorts of disciplines.

[With Treble Cliff] we were really trying to create, on a for-credit basis, a kind of situation where these normally ad hoc relationships would be facilitated and encouraged and nurtured at almost no cost to the university.

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