Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)
Between 1910 and 1919, a spate of stories set in Tin Pan Alley (the New York sheet-music publishing district) appeared in mass-circulation magazines, newspapers, and cinemas. These contributed to the growing popular knowledge about how popular music was manufactured and promoted; thus they can offer us useful views of the workings of the early music industry, from a perspective that differs somewhat from non-fictional accounts of this period. My paper will explore what these stories tell us in particular about the evaluation of popular music and its frequently fraudulent industrial practices. These largely “romantic” narratives are driven by a conception of Tin Pan Alley as a place where authentic love and authentic musical creation/production can become, against the odds, intertwined and interdependent. Here also we glimpse the rising prominence of “backstage” or insider accounts of cultural industries in the 1910s, prior to Hollywood’s mass of self-revelations and self-mystifications of the 1920s. Together, these insights can contribute to a broader historicisation of contemporary notions of authenticity in general, and of their mainstream, mediated roots in particular. This paper represents the next phase of my current work on a genealogy of “mainstream” authenticity, first presented at my Liverpool 2009 plenary, “Tin Pan Allegory”.
I’m here at the 2013 IASPM (International Society for the Study of Popular Music) biennial conference. I’m one of about 20 British popular musicologists and there are several hundred of us from all around the world. We’re at the magnificent Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura in Gijòn, Spain. I’ve attempted to blog the sessions – including the abstracts and a brief summary – here. I do so with apologies to the presenters for any unintentional misrepresentation.
[This is a live blog – hit ‘refresh’ in your browser throughout the evening and the most recently performed song will appear at the top. As in 2012, each song will be scored as we hear it. Geeky musicological commentary will be added wherever possible. As always I’m going to try (and will probably fail) to pick a winner.]
So, to the predictions. I am typing this at 22:07 on the night, and will, as in previous years, leave my (inevitably wrong!) top 3 here for posterity, and afterwards will post the actual winners below these. I got two of the top 3 right in 2012, but I’m worried this was a fluke. I really want Greece’s ‘Alcohol is free’ to do well, but I fear that there may not be enough irony in mainland Europe to fuel its deserved propulsion up the ranks. I’m also concerned that my grumpiness about Ireland may be misplaced – people might just buy those lyric clichés. They’ve done it before, and will carry on… till the end of time…
2013 Eurovision – my predicted top 3
—————- [edit – 23:30pm]
2013 Eurovision – actual top 5
So all of my top 3 were in the top 5 – but I missed two big songs (Azerbaijan and Ukraine) by a fair distance, only scoring them as 61% and 64% respectively. But the blog successfully predicted the winner in both 2012 and 2013 (albeit after a total disaster in 2011, where I failed to get any of the top 3).
Overall, I thought the song quality was way higher in 2013 than in previous years, with a general consistency of good quality songwriting across the board. See you next year!
Here’s an advert soundalike track. They’ve even copied the Cuíca drum. Not a single note or chord is the same as Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, of course. But the arrangement and production clearly references the Paul Simon original – and the casual listener is left in no doubt of the source. This is the challenge of soundalike works in music publishing – technically copyright can subsist in any part of a musical work, but it tends to be interpreted (in law and in the making of the work) as only being based around musical notes i.e. if it can’t be notated, it isn’t copyright.
Of course, it is impossible to own the copyright in a musical technique, whether it be strummed semiquavers on an acoustic guitar or a Cuica ‘laughing’ drum. But if the combination of musical decisions in the original work is unique (strummed 16 acoustic, Cuica drum coming in a few bars later, fingerboard muting over a 3-chord/2-bar loop, all at the unusually fast tempo of 210BPM), it’s fair to say that the soundalike track is referencing a specific work rather than just a musical style. And if this is the case, it’s presumably been done so that the casual listener will ‘recognise’ the original; thus, the copyist is benefiting (in this case commercially) from the endeavours of the original artist – without licensing the track or asking permission.
Disclaimer – I make these observations only as an interested academic and musician. There is, as far as I know, no copyright infringement case associated with these works, and if there is I am unconnected with it. But if anyone connected with the publishing of ‘Julio’ is reading this, I hope you go after them!
A lot of the posts on this blog have been somewhat one-sided, perhaps even evangelical. This is because I believe that there are serious strategic benefits to Universities and other large organisations of adopting ‘free’ web-based interactive services, rather than trying to source all their IT needs in-house.
But today I’d like to take a different angle on a much-rehearsed debate – the idea of democratically-collated knowledge, most famously exemplified by Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia arguments
I meet academics all the time who are not regular Wikipedia users, and many of them are critical of it because the very concept sounds absurd. To publish an article on which people rely for research, and to make it editable by anyone in the world seems anathema to HE’s methodology of peer review and serious scholarship. But this point of view misses two important characteristics of Wikipedia – firstly, it is not a primary source. Its policy states that entries should cite only verifiable and reliable primary and secondary sources. Secondly, to criticise it based on the potential for malicious damage is to misunderstand the basically altruistic nature of humans; the majority of people seem to enjoy sharing knowledge. Wilful sabotage takes place, of course, on Wikipedia as in physical textbooks (remember those rude pencil drawings in the margin of your teenage classroom copy of Hamlet?), and, this being the web, the online version is instantly published worldwide. But there is a critical mass of opinion that will prevent inaccuracy; try sabotaging an important Wikipedia page and you’ll see what I mean – it will revert to the accurate version within minutes, as a member of the community swoops in to heal the wound.
There have been attempts to compare online and print encyclopedias, notably the Nature survey earlier this year, and Wikipedia comes out fighting in these cases. But, just like a regular encyclopedia, it is not a one-stop-shop for research – it’s a starting point to get an overview of a subject, leading hopefully to investigation of the reliable sources it cites. Like all academics, I tell my students that Wikipedia is not a source in itself and should not be cited in research (indeed, Wikipedia’s own policy makes this clear). But unlike some colleagues, I do encourage students to use it in order to identify the reliable sources on which the article is based. Wikipedia works. It’s not the fount of all human knowledge, but it does link to it.
These arguments have been well rehearsed in the blogosphere, in the mainstream press, and even in scholarly research. But today, in the interests of balance, I want to discuss a site that falls down precisely because of its democratic, participatory online approach – Musipedia.
What is Musipedia?
It’s a website, founded by Dr Rainer Typke, that attempts to document and make searchable melodic themes from copyright and non-copyright musical works, mainly from Western/tonal music, covering the classical repertoire, popular song and jazz. Here’s the ‘About’ page from the site. Its philosophy is inspired by Wikipedia (although it is a separate organisation) in that it asks the worldwide community of musicians, musicologists and music-lovers to contribute melodies through various web-based interfaces, and then provides mechanisms for visitors to search its database for melodies. The site went ‘democratic’ in 2004 by adding any-user contributions and edits.
And, speaking as a music specialist, it’s very difficult to use. Entries are unreliable, the database is patchy (it includes some really obscure folksongs and omits some massive international pop hits), and it is musicologically underpowered in several ways, making no reference to harmonic context or bar placement, and suffering from an under-developed rhythmic engine (made worse by some contributor entries that contain no rhythmic information). This is not to criticise Typke – he is an eminent published academic with extensive knowledge of music information retrieval systems and some outstanding primary research. But I suggest that it is Musipedia’s Wikipedia-like contributor system that is its downfall.
The idea of a ‘melody dictionary’ is not new. Barlow and Morgenstern published their ‘Dictionary of Musical Themes’ in the late 1940s, and their database (of 10,000 Western classical themes) is now available online. This is much more reliable (than Musipedia), perhaps because of its non-collaborative nature; it was researched by individuals who had a clear overview of a particular musical canon, and more importantly these individuals had a particular level of musical literacy. It’s not flawless – like Musipedia, it omits harmonic context and rhythmic placement, but as a source of monophonic musical lines it’s perfectly usable. Personally I use it in songwriting dispute cases when I’m acting as a consultant to copyright lawyers – it’s a great way of calculating the statistical likelihood of particular pitch choices. And the updated/online version improves hugely on the original print publication because there is a playable MIDI file of each entry.
Musipedia, I suggest, is hampered because there is no measure of the musical knowledge of its contributors, and no quality assurance mechanism to ensure that entries are accurate (plus inevitable legal hindrances related to online music publishing and copyright). But surely one could say that Wikipedia suffers from the same lack of contributor-screening? Certainly, but in the latter case, there are enough suitably-informed people who can spot an error in an instant; the majority of those with an interest in a particular subject can (and do) error-trap Wikipedia articles. Musipedia is different; making contributions requires a certain level of subject-specific skill (aural pitch analysis, music reading etc) beyond the generic research skills of cross-referencing needed to contribute to Wikipedia. Musipedia’s input interface cannot differentiate between an experienced musician and a tone-deaf music fan, and the same problem applies to members of the online community who might error-trap entries by the latter.
For Wikipedians, a democratic approach has achieved a stable welfare state; but I suggest Barlow and Morgenstern’s benign autocracy is more successful than Musipedia’s hippy commune, despite Typke’s excellent architectural drawings for the squat. Hmmm – might have tortured that metaphor far enough now.
There’s a political parallel here in the UK; whatever one thinks of David Cameron’s Big Society arguments, some roles require specialist expertise and can’t be democratised. There are arguments in favour of self-appointed/untrained community religious leaders or even educators, but I’m sure none of us would want to be operated on by a community surgeon, or be a passenger with a community airline pilot. But I digress.
So we’re back to the gatekeepers debate. Wikipedia shows us that democratisation of factual knowledge seems to work – there are enough people in the know (who care enough) to outnumber the saboteurs, the ‘haters’ and the mis-informed. And the ignorant (I use the term in its non-pejorative sense) will mostly stay away from editing Wikipedia articles about which they have no knowledge. There is little incentive for anyone to make malicious edits to, say, an article about a DNA polymerase, and thus it is more likely that such an entry will be accurate because it will, by its nature, attract interested experts as editors.
Music is different. Everybody loves it, and everybody has an opinion about it. But to perform, compose, notate or analyse music requires a set of learned skills that are diluted, not multiplied, by mass democratic knowledge. And if we have no democratically effective mechanism of differentiating between accurate and inaccurate entries, the database’s integrity will suffer.
So I conclude, tentatively, that applying democratic principles to factual knowledge seems to be a recipe for accuracy. Applying them to technically challenging skills such as melody transcription doesn’t seem to bring the same benefits. It’s early days for Musipedia, and I really hope it succeeds, but its wikipedia-like strategy may just be its downfall.
Which is maybe why 99% of the songs on myspace aren’t so great. Sometimes you need gatekeepers.