Tearing the Heart from the Music Industry

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

You can divide time in too many ways to be useful: Before and after cell phones; before and after file-sharing; before and after the internet. For Rhett Miller, lead singer of Old 97’s, his musical life began before the internet changed the way people make and sell music, and he sees that chronological distinction as having large scale negative ramifications.

At The Baffler, Miller reflects on the death of radio and rise of streaming services. He makes a number of familiar observations. And he knows he sounds old talking about “back in the good old days,” but he wants younger musicians to hear his points. The difference, he believes, is in humanity. The internet changed the business, and in doing so, it also dissolved the many small communities and human relationships that used to go into to writing, playing and selling music. And that, Miller says, is the most tragic loss of all. Not just album sales or distribution networks, but people collaborating, and people acting as if they had a heart.

That’s our world now. In a post terrestrial radio era, music supervisors act as de facto A&R reps, and placement is one more thing artists are willing to give away pretty much for free.

When they’re feeling particularly ungenerous, the company will cut you out altogether. Google did that to me when they used the guitar riff from my song “Question” as the bed music in a commercial for one of the company’s crappy phones. Google hired an ad agency. The ad agency hired a jingle house, probably giving them “Question” as a reference track. Grateful for the work, some dude in a windowless room at the jingle house (probably himself another victim of the modern music biz; maybe he used to be in bands but was now trying to feed his kids by making innocuous instrumental music to go under Google ad voice-overs) re-recorded my riff, cleverly adding an extra note at the end of the progression—just enough to absolve his employer of any obligation to compensate me for having written the thing to begin with.

I did what any aggrieved artist should do when their work has been ripped off: I contacted my publishing company’s lawyers to threaten these digital brigands with a lawsuit. Within the ranks of the publishing company, it was unanimously agreed that we had Google over a barrel. But then they hired a musicologist who specialized in copyright infringement and he pointed out the almost imperceptible difference between the two recordings. His prediction was that it was possible but unlikely we could win in court. After my publishers sized up the odds of going against the great content leviathan, they advised me to drop the idea. I agreed reluctantly, and lost a few nights’ sleep thinking of how lucky the Nick Lowes of the world had been: here, some untold millions of ad viewers would be hearing a nearly note-for-note rendition of a song I wrote, and all I was getting in return was teeth-gnashing insomnia.

Read the story