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Art is Not a Loaf of Bread

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Lawrence Lessig on Who Owns Culture.

Field Report, Geoff Aung, Columbia University, Apr. 11, 2005

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and professor Lawrence Lessig talk music, remixing, artistic freedom and the law.

By Geoff Aung, Columbia University

Listen to the audio from the “Who Owns Culture?” Presentation

Click here to listen to the event in streaming audio. (Windows Media Player req.)

Or, download the entire event in MP3 format. (45 MB)


When Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy finally took his seat onstage at the New York Public Library, his attire contrasted sharply with Stanford professor and intellectual property lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. One wore scuffed work boots and a beaten-up windbreaker while the other selected a suit jacket and shined leather shoes. These two don’t hang out in the same neighborhood – that much was clear. Despite their disparate careers and backgrounds, the two have cultivated similar ideas on the Internet, downloading, and artistic freedom.

The April 7th event, which sold out in five minutes on the Internet, was lively and consistently insightful, as it ranged from musical transcendence to commercialism, from piracy to terrorism, and from Disney to pear-shaped Brazilians chanting for free software. Don’t ask.

Lessig popped the night’s cork with the only cool PowerPoint presentation I’ve ever seen (musta been that funky font), offering an entertaining introduction to the legal issues that frame the current debate on intellectual property. He began by revealing Napster’s family tree, including innovations like the player piano, Edison’s wax phonograms radio, Xerox machines, and the Sony Betamax, the world’s first stand-alone VCR, each of which raised questions of duplicating artistic products. In each case, the law sided with the “pirates,” finding a way to strike a blanace between the users of new technology and the rights of songwriters and performers.

Not this time, though. Our be-robed friends of the bench have deserted the latest pirates, namely you and I. (Fess up, young man!) Instead of acknowledging the unstoppable reality of the Internet and allowing the law to adapt accordingly, Lessig observed that there is “a demand imposed by the law that the technology fit the old law,” driven by corporate interests.

In the three years since the Recording Industry Association of America’s landmark victory over Napster, the RIAA has already sued 7,704 individual music fans and peer-to-peer filesharing users. The Motion Picture Association of America is in the midst of launching an international campaign against peer-to-peer filesharing sites. So much for judicial elasticity.

Lessig finished his presentation – which included some pretty hilarious videos featuring spliced TV footage and a romantic musical duet between Bush and Blair – with an impassioned argument recognizing the creative potential of new digital technologies. Think sampling, think remixes, think video editing. Think of DJ Dangermouse’s innovative Grey Album, a synthesis of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. Music is rarely sui generis – artists will always take inspiration from the past and weave it into their work. (Moreover, Tweedy later even suggested that racism has a place in this debate, as anti-piracy venom is almost exclusively focused on hip-hop music, a largely African-American musical form that relies heavily on sampling.)

When we have Jack Valenti, chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, equating opposing piracy with fighting terrorism, Lessig can’t help but wonder whether the hyper-intense legal opposition to new digital technologies is tantamount to “DDT sprayed to kill a gnat.”

Lessig concluded his introduction by pointing out that it isn’t his voice but Tweedy’s that this debate desperately needs. “Unless you start showing us – you artists, you authors, you creators – unless you start showing us how you create and have always created, unless you show us how this technology can create, then this potential, which is being realized every moment by kids using technology today, will be taken away.”

With that, Jeff Tweedy and Wired editor Steven Johnson joined Lessig on stage to ruminate on the nature of artistic ownership today. Highlights, anyone?

You Just Can’t Ignore the Net

Relatively early in the discussion, Tweedy made reference to the fact that the members of Wilco were pioneers in embracing the Internet. The band was dropped from their major record label after head honchos responded unenthusiastically to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. With no one to release the record, they streamed it live on the Wilco web site. Tweedy says they figured “let’s go ahead and put it up on the Internet and see what happens.” But why? “It was really done with a pretty simple goal in mind. The only way we’d ever made money was touring. And if our record wasn’t coming out in September, then we couldn’t tour in October.” And ultimately, the fans responded. Their concert tour was a huge success and, when Nonesuch records bought the rights to the album and released it in actual physical form, it sold almost ten times as many copies as their previous effort, Summerteeth, in its first week.

In a way, Wilco was simply trying to make the best of a tool they knew they would not be able to ignore: “We stumbled upon the Internet with sort of a defeatist attitude. We figured it exists, we’re not gonna be able to beat it, we might as well learn to love it and enjoy it, whatever it is that’s happening.”

Ultimately, for a band on the cusp of indie stardom, the Internet offered them an opportunity for a wider fan base. “I’d like people to hear my music and say they don’t like it,” Tweedy noted, “rather than not be able to hear it because they can’t afford it.” Offering music for free online allowed Wilco to make their money touring, and fans get to spend their hard earned dollars on something they already know they enjoy. Double bonus.

Put Your Hands in the Air

Tweedy made continual reference to the fact that music is a participatory experience that requires the listener to engage with the music. He says of artists, “Once you create something and you’ve made it, it doesn’t exist except in the consciousness of the listener…That’s where it’s finished.”

Tweedy implied that listeners have as much of a stake in music as the artist who creates it. Of us listeners, he said, “Each one of you has about a 50% investment in any event of music-making. If you listen, you are a part of it, and I love you for it.”

Everyone Loves a Hoover

Just kidding – vacuums suck, especially when it comes to music. One of Tweedy and Lessig’s greatest criticisms of this “war on piracy” is that it prevents would-be artists from having access to materials otherwise unavailable. The creators of tomorrow, whom Lessig characterized as kids indulging in new opportunities born of new technologies, need an environment conducive to creation, and destroying peer-to-peer networks destroys that environment.

Tweedy agrees: “What the music and movie companies are asking of artists – to create in a vacuum – is impossible. Not being able to sample, use a piece as a jumping-off point for another piece, borrow tunes from other songs, or otherwise be influenced by an artist or poet or writer, it’s not possible, because that’s what art is.” As he says later, “There’s a reason you can’t copyright a chord progression.”

What About the Law?

At one point during the conversation Lessig recalled hearing a lecture at Stanford by Charlie Nesson, another lawyer, on the difficulty of teaching legal ethics. Lessig realized we live in a society where few wait until age 21 to drink, practically nobody obeys the speed limit, and kids download like crazy. People grow up breaking the law on a daily basis. “I hate the idea,” he says, “that we raise a generation of our kids thinking ‘the law’s an ass. I don’t care about the law.’”

He continues: “What does it say about our democracy, that ordinary behavior is criminal?”

Tweedy weighs in, invoking the sort of resigned attitude that led him to embrace the Internet in the first place: “It feels like an argument about a moot point. It really would take a lot, to me, beyond legislation, to change this environment. [Downloading] is gonna happen, it is happening, and I don’t really see how to turn that tide against it.”

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