Monday 27 June 2011

Look what they've done to my song, ma ...

I had an interesting exchange recently on Facebook, which had been prompted by an incident in Wigan where a woman recorded a video of Jackie Oates singing, and posted it on Youtube, even though the event organiser and the artist herself had refused permission.  The discussion covered whether it's possible to stop such recordings, and indeed whether we should even try.  The problem is of course exacerbated by the technology which makes it so easy to make such recordings, as well as the fact that music is increasingly seen as a commodity that you can download, often for nothing, from the internet.  It's obvious that some people don't see why they should pay for music at all nowadays.

My view is straightforward:  the fact that you can do something doesn't give you permission to do it.  I don't accept the argument that because the technology exists, we need to surrender all intellectual property rights in regards to music.  I know that copying music is nothing new:  until the 1990s it was with cassettes, and as a child I remember my father recording music on a reel to reel.  Nowadays of course it can be on a mobile phone no bigger than a packet of cigarettes, and the recordings can be posted on the internet within minutes.  What if you were having an off night - would you want your performance to be available forever?  I have been posted once on Youtube without my knowledge; I certainly would have said 'no' on that occasion as I wasn't on form that night (problems with my guitar).  Fortunately they spelt my name wrongly, so no one can find it, but I still wasn't happy. 

But I'm mostly an amateur.  If music is your livelihood, then you may not want bootlegs of your performance to be doing the rounds.  Most performers are not in stellar tax categories:  in fact, many are struggling to make a living, especially during the present recession, and part of their income comes from their CD sales, and sometimes DVDs too. 

While those who post such recordings suggest that it's good publicity, a performer who's unhappy with the recording won't see it as helpful.  More often than not, while the performance itself is good, the quality of the recordings can be dire:  they wobble, miss out the beginning or cut off the end of the song, the view is often obscured by heads, the sound dreadful and the performance drowned out by audience noise.  No artist could take pride in such shoddy videos, and I can't understand the satisfaction anyone can get from posting them.

As a bit of an aside, I think there is a strange alliance across the generations:  old hippies who still believe that, hey man, all music should be free (it's amazing how many old hippies are quite tech savvy) and young people who see music as a commodity to be ordered on-line like your weekly shopping - a stark contrast to those of us who remember treasuring our favourite albums.

A performance belongs to the artist.  If they sing their own songs, a breach of copyright is obvious, but it's less well known that traditional singers who have arranged songs in their own way also have copyright on the arrangement.  To me, recording a performance without permission is like going to a literary festival and stealing a book from a writer's stall.  I have found singers on the folk scene very generous with their songs and arrangements, usually happy to explain what they do to anyone who asks, but that's quite different from a stolen video of their performance, although logically, if permission is granted, it's not stolen.  To be fair, most people in audiences don't behave badly, but enough do to make this an increasing problem.

I think the answer is quite simple:  all you need is common courtesy.  Just ask, and if they say 'no', respect that decision, because you don't have the right.  As for the woman in Wigan, I commented underneath the video that to post the song when permission had been refused showed no respect whatsoever.  She was quite irate and blustered, first with me then with the event organiser, claiming that she'd had permission, then that she wasn't sure but it would be good publicity for all concerned.  She ended up taking it down.  Quite right too.


  1. I see your points, but at the same time, when searching youtube the ones that are highest rated and most viewed are seen as most relevant by it's search engine and come near the top - so any bad ones become hard to find by definition
    One thing I like about youtube though is you can complain if it's your material used without permission, but better still, you can get adverts or links to buy your songs put in instead - thus making money off of someone else using your work
    If you're a lesser known musician and someone posts your work, make nice contact with them - they're clearly a fan 99.9% of the time. Then you can ask in a friendly way that it'd be nice if it got dropped coz of background noise or whatever
    Getting in a paddy with fans is the surest way to killing your career since putting subliminal messages in for them to kill themselves
    Lew B

  2. "What if you were having an off night - would you want your performance to be available forever? "
    Unless you've offered refunds to punters on any off-nights you've had, this is not a valid argument.

  3. With all respect, Bob, that argument really is over-simplistic.

    Firstly, a bad night can happen for a number of reasons: unsuitable venue, poor sound system, audience behaviour (I'm referring to doing a concert rather than providing backgound music), or it could be because you're not 100%. In the last case, you may do an adequate performance, in order not to let people down, but if you had a choice, it's not the one you'd select for broadcasting.

    The only time I saw the Watersons, they were full of cold; although the performance wasn't abysmal, they were clearly not at their best. I'm still glad I saw them and wouldn't expect a refund, but I'm sure that if YouTube had existed then, it's not the performance they'd want broadcast.

    You can't get perfect performances every time, except in the pop world where "singers" lip sync or have autotune to correct out of tune singing. With 100% live performances, there will always be variations, and some you might be happy to broadcast, others not.

    Secondly, the main point of my post was: do you have the right? I believe the answer is no. If people only posted performances on-line with the artist's permission, then the problems I've described would never arise.

    Anon: I'd agree that a diplomatic approach is far preferable to a confrontational one, but in the example I quoted, the woman denied she'd been refused permission, and only after persistent argument did she acknowledge that she had been refused.

  4. "and young people who see music as a commodity to be ordered on-line like your weekly shopping - a stark contrast to those of us who remember treasuring our favourite albums."

    I largely agree with the original article, but to me, IF music wants to connect with young people, and if musicians themselves care whether young people come to see them, then some middle ground must be reached.

    I'd turn a blind eye to the camera phones just as long as people came through the door.

    'Kids these days' record everything in pictures and videos - it is part of their culture. To try and stop it will simple alienate them and they'll leave musicians in the museum whilst they play xbox.

  5. Yeah, it can only be in the artist's best interests to have their work more widely enjoyed. Especially in the roots world, which is pretty diminutive by comparison to pop and rock. And when people find out about the great music people are creating in folk, roots and acoustic, often they want to find out more.

    I think it's selfish when artists stop you recording the show. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

    Look at it another way - live music is only really live when you're there, enjoying the atmos. This is especially true among folkies who will go to the ends of the earth to see their favourite artists.

    Having people record your stuff is actually an honour. If they didn't record your stuff they wouldn't care - and you know they're not doing it for profit, so to singers who get all under-collar hot: Just enjoy the moment and stop being a spanner.


Comments, including disagreements, are welcome.
Abuse and spam are not and will be deleted straight away.
Comment moderation is installed for older posts.