Ramblings: Music & Authorship

In the process of distributing music independently to platforms like Spotify and iTunes through my online aggregator, I noticed something interesting: Typically, at release-level (i.e. as an album or EP), the entry for ‘Name of Composer(s) or Songwriter(s)’ is compulsory, meaning the online platforms will not accept your music if it has no composer or songwriter. However, I discovered today that if you set the genre to World Music, the “composer/songwriter” entry disappears. And so it would seem that World Music, a genre that is notorious for exploitation and appropriation of the musics from non-Western cultures, is not required to trace or acknowledge authorship… at least not at release-level!

In order to be absolutely sure, I tried switching the genres several times to see how the entry form for release metadata changes, and Composer/Songwriter is present for most of the genres. In fact, the credits are most detailed when it comes to (European) Classical Music which include Composer, Orchestra, Ensemble, Conductor, on top of the regular fields like Primary Artists and Featured Artists. To be fair, the composer/songwriter entry re-appears at the individual song-level, meaning you are still able to include authors for individual songs or pieces under the World Music genre.

Still, it would seem strange that a composer or songwriter is not compulsory metadata entry for musics that typically originate from outside of European or Anglo-American cultures. For me this is a reminder of certain traits about the music industry which I love and hate.

Although I’m still relatively new to this, I’ve come to learn that authorship is REALLY important in this industry. The earliest incarnations of a music industry was when musicians, like all other artists and authors, realized they no longer needed to rely on the patronage of the monarchy, nobility, or rich merchants, and could sell their music to the masses through some kind of market mechanism. And how does one make money? Mostly by printing their compositions on sheet music and selling it (or a performance of it) to others. Music, which previously could only be performed to/with a live audience now has a widely accessible material form which you can exchange for a sum money. (This is probably why up till today, the act of “releasing your music” is still called publishing even though it doesn’t necessarily entail any printed paper.) Musicians and other creatives in general could do this because there was a provision in the law for it — copyright — which compensates the author each time someone “uses” the music. As it became the de facto system for the production, reproduction and consumption of music, it also became one of the main ways which we experience music in contemporary society.

So if authorship is really so important, why would it be relegated to an “optional” or “less important” aspect for World Music? Here’s an experiment. Have you heard of the song Jubilant Drinking song by the Ami group in Taiwan? No? What about this:

Sounds familiar? No? Okay, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before:

In 1988, thirty singers from the Ami aborigine tribes in Taiwan travelled to France on tour, during which their performances were recorded by the “Institute for World Cultures”, part of the French National Education Ministry, and put onto an “anonymous” compilation of “Taiwanese aboriginal songs”. The Jubilant Drinking Song was later sampled by the pop duo Enigma in 1993, and the song later became the theme song for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The two singers Difang and Igay were paid a paltry sum of $15 a day for their performances in France, and never received any compensation until much later they finally sued Michael Cretu from Engima and EMI for copyright infringement in 1999. EMI settled for an undisclosed sum, and the money was used to establish a fund to help the Ami tribes. Even then, it was argued during the lawsuit that traditional songs have no author, and the two Ami singers sued on the basis of a “copyrighted arrangement”.

Back to ownership: Perhaps in some instances, it would be difficult to trace the origin of a folk song, passed down from generation to generation. This could especially be the case in many non-European cultures or less capitalist-industrialist societies where people experience music not as a commodity, but in primarily communal settings. One would imagine that in such instances, it would be tempting as a person from the music industry to be the “first” to sample it and turn it into a song of your own, especially since you could have “dibs” on the “unmarked” music. And even if the song was performed by a “native” recording artist, perhaps a credit by “Primary Artist” — the name of the musician(s) performing the piece would suffice. Traditional or folk musics do not seem to need an author, because they’ve already become “shared texts” or part of some “culture”, right? (The last line was sarcasm)

As I think about these possible measures, I cannot help but to realize how punitive our experiences and understandings of modern music can be. World Music is an inherently problematic category precisely because it serves as some kind of “ghetto” for the music of other cultures who perhaps function on a different ideological place, and thus available to some kind of exploitation by our own. At the same time, it serves as a mirror to gaze back at ourselves, revealing how tricky the idea of music and ownership has become in an age where digital sampling reproduction has endless possibilities. Whereas music for the past few decades was a commodity, could it be returning to a more innocent shared culture instead?

Further Reading
Taylor, T. D. 2016. Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lessig, L. 2004. Free Culture. New York: Penguin Books. Retrieved from http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/