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Transcending Possessiveness in Love and Music

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Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about two things that seem unrelated: one is the clash over copyrights between labels, musicians, and listeners; the other is polyamory.

I’ve been researching the polyamory because after a few years of studying spirituality – and being in a wonderful, loving, incredibly difficult relationship – I had mixed feelings about sharing all of my love with a single person. On the one hand, discipline and depth. On the other hand, the liberation of not having to refuse other opportunities for genuine connection. Polyamory isn’t about sleeping with whomever you want; it’s about having mature, mutual loving relationships in a number of different forms, recognizing how unlikely it is that a single individual is going to fulfill all of your needs.

When we were more embedded in our communities and surrounded by the love of a giant extended family, we weren’t making such incredible demands on our romantic partners. Now, in an era of emotional estrangement, we have this lunatic idea that we’re supposed to get all of our love from, and give all of our love to, our “one and only.” This is mixed up with monotheism and vestiges of our evolutionary history in ways too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that for many people, polyamorous relationships satisfy a multifaceted sense of intimacy that would be impossible with one person. They can also demand at least as much maturity and grace as monogamous relationships, in which the secure illusions of possessing the other person and of having one true lover are allowed to blossom – and bruise – unhindered.

The other topic is something I’ve been navigating because of my own identity as a songwriter trying to make a career in the midst of radical upheaval in the music business. I’m constantly poised to find a new synthesis, one that allows me to make a living at this while still honoring my conviction that the music I write should be freely available to anyone who would care to listen.

The usual dualistic debates strike me as ludicrous and naïve; it’s not so cut and dried that we can say music should or should not be free. One of the rules of a network economy is that value is driven by ubiquity. The only remaining scarcity, in a world where the costs of information and production are swiftly approaching zero, is attention. Thus, the more people who know (or rely on) your product or service, the more it is worth – regardless of how much it costs to make. If nobody has heard of your music, a hundred-thousand dollar studio project is worth nothing. If you’re a huge star, people scramble over each other for your bedroom demos.

This is why emerging artists are often so eager to give away their recordings (thus generating an audience), while so many established artists have been fighting p2p digital distribution as if it were a plague. We need to embrace a new understanding of economic value that I’m not sure our culture is willing to accept: after all, most people would agree that the majority of well-known music out there is worth a lot less, in an artistic sense, than the craft of relative unknowns.

(We can think of this as kinetic versus potential energy. At their best, A&R reps are cultural catalysts, doing for the realm of ideas what oil hunters do for the realm of industrial power supply. Likewise, record labels and oil magnates have a lot in common: both have lost sight of their empowering ideals and started to choke the flow of resources.)

Back to the matter at hand. These two issues – polyamory and copyright law – are operating on totally different scales, in different arenas of our lives. Or are they? After all, I’ve seen bumper stickers professing that “Music = Love.” On some deep level, both of these are symptoms of a deep struggle that we as individuals and as a society are having with the concept of ownership.

Consequently, I find romance a very useful metaphor for the music scene: When major labels are saying, “You can’t just release your album for free online!,” I think what they mean is, “I thought I was special to you, and now you’re sleeping with someone else!” The label is dependent on the exclusive relationship it has with its artists. As in many supposedly monogamous relationships, however, the deal is a double standard – the contract itself favors the interests of one partner over the interests of the other. Since one of them has something that the other cannot (or believes they cannot) provide for themselves, truly mutual negotiation is an illusion.

But of course, before you can love another person or really be loved, you must first love yourself. Without question, the most successful relationships are those in which both partners are involved out of choice, rather than necessity. The most satisfying partnerships are between people who enter them from a place of autonomy, as a gift, unafraid of standing on their own.

In the worst kind of relationship, your partner is sweet to you when you do as she likes, and makes your life a living hell when you don’t. In the best kind of relationship, you are internally motivated to care for her out of your gratitude. In the best kind of relationship, musicians would be more than happy to sign a contract with a major label, because the label recognizes that happy artists make better music.

I wonder what this all will mean in the era toward which we seem to be headed: one in which audiences will have unlimited access to streaming music, but no real ownership of copyright to speak of. It’ll sound like this: “You can have me whenever you like, but you will never own me.”

I imagine the mature response would be: “That’s okay; you’re more enjoyable when I allow you to live as you desire, rather than under exacting specifications.”

What is so precious about possessing a thing that we would rather pay dearly to own it than to have unobstructed use of it for free? Especially when dictated ownership, as has been demonstrated again and again through history, tends to squeeze the life out of land, the joy out of material goods, the exuberance out of a lover, and the soul out of music?

Music is more fun when the musicians are able to follow their muse, rather than the demands of some clueless middleman, enforced by contract and manipulation. I think we have lost faith that there is such a thing as gratitude for a job well done – that there are plenty with the willingness and the means to support good art.

Most traditional cultures take good care of their artists, who are often revered as healers and behave accordingly. It was patronage that enabled the renaissance. So it will be again.

Music and love are both like water; there is a sense in which they both “want” to flow free. We build dams and harness their energy – but destroy the local ecosystem in the process. What most of the music business can’t seem to grasp is how to let a river bend its natural course and call it irrigation. The passive abundance of the network economy is simply beyond the industrial assembly of music as big business knows it today.

Nonetheless, there are signs of change: as record sales plummet, licensing profits are higher than ever. The energy of commerce is following public attention in a much more fluid, natural way. Allow the artists to do what they will, and audiences to pay for what rings their bells.

When I imagine the future of artist-label relationship, the first company that comes to mind is Magnatune, out of Berkeley, California. Flying the motto, “We are not evil,” Magnatune signs nonexclusive distribution agreements with its artists – and allows customers to pay what they think the music is worth, rather than arbitrarily assigning a market price. The result is that they have two charts: the best-selling music, and the music that has sold for the most money. For people who trust the voice of the crowd, the most valuable music is sifted into visibility – motivating artists to craft something evocative and enduring. What’s more, Magnatune offers three free copies of each download to all of its buyers:

“While other record labels are busy suing their customers for introducing their friends to great music… At Magnatune, we want you to copy our music for your friends.”

Meanwhile, the label gains the trust of its customers and artists alike with the integrity of its value structure and the permissibility of its practices.

Leave it to Berkeley to prove free love as a business model! Magnatune’s artist agreement basically says, “You are free to work with other distribution agencies if you wish, but you will be required to cancel our agreement if you sign an exclusive contract with any of them.” In other words, “I don’t mind you dating other people, but as soon as you start dating someone who does have a problem with it, we’re through.” It’s called being a responsible open lover, and it marks a sea change in how we conduct our business and romance.

The new role of the label is to do what it was always meant to do: sort through music for its audiences, get the right vibrations into the right ears, take a cut for the service, and do its job transparently enough that there is no suspicion on any side. It’s easier than ever to make a professional recording without going into debt, or signing an “agreement” with someone whose interests conflict with your own and whom you can never completely trust. Labels can no longer legitimately position themselves as a necessity.

We’re seeing something now akin to the emergence of the woman in the workforce: suddenly it’s her decision to get married, rather than a requirement, because she can take care of herself. Of course teamwork is still easier, and marriage as an institution persists (even in polyamorous relationships). Likewise, the label will endure because it allows the artists to focus on what they do best – but there’s no fooling anybody anymore. The future of love and music is choice and trust – stable agency and empowering communion. Action in consonance with passion, instead of fear.

What we have now, institutionalized in both our love and music, is an unhealthy focus on personal gain and securing turf. No one is exempt; musicians are just as much to blame for pretending to own their music as the labels are. (The most honest artists admit that the world wrote those songs through them, and so they cannot authentically lay claim to any of their work.)

But slowly, surely, we are learning about the benefit of complementarity, how to help, how to share (you get what you give). Sooner or later, music and love will both be restored to the throne, in their rightful place as sacred services to the community. Ask not what your culture can do for you…

Yoga instructor Seane Corn has said this about her own labor of love, teaching yoga to the impoverished:

“I’ve found that service is addictive. I’ve never been more confident. I’ve never felt better about myself, never been less interested in my wounds, my own drama, in my own small-minded crisis… Being in service, being an activist and looking at the world, has allowed me to live in absolute gratitude for every aspect of my life. That’s been the greatest gift I’ve ever experienced.”

Imagine the day when this is the attitude musicians and record labels bring to their work. When giving is a greater motivation in our intimate relationships than getting. When the love of song and the song of love are both entered with willingness and glee. When everyone recognizes the exceptional talent they have to offer the world, and the world sings back in gratitude.

It starts by loosening our fixation on owning the things we desire.

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