In his autobiography, Frank Zappa maintains that there is a strict distinction between a composer and a musician, and that credit for music should go to composers:
“Music comes from composers — not musicians. Composers think it up; musicians perform it. If a musician improvises when he is performing, he becomes, during those moments, a composer — the rest of the time, he is the interpreter of a musical design originated by a composer.” (1988)
So what passes for new, original in today’s mashup world? Debates over copyright rage. The status of different forms of expression is hotly contested. Attention spans are shortening, and the most popular forms of expression are short-form, often derivative of other art.
One of my favorite ways to cut someone down is to call their work “derivative.” I often say this about an analyst I briefly dated. “All he did was pontificate about companies and their management. People and organizations who actually CREATE new things and experiences, and EMPLOY people. Action. If it weren’t for them, there’d be no marketplace to criticize and certainly no jobs for reactionaries like him.”
It’s not very Zen of me, this need to cut others down, and be right. Complaints like mine parrot what artists often say about their critics. On some level, I know I am bitter with the guy for not being interested in me, and that some people actually find his work useful. There’s room for everything in this world ─ to each her own. Men and women, right and left, people of action and reactionaries — we need it all. Balance is key. And in the spirit of Zendom, I will cease and desist from making fun of him … after one last jab:
Another habit of this fellow was to take credit for the most basic of things. He literally bought copyrights to the phrase: “You can’t stop the revolution.” Or something like that. How ridiculous is that? (And is he going to sue me for using it here?! If you are reading this now, I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that you are not a Sandinista rebel. You are a wealthy hedge fund manager living like a sultan in your Soho loft. Give it up, dude.)
People these days (mostly Alpha males, and the occasional Alpha female) often claim “their” ideas were ripped off by someone else. The egotism! It’s not that we or the people before us were all originals; it’s that WE DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT EVERYBODY ELSE THE WAY WE DO TODAY. We couldn’t read into eachother’s minds and motivations before. We couldn’t get to see or hear every possible band or TV show or publication any damned time of day, in any place. Credit for the ideas went to whomever was lucky enough to get the platform to present them. True, once they got the platforms, they shaped our culture. But culture and technology marches on, and now everyone with an Internet connection is invited to the conversation.
Consider this passage from McLuhan:
Authorship – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. . . . The invention of print did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public. The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright… was born. (p. 122)
I don’t have the answers on what constitutes ORIGINAL composition, creation versus mere interpretation of another person’s design. Who owns what, who gets credit, what’s fair use and all that. It’s an ugly issue. As a speechwriter, I pretty much accept the fact that I’m giving my billionaire bosses unlimited use of my ideas and words. They get quoted sounding super intellectual and ahead of the curve. And I continue to enjoy my lower-stress-existence reading and writing my days away, having meaningful relationships, gaining valuable knowledge … and quietly posting on my blog. Not sure who’s got the better deal, but I’m pretty certain the term “derivative” doesn’t carry the same weight as a pejorative anymore.
Special thanks to Marco, whose musings today inspired this post.