"I was listening to NPR just now, and guess who I heard?"
Oh. Well. How bout that? A little more conversation and a quick ride down the internet to the NPR website confirmed it. My song "Sausage," performed by my group Snake Suspenderz, had indeed been utilized by the quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me as a so-called "bumper," a tag of music used to separate segments of a broadcast. They used it to cap a segment honoring the passing of weenie-vendor and venerable country sanger Jimmy Dean by asking silly questions about, bingo, sausage.
Rowdy dow! I'm a star, I are! But wait, wait... so where's my royalty check? Where's my on-air credit? Where's my, well, anything like recognition that I did in fact create this snippet of art that Unknown Production Forces found acceptable to their purposes?
You gotta ask? Welcome to the Brave New (Music) World. It's not even a jungle out there, it's a trackless wilderness.
There was quite a lot to be said (and plenty that was) for the hapless plantation laborers of the Olde Musicke Biz hacking their chains and lighting out for the territories over the barbed-wire-and-broken glass infested Big Commerce fence. The ways of that plantation were arbitrary and remorselessly competitive at best and evilly exploitive and self-perpetuating in general. The woes and weals of the hapless erstwhile stars of the golden age of recording are themselves all too well recorded, from the fishhook contracts and venal publishers to the back alley media deals and universal thirst for bribery and payola. And like Hunter Thompson said, there's also a negative side.
And now? Within the compound, biz goes on as usual: tender young sprouts oozing talent from their dewey leaves roughly thrust into the juicer, vendable extract squeezed out, pulp discarded. New twists like the prerequisite retail-ready product and management team, endless gladiatorial idylls, enmeshment of pop song into movies and television, and of course the relentless ratcheting of greater and greater conformity and uniformity, all contribute to a mainstream culture of blinding blandness and numbing mediocrity. You want that rock n roll to go? It's gone. Punk? Reggae? Hip-hop? Twenty bucks, same as town.
But outside — ah, outside, don't you just love that tantalizing whiff of freedom? The glorious smack of independence, of liberation from the Man and his minions, the giddy perfume of...of...say, just what is that odor, anyway? That, y'know, musty, frowsy, sleazy smell.
Boy, that's the Chamber Of Commerce. Just because Big Bidniz doesn't find the provinces worth investituring doesn't mean there aren't plenty of jimcrack homesteaders out and about ready to start a little farm team of their own. It's goldrush time in the intartubes, b'gad! You got your Facebookers, your Myspacecases, EPKs and YouTube infections. There's a video on every website, an mp3 in every email, more photos than you can look at, and everywhere there are forums to sign up for and log into and comment in and be endlessly spammed by.
And it's an unfortunate truth that 99.9% of the effort and talent and hard-earned (by means other than music, typically) cash going into this is inevitably gonna be wasted — there aren't enough eyes to see and ears to hear even a fraction of the frantic tidal wave of jiveass brain candy churning from the souls and navels of would-be Sooperdooperstars Round The World. Think it's bad now? Wait 'til India and China get into the act!
Now, sauce for the goose ain't necessarily ketchup for the Cuisineart. Benefactors from this rogue alchemy abound. Like all goldrushes, the spoils flow inevitably away from the hapless prospectors into the pockets of the grocers and assay offices and bankers and grubstakers. There's plenty of opportunities in the music business, just not for musicians. Case in point: whatever intern or second assistant shirthanger at NPR got handed the assignment of digging up ten seconds of music about sausage.
Once upon a time, that could have been a pretty juicy and expensive bit of work — some composer on hire thrown the writing job, collaborating with a lyricist, chuck the result at an editor, on to the arranger for the studio musicians, rehearsals, revisions, last second changes, the big moment executed by a seamless ballet of floormen and engineers and directors and janitors and who knows all. Everybody works, everybody eats and the sponsor pays for it all.
But even that level of hack capitalism is under the bus now. Now it's somebody with a hundred other tasks who throws "sausage song" into Google and grabs whatever pops out that's ripe and ready — and free. You think scruffy college kids and bloated hackers in Jolt-stained wifebeaters are the only folks downloading? Piracy's not a hobby anymore, Sparky, it's a business model. Just ask the photographers who used to make a pretty decent living shooting stock photos, the ones driven to the breadline by a million eager chimps with 10 megapixel Brownies and Flickr accounts. Free is a jim-dandy price — for the buyer.
Never let it be said that any commercial enterprise deserves protection from technical change, be it buggy whip manufacturers or art monopolists. Swimming with the sharks is self-evidently risky, and the burden of that risk settles on the taker. A horrible truth of the New Economics is that free is always more attractive than its monetized alternative, and the inevitable flip side of the gold-plated slug of cheap high-quality production tools is a race to the bottom fueled by a zillion midnight software copies of Photoshop and ProTools. In that world, what the art creator gets from casting his bread upon the waters is wet bread. And the ghost of Buddy Pine whispers darkly from the shadows that when everyone's an artist, no one will be.
Pretty high price to pay for sticking it to the Man. But somebody's gotta do it.