Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 25, 2010

Den of Ubiquity

It came to me as I was shopping, as all great discoveries do. Newton and gravity? He was shopping for fresh fruit. Archimedes and the mass of solid bodies? Shopping for bathtubs. Galileo and the acceleration of gravity? Checking out the view from a new tower he was thinking of buying. It’s all right there in the history books, if you study closely. On this day, I was in a store, listening to the music that some store manager or marketing director or, more likely, some 20 year-old employee had decided was the appropriate mix for the demographic and spending power stimulation of that particular business in that location on that day of the week. Music is an important part of the retail ambience, just like posters of beautiful men and women having fun and nice lighting and all that. When it comes to music, probably we should assume that someone, somewhere has a database mighty enough to analyze local trends, population makeup, etc., and determine which songs a retail chain should play in suburban LA vs the store on Dale Mabry in Tampa or the one in Coeur d’Alene. 
 
Recorded music in retail environments (or doctors’ offices or the HQ of a company) is nothing new. Muzak had already become a generic term by the time I was a child. It’s everywhere — that “den of ubiquity” in today’s title. It’s interesting to consider what role the presence of this steady cacophony of music may have played in conditioning us for several decades now to think that media should always be available and free. Although most of us still assume that we have to pay for a book on Amazon or at Border’s (easier to steal it at Border’s than Amazon, probably), that we have to pay to see movies (and in the theater we have to watch a lot of really crappy advertising which we can skip when we rent the thing on DVD for a lot less money — how stupid do the theater operators think we are?), and that we have to pay for the physical records and tapes and CDs of music, the advent of Napster suddenly seemed to give everyone in the world a free pass to steal any music or film they wanted to. It probably never occurs to the average person that the music that you hear at the grocery store, the department store, even, for that matter, on the radio is PAID FOR. Everyone gets their share. Two organizations called ASCAP and BMI actually get reports from radio stations, and have SECRET AGENTS posted everywhere, tracking who plays what. Well, actually, they’re not secret. They’re just agents.
 
Here’s the point. Just as that physical book in Powell’s is the intellectual property of an author and a publisher, the electronic stuff that you CAN, if you WISH download and put on your iPod or into your presentation or send to your girlfriend is also someone’s property; it is, after all, their livelihood: writers, composers, musicians, and, of course, agents. Just because you hear music free at Bed, Bath and Beyond doesn’t mean someone didn’t pay for it. You, in fact, are paying for it. It’s some infinitesimal portion of the price of the kitchen gadget you just bought.
 
If you download a pirated movie or song, there’s probably not much that’s going to happen to you. But if you are the manager of that Bed, Bath & Beyond and you are playing music in a retail outlet and one a’ them ASCAP/BMI agents happens to be surveying stores in your mall and takes note, you may expect a call and the beginning of a painful and expensive lesson in music licensing. And if you work at a company and you want to download the latest Weezer song for your presentation, don’t do it. You’ve just ripped off the guys in Weezer but, even more important, you’ve just made it more likely that one of the music rights people will decide that your company ought to pay for a music rights licensing agreement. You may have heard the term “fair use” applied to small, incidental uses of copyrighted material. That phrase protects mostly educational institutions and private individuals, not companies. Repeat after me: the guys at Bed Bath and Beyond paid for the music they’re playing.
 
It’s so simple.
 
 On a related topic, I wrote previously HERE about the ubiquity of tv and video. 
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