From the Magazine: Maria Schneider ‘Attacking the Data Lords’

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"If everybody gets used to getting their music for free, nobody is going to pay for music anymore," says bandleader Maria Schneider. (Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Maria Schneider’s latest work, written for her 18-person jazz orchestra, is titled “Data Lords.” It is, by her own estimation, “very dark, chaotic and intense.”

It could hardly be more different from her critically acclaimed 2015 album, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare), a kind of pastoral symphony recorded by the Maria Schneider Orchestra. That album is a majestic evocation of the natural world and, more specifically, of the spacious Minnesota prairie on which she was raised. By contrast, “Data Lords” was inspired by Schneider’s dystopian vision of an Orwellian future—make that present—in which huge corporate behemoths gather personal information about every citizen and exploit it to reap billions in revenue, while trying to persuade the populace that all will ultimately benefit.

One segment of the citizenry that is decidedly not benefiting, Schneider argues, is musicians and songwriters, whose largely uncompensated works are the bright, shiny objects dangled by the corporations in order to bring eyeballs to their websites and smartphone apps.

“‘Data Lords’ is kind of the opposite of The Thompson Fields,” Schneider said on a sunny September morning in the cozy living room of her one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a stone’s throw from Central Park. “Nature, the country, bird-watching—I was getting into all of that for The Thompson Fields. Now I’m so wrapped up in the fight with YouTube and the other music streamers ... well, I don’t want to say that I’m obsessed, but it’s taking over my life, in a way. There’s anger, resentment and shock, and it’s reflected in my work.”

Thee reception for The Thompson Fields has been rapturous. It earned Schneider a Grammy award in the category Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. She collected a second Grammy for arranging “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime),” her collaboration with the late David Bowie, bringing her career Grammy tally to five. Earlier this year, she won five citations from the Jazz Journalists Association and topped three categories in the DownBeat Critics Poll: Big Band, Composer and Arranger. Now she has capped a banner year by winning three categories in the DownBeat Readers Poll: Jazz Album (for The Thompson Fields), Composer and Arranger.

She hasn’t had much time to bask in her accomplishments, however, because of her absorption in the David vs. Goliath fight to get fair compensation for music creators and end what she calls the “culture of piracy.”

That culture, Schneider asserts, has been fostered largely by Google and the phenomenal success of YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006. She believes that YouTube’s come-one, come-all video bazaar—which makes much of the world’s music available for free—has made it impossible for artists to sell their works for anything close to their true market value. “I have to take time away from my music for this,” she said. “This is a war.”

In this war, Schneider has become the Thomas Paine of digital-age composers, issuing broadsides in the form of white papers with titles like “YouTube: Pushers of Piracy” and “Content ID Is Still Just Piracy in Disguise” (the latter refers to YouTube’s ballyhooed “Content ID” system for identifying copyrighted works on its service).

Schneider testified on behalf of musicians in 2014 before the House Judiciary Committee, which has been conducting a comprehensive review of U.S. copyright law for the last three years. In 2016 she submitted extensive comments to a second public study undertaken by the U.S. Copyright Office.

The subject is complex, but here’s a basic rundown: Congress intended the current law, known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), to enable Internet services and creative artists to work together to combat online piracy of copyrighted works. But Schneider and other critics say that the law—passed in 1998, the year Google started up—is woefully out-of-date and, essentially, broken.

Under the DMCA’s “notice and takedown” provisions, artists and record labels are responsible for monitoring copyright infringement of their works across the Internet, a burden too great for most artists. It is often described as an impossible game of “whack-a-mole,” as new uploaded videos and MP3s appear faster than artists can identify and report them.

The law lets online services off the hook, because it gives them a “safe harbor” from copyright infringement lawsuits resulting from user-uploaded content.

The net effect, Schneider and other critics say, is that Google and YouTube get to profit hugely from infringement, while the artists, whose music drives millions of users to Google’s search engine and YouTube’s streaming archive, find it impossible to prevent piracy of their works. The system effectively reduces the value of their life’s work to levels that make it impossible for many musicians to make a living, Schneider says.

As she wrote in her comments to the Copyright Office, “Congress never intended for the concept of a ‘safe harbor’ to undermine the very future of music. But that is what has happened.”

DownBeat had a wide-ranging, 3-hour conversation with Schneider. Here are excerpts:

You have been an independent artist since your 1992 debut, Evanescence, and you were a pioneer of the fan-funding model through your association with ArtistShare, which has distributed all your work since 2004. How has owning all your work influenced your feelings about the rights of music creators?

My father was an inventor, and he worked for a company, Kimberly-Clark, that owned all his inventions. So I was very aware of what it meant for a man to create something and have pride in his inventions. I grew up with that. I know the incentives that pride of ownership creates. And I remember thinking when I was a kid, “Oh, maybe I can invent something.”

A lot of people invest in a house, and it becomes their main asset. My first big investment was my first record, Evanescence; it cost $30,000 to record. In the old days, record companies took on that financial risk, but these days, most of us do it ourselves.

My latest record, The Thompson Fields, cost $200,000—what many people pay for a house. It’s a massive investment, but I’ve always counted on my compositions and records to generate royalties, making it a sound investment. My works are my assets. So when massive corporations siphon off the value of my musical assets—well, it’s a catastrophic loss, no different than siphoning o someone’s 401(k) or stealing their $200,000 home.

What’s wrong with the current copyright law?

It’s absurd that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA] was being drafted before Google even existed. Nobody back then anticipated that a company would intentionally use pirated music and movies as a magnet in order to hoard information about all of us and become the most powerful company on earth—and how that would change the value of that music. It’s been nothing less than a massive redistribution of wealth.

In your white papers criticizing the online streaming services, you have especially singled out YouTube, saying it has fostered a “culture of piracy.” Is YouTube the worst actor among the streamers, and, if so, why?

Yes, they started it and are still the worst offender. YouTube is the biggest and the first place that almost everybody goes to find music. The very first time I saw it, the first thing I thought was, “How is this legal?” Then I learned how companies like YouTube, with user-generated content, are protected by the “safe harbor” provisions [i.e., immunity from lawsuits] of the DMCA … . But it’s worse than that: YouTube began a propaganda campaign to convince the public that this was good for musicians, and that uploaders were doing them a favor, because they were going to gain fans. This encouraged users to upload music without permission. YouTube didn’t, and still doesn’t, alert them that most of these uploads are illegal.

If everybody gets used to getting their music for free, nobody is going to pay for music anymore. Before Google decided to buy YouTube, a Google executive wrote an internal email saying, “I can’t believe you’re recommending buying YouTube—it’s a rogue enabler of content theft.”

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January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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