A Challenge Comes To An End

Once upon a time, I thought I would give myself homework so that I could learn a) how to play the guitar and some of the other instruments in my arsenal better, b) how to use recording technology more effectively, and c) how to do all of these things without embarrassment in public (or at least on YouTube). This was the 365 Days of the Unoriginal challenge, in which I learned and recorded a LOT of covers. At first, it was fun, and because I started in a less-than-busy summer lull, I was able to make pretty good progress. Eventually, though, it became harder for me to keep up, so the challenge became a sort of sporadic “hey, let’s record a tune!” thing instead of a good way to learn. I’ve been thinking for a while now about just letting it go, since I don’t have time to work on it and I hate to just leave it hanging.

I’ve also been thinking for a long time about the ethics of the whole business, a concern that finally crystallized for me this morning in a conversation with a fellow student (and fellow musician) in an information ethics class I’m taking. I am a great fan of artist-controlled production and distribution, and I have a soft spot for digital and the idea of information freedom (my photos are Creative Commons licensed for a reason), but…well, I have the luxury of not caring about things that are vitally important to people who make a living (or try to) with music. I can afford to lose money on sales of my upcoming EP (working on it!). I can afford to release through Bandcamp for downloads and/or print-on-demand plus download through Amazon or CDBaby. Why? Because (gods willing this should remain so) I have a day job that feeds me, houses me, clothes me, and funds my music obsession. I don’t teach music lessons because a) I am a very bad music teacher, and b) I don’t have to. I do play out, but I don’t scramble for gigs, and I have the luxury of turning a gig down sometimes. This is not a luxury that others share. One of the ways artists make money off of their music is by retaining the right to determine how, when, and by whom it is performed. My little YouTube challenge, while just a drop in the bucket, is at least in principle a threat to that revenue stream for them. While I can rationalize it away by saying that my one little cover online doesn’t do any harm, that isn’t really true — it’s a part of a larger pattern in which musicians are systematically screwed by the ways in which others have monetized digital distribution systems.

So: While I rowed happily away on the machine at the gym after that conversation, I decided that it’s time to shelve the 365 Days of the Unoriginal challenge and start deleting the videos from my YouTube channel.

I haven’t taken them all down yet — some (with acknowledged 3rd-party content) make a wee, tiny bit of ad revenue for the original rights holders, so I’m leaving them alone for another month or so while I think about it some more. Tunes that were my own distinct arrangements (so, not straight covers) are staying for now, as are traditional tunes that I’ve arranged and played and songs that the owners already permit. Some video of public performances in venues with their ASCAP dues paid up (I hope!) by bands I happen to be in is also staying up for another month or so. I’m still weeding the list, so we’ll see what’s left when I’m done.

I’ve really enjoyed learning these songs, and I will certainly keep learning new ones and playing them, but I’m not going to be posting them online anymore. My original stuff will still appear (as it’s the stuff I know I have the right to do whatever I please with). The Challenge, however, must sadly end at 138 Days of the Unoriginal. Bah. Not even halfway there!


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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