Keeping tabs on the music industry

Ever since Napster and its file-sharing brethren first ran afoul of the music industry, it seems like Big Music couldn’t vilify itself in the eyes of its consumer base any better if it tried. Or maybe it is trying. It certainly seems so of late, as in the past few months the industry has expanded its copyright-lawsuit fatwa to restrict not just how consumers can get music, but how they can learn it as well.

This time around, it’s the U.S. Music Publishers’ Association that’s looking for a clampdown. For the past few months, the MPA has been focusing its legal crosshairs on the hundreds of song lyrics and guitar tablature Web sites that have long flourished as a way for aspiring musicians to learn popular songs.

For those not familiar with guitar tablatures – or tabs as they’re popularly called – they are simple, number-coded transliterations of regular sheet music that are easier to format and read than normal music notation. The MPA sees guitar tab sites as an encroachment on its copyright turf and has already succeeded in closing down a handful of very popular lyrics and tab sites, such as, which I used to go to myself.

The MPA has been working toward this for a few years now, but this year it’s finally busting out the serious legal guns, issuing shut-down-or-get-sued letters to tablature site owners. And some MPA bigwigs are even calling for harsher repercussions than lawsuits. In a recent BBC article, MPA president Lauren Keiser declared that he not only wanted to see the Web sites shut down and fined, but also have Web site owners thrown behind bars.

Fresh from its battles with file sharers, the music industry ought to be aware of how unpopular shutting down free lyrics and tab sites is going to be. That’s why it’s trying to sell the familiar bogus mantra of “we’re doing this for the artists.”

David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers’ Association, claims in the article, “Unauthorized use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living and is no different from stealing.”

Now I could see some semblance of a case being made for popular musicians losing substantial income because of pirated recordings, but I’ve never heard of musicians depending on published sheet music for the bulk of their earnings. To imply that free tablature sites are going to put famous artists out on the streets is laughable; the very fact that a musician has become popular enough to get his or her work published as sheet music is a good sign that that musician is already making plenty of dough. It is principally music publishers whose wallets are thinning, of course, and they should just say so instead of acting like they merely want to give more money to artists.

Eliminating free tablature sites probably isn’t going to drastically change the fortune of the MPA anyway, because it’s not like most online tablatures are perfect substitutes for professionally made sheet music. While guitar tabs are helpful in figuring out how to play a song, they’re usually not very accurate note-for-note. Some tabs I find really suck, in fact, and they sound butchered as hell when played. Accurate tabs do exist out there, but by and large, free tablatures are regarded as guidelines rather than rules.

Some tablature sites also have forums and message boards where tabs are gradually improved through input from users – in such cases, the users are generally amateur musicians giving each other tips. These aren’t people who are going to invest a lot in volumes of sheet music, unless they get to the point where they want to be professional. And it sure doesn’t help them get to that point when industries do things such as shut down Web sites where they discuss and exchange advice on improving music techniques.

Instead of trying to stamp free tab sites out of existence, the music industry should think about actually competing by offering similar services and improving upon them. Many bands don’t have their music officially published in the first place, because it’s not profitable enough; filling that vacuum is one reason unofficial tablature sites came into existence.

I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon, but it would be a wonderful gesture on the MPA’s part if it would set up official Web sites with a comprehensive variety of accurate tablatures for cheap prices. Otherwise, you can count on people continuing to find ways to circumvent the music industry’s iron-fisted rules. After all, when the legitimate industry isn’t even going to offer adequate services for everyone, what can you do but work outside legitimacy?

University of Pittsburgh, The Pitt News