MESSING WITH MUSIC
I am a long cycle, low amplitude vacillator between megrims, which make me a tad grumpy, and mania, which makes me a tad grandiose. As I’m sure you have recently noticed, I am now in a curmudgeonly mood, and so, I might as well persevere with passionate bitching.
To wit: I have great respect for music, and so, I am agin’ anyone messing with it. I am talking about messing with recorded music in order to make it more danceable. I disapprove of: 1. changing tempos, with or without changing the pitch: 2. Deletions of long intros, long codas, solos, rhythm breaks, and drum and/or bass solos. 3. Overlaying recording with electronic rhythm tracks. Or 4. Any other alterations possible in this age of electronic legerdemain.
DJs do this in order to make a recording, in their opinion, more danceable, and to be fair, oftentimes, messing with music does make it more danceable. All that said, purist that I am, I believe DJs should play music which is already danceable, and leave the rest alone. I can foresee a slippery messy slope to perdition in the alteration of music for dancers. My contentious question becomes, if you don’t like it the music the way it is, why don’t you just go have it recorded the way you want it it? I told you I was grumpy.
Below are some of my personal experiences with altered music.
1. Changing Tempos: I first heard this done during the middle ‘90s in Shagland, where the DJs would change the tempo of a recording to make it a better Carolina Shag dance recording, or so they thought. Originally, they used variable speed cassette and record playing equipment which could speed up or slow down a recording by as much as 12%. However, if my memory serves me well, they never altered the tempo by more than 8%, as faster than 8% would make vocals sound chipmunky, and instrumentals sound tinny, and slower than 8% would make vocals sound like voices from the ethereal grave, and instrumentals sound like the band was wading through musical molasses. As you can imagine, the result of this type of messing with music made for an isotempo evening of Carolina Shag; the preferred tempos being close to 120 bpm. I object to dancing to the same tempo all night, but then, I am not a Carolina Shagger. Incidentally, I understand that there are new gee whiz electronics which can change the tempo of a digital recording while holding the original pitch constant. I claim this is a devil’s device, and if you go to a Carolina Shag dance and hear Red Prysock’s “Hand Clappin’” and it runs for 20 minutes, you might suspect what happened.
2. Deletions: Ever since the technology allowed it, DJs have been chopping off long introductions, and long codas, and I object, but not strenuously, to this practice. However, when they chop out long bass, or drum solos, I object more strenuously, even though I must admit that those changes make for a better dance recording. However, I really get annoyed when they chop out horn solos, because, in their opinion, they are too lengthy and boring, and, perhaps, make the recording too long for dancing. My advice to them is to play another shorter recording. And, I go semi-ballistic when they chop out rhythm breaks, apparently believing that dancers want relentless rhythm throughout all recordings played for them. Rudy and I had such a night of dance in St. Louis which was a pure delight except for the fact that I was programming in a hold for every rhythm break I knew should be there, but wasn’t. It is embarrassing indeed to be perceived as a leader having multiple major brain cramps in the middle of dances. My preferences are to hear music as it was recorded, even if it means that I cannot dance to all music.
3. Electronic rhythm overdubs: In my opinion and simply put, this is electronic adulteration of music. How this got started is beyond me, but I think it began in WCS where it became de-rigueur to only hear music with a loud prominent backbeat, even though I doubt many WCSers have to be hit over the head with rhythm in order to stay on it. I had heard rhythm overdubbed recordings of swing standards on compilation CDs, but never did I think I would hear one at a Lindy Hop dance, until, that is, the second “Jitterbug Jam” (circa 2002) in California. The DJ there usually played at WCS events, and one afternoon, he played a recording of an Ellington standard with what I recall was a disco rhythm overdub. Sometimes, as we all do, I have to grit my teeth and bear it at a dance, but this was too much, and so, I bull-rushed the stage to asked the event director, Melinda Comeau, to please listen to what was being played. She did, and immediately told the DJ, “Take it off.” I know the DJ; he is a nice guy, and, alas, I am sure he was trying to do us Lindy Hop dancers a favor, but he is too old to have been that misinformed about how we LHers feel about music. (Comment: that was well before Hip Hop insinuated itself into Lindy Hop) Anyway, after a few inquiries, I learned that someone, I never learned who, was doing this overdubbing, and then, making copies for other DJs. At the time, I wondered if Duke Ellington was spinning uncomfortably in his grave, and questioned if it was legal to do this, given money was changing hands for the playing of the music? No answers were forthcoming then.
My recent renewed interest in questions concerning what you can legally do and cannot do to and with music, led me to THE MAN, student of Constitutional law, and senior Atlanta swing DJ, Alan White. (All text in quotes is his—with some paraphrasing—and he graciously agreed to edit this copy). “(The) 1970s Copyright Law (prohibits) commercial benefit by selling reproductions of the same music (the recording company) sold to you.” There is apparently nothing in the 1970’s law which prohibits copying the music for personal use (or giving it away-wink!). As I understand it, according to the 1970s law, if you bought the music, you may alter it as you see fit, but then, it becomes a gray area when altered music is played by a paid DJ, then depends on the legal description of ‘personal use.” Of course, the right to play the music as a DJ presumes that an ASCAP/BMI* licensing fee has been paid by the venue, (not by the DJ), where the recorded music is being played. This money goes to the composers and lyricist who wrote the music. Presumably, musicians who played during the recording were properly paid for their labor at the time, and can expect no royalties, other than those they can negotiate with the recording company (good Luck!). It doesn’t take a PhD astrophysicist to see that enforcement of the 1970s law at the DJ level is a major problem.
* American Society of Composers And Publishers/Broadcast Music Inc.
Much more legal mud entered the recorded music water with the Millennium Copyright Law of 1997 which asserts “when we buy a CD, we don’t own the music; we only own the right to listen to it. You shouldn’t be able to commercially benefit by selling the same music they are selling to you.” “So, (Alan asks) are used CD and record stores illegal?” Radio, being essentially now a digital to analog medium, can play the master recordings free, or be licensed by ASCAP/BMI, to play music, but a court decision prohibits file-sharing (Napster, Kaazza, Morpheus), and draconian costs imposed by the law all but prohibits playing (digital to digital) music on the internet. More to the question of altered music, the law is apparently unclear, but “if you don’t own the music—it seems to me that any alteration that they don’t like could be a violation.” However, again, it is not obvious that even haphazard enforcement of a prohibition on altering music would be difficult at the DJ level, and uniform enforcement impossible? Either, doubtless, not being worth the cost of the effort. When it comes to laws, does not toothlessness abound? And besides, given the venal mendacious conduct of much of the music recording industry and its minions, would you expect many of the labels to take esthetic umbrage at alteration or adulteration of their precious solely owned music?
There, I feel so much better.