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The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music

I picked this up via SSRN:

David W. Galenson, From ‘White Christmas’ to Sgt. Pepper: The Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music

The paper has nothing directly to do with intellectual property law, but its description of the evolution in popular music during the 20th century suggests some provocative hypotheses.  Here is one:  If, as the paper argues, songwriting was understood as craft but today is viewed by many as art, some of the discordance expressed in policy debates over copyright for music reflect the fact that copyright was designed (in both 1909 and in 1976) for a world of creators-as-craftspeople — cogs in an industrial creativity machine — but now speaks to a world of creators-as-artists.  (I think of this not as an either-or but as two ends of a continuum that emerged with motion pictures and gradually took hold over the next 100 years.)  What we have in copyright today is a “failure to communicate” (to borrow a classic line) — not primarily in the sense that modern consumers don’t appreciate the constraints on modern creators, and not primarily in the sense that the law hasn’t kept up with machine reproduction, computer software, network technologies.  The failure to communicate has to do with the sense that copyright law speaks to a universe of created things – but creators (and consumers) are often more interested in a universe of created experiences.  The lack of “fit” between law and culture is even more fundamental than is generally assumed.

That’s a hypothesis, anyway.

From the paper’s conclusion:

During the first half of the twentieth century, American popular songwriters developed a professional tradition. The best of these writers, individually or in teams, combined fluent and often witty use of vernacular language with a sophisticated knowledge of music. Their best songs expressed universal emotions simply and clearly, with melodies that were easy to learn and remember. …

Dylan, the Beatles, and other rock musicians created a conceptual revolution. The popular songwriting of the Golden Era had been an experimental art, at its best based on highly skilled work by experienced practitioners. During the mid-‘60s, a new breed of songwriter invented a conceptual popular music, in which a relative lack of musical training and experience allowed radical departures from traditional conventions and practices….

The conceptual revolution in popular music did not occur in isolation, for young innovators were making similar transformations of a number of other arts: thus Jean-Luc Godard and his fellow New Wave directors created a conceptual revolution in film in the early ‘60s, just as Andy Warhol and other Pop artists turned painting into a conceptual activity.  What is particularly interesting about these conceptual revolutions is how durable they have been, for conceptual innovators have tended to dominate all of these arts throughout the intervening decades. It is possible that this durability is in all these cases due to a common internal dynamic, which has two elements. One of these is the growing public appreciation of conspicuous and dramatic innovation, which produces a heightened demand for new forms in each of these arts, and raises the rewards for novel contributions. The second is the glamor associated with these activities, which produces a large supply of potential innovators. These elements have combined
in these arts to create regimes in which conceptual approaches, that can quickly yield new results, have been preeminent. These arts have consequently been characterized by a steady flow of new ideas, produced by a succession of young artists who typically make a single novel contribution early in their careers.88 Understanding the conceptual revolution in popular music may therefore do more than heighten our recognition of the importance of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for it may also help us to appreciate the growing importance of conceptual innovation more generally in our society.