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To whom does music belong?

In his conversations with fans, The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave recently responded to someone who is angry because he found out that a public figure who he despises is a fan of a particular musician, same as he is. His questions are about who owns music – to whom does it belong? I found Cave’s point of view on this sensitive subject interesting and balanced, but also sympathetic:

“Do you believe your music is created for everyone? Are you OK with the idea that people you might genuinely see as despicable, are fans of yours? How do you feel about the fact that they listen to the words and music you work so hard on, that you put all of your soul into, and claim a personal ownership of it? Does it feel like a betrayal of the art you toiled over?”

“Justin” writing to Nick Cave in The Red Hand Files, Issue #209 / Oct. 2022

I’ve copied the entire post at the bottom of this page, and it’s worth reading, so please do. Cave is so articulate – I love reading his Red Hand Files.

Cave’s response is, as usual, carefully considered and kindly, but also truthful. His point is that he cannot think of anyone who should not be able to listen to his music, but that it doesn’t matter, since music has healing power which is better spread out in the world than limited to a select few people.

“In regard to ownership, I don’t feel I personally have any real claim over my songs. I feel they belong equally to those who love them. These songs have urgent work to do. I send them out into the world, bright emissaries of the spirit, to travel where they are needed, collecting souls as they go – to the joyful and the disheartened, the sick and the well, the grievers and those yet to grieve, the lost and the found, the good and the bad and the somewhere in-between. They become a great whirling conga-line of souls, in all their despicable beauty, frugging to Stagger Lee or shedding a tear to Ghosteen, all the way into the sun. Justin, I’m very glad you are one of them. It’s good to have you with us.”

Nick Cave responding to “Justin” in The Red Hand Files, Issue #209 / Oct. 2022

I often read about musicians who are furious because someone they don’t like, or whose cause they don’t support, has appropriated (meaning to take something made by someone from a different culture or society than yours, make it your own, own it, or to adopt it) their music. But unless that person violated the copyright, performance and distribution terms for the track, the musician’s hands are tied. Once you put out a song, it’s anyone’s guess who will buy it and where it will end up being played. No-one, not novelists, film-makers, designers, painters or sculptors, can effectively control or limit who buys their product, once that product is on the market. They can try, by narrowing the market, limiting the appeal of their product, or pricing and distributing it in an exclusive manner. But then they limit the sales also. So the most an affronted musician can do is to cause a social media furor.

Everyone hears something different

But these affronted musician forget what music is supposed to be and do.

In their minds, deep down, they must be wondering what in that song would cause someone who they don’t like, who is opposite to them, to identify with the song – and how come they put that particular element into the song that they created. Could there be some words in the lyrics or feeling in the performance that got flipped and appealed to that other party? Probably there are – because music is an expression of what is inside the musician, and no-one is only raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens and brown paper packages tied up with string. Humans are light and dark, good and bad, and it all goes into creating a song.

Creative products get appropriated depending on what in them resonates with the user – so every person who listens to what you made, or reads your novel, or looks at your painting, or views your film, will interpret it differently.

In terms of the wrongness or rightness of appropriation, particularly of artistic objects, I came to three conclusions: 1) appropriation usually happens in order to meet a need or fill a void. 2) Seeing as people learn and live by appropriation – one way of acquiring information – it is as unavoidable as death and taxes. 3) That being the case, I, as a musician or maker of music, should give careful thought about what I am putting out there: is it mainly good, beautiful, truthful, meaningful and respectful – or the other way around? Which need would it meet? Because what goes around, comes around. With bells and whistles on.

Will I be ashamed to hear my music being played somewhere out there in the world? Will I get a sneaking suspicion that I had written it in anger – and now other angry people are loving it? Lordy, I hope not.

A case of cultural appropriation

Say your song becomes a big hit and it’s all over the world, with people singing and playing it and owning it and thinking of it as the soundtrack to their lives – are you going to fight against thunder by moaning that someone who you don’t like, likes your song? I think not. Appropriation can happen, will happen, happens all the time.

For example, did you know that the song Edelweiss is not a German folk song, nor a German anthem? Edelweiss was written by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1959 musical The Sound of Music, which was adapted as a film and released in 1965. However in the dystopian Sci-Fi TV show, The Man in the High Castle (2015 – 2019), in which the Nazis rule the world, the song is the theme in the title sequence, because when people think of Germany, they think of Edelweiss, and vice versa.

Do I hate it now? No. I still sing it whenever I am feeling particularly happy.

An eerie interpretation of Edelweiss.

I have written quite a few songs that are performed on instruments that are not typically North American or European. I have adopted and adapted sounds from instruments from other cultures. And that’s all right, because the Japanese do not have the sole right to play the koto or the shakuhachi. The Chinese do not have the sole right to play the yueqin, and the Syrians do not exclusively own the oud. The piano is not limited to Italians, though it was invented in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700.

These instruments and the music made on them developed, were adapted and spread through the world and now belong to anyone who can make music on them, providing a great unifying force for good in the world – being bright emissaries, as Cave put it in his response.

The only objection that people can have to someone like me, a Canadian, writing music by using instruments that come from places far away from Canada, is that I don’t do it very well, rushing in where angels fear to tread, so to speak.

I am an inexperienced songwriter with a European background and sense of aesthetics, but I write music for these instruments because to me they sound wonderfully different, very beautiful and fascinating. When I hear an oud being played, my ears perk up and I lean in to listen closely. The shakuhachi flute’s breathy notes send chills down my spine. I learn as I go, and the more I learn the more my admiration grows.

I hope to send these songs of mine, with their mixed-up elements, into the world to bring a little bit of joy to someone out there. I hope it says to whoever is listening to it: Glad you like it, but others have done it better, go and educate your ears. There are wonderful things out there, in places where you’d never think to look.


The Red Hand Files

ISSUE #209 / OCTOBER 2022
I recently learned that there is a sitting Supreme Court Justice, here in the United States, who is a fan of a musician I love. This musician has passed.
The Justice, in my opinion, is dangerous to this country, and holds views I abhor.
I firmly believe, through public knowledge of this artist, that he was not supportive of this Justice either. I feel like this man, whom I loathe, is singing along and dancing to music that wasn’t created for him. Funnily enough, it feels like a real injustice.
[ ]
Do you believe your music is created for everyone? Are you OK with the idea that people you might genuinely see as despicable, are fans of yours? How do you feel about the fact that they listen to the words and music you work so hard on, that you put all of your soul into, and claim a personal ownership of it? Does it feel like a betrayal of the art you toiled over?
[ ]
Thanks so much for the music. 
JUSTIN, FALL RIVER, MASSACHUSETTS, USA

Dear Justin,

I have racked my brains to think of someone who is undeserving of my music, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring anyone to mind. Perhaps I’ve just grown old and fuzzy and can no longer summon that flaming energy of outrage I remember from my youth. These days I’m not sure what position I can rightfully occupy where I can make those kinds of judgements.

I guess, in general, I don’t find people despicable or deserving of hatred and contempt because, as far as I can see, people suffer, and it is suffering that is the underlying cause for much of the wrongdoing in the world. Suffering lies beneath our most destructive behaviour. This is why music is important. Music at its very essence is a force for good. It has an inherent moral magnitude. At its core music has the capacity to improve matters, to reform the condition of the heart by appealing to the better angels of our nature. This is its rightful and sacred duty. Music makes us do better. Be better. It helps release us from our suffering and points us toward the good. 

In regard to ownership, I don’t feel I personally have any real claim over my songs. I feel they belong equally to those who love them. These songs have urgent work to do. I send them out into the world, bright emissaries of the spirit, to travel where they are needed, collecting souls as they go – to the joyful and the disheartened, the sick and the well, the grievers and those yet to grieve, the lost and the found, the good and the bad and the somewhere in-between. They become a great whirling conga-line of souls, in all their despicable beauty, frugging to Stagger Lee or shedding a tear to Ghosteen, all the way into the sun. Justin, I’m very glad you are one of them. It’s good to have you with us.

Love, Nick
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