Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Ignorance and Bliss

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

I get a little testy when someone accuses fervent atheists of being “as bad as religious people.” It’s not the atheists who are trying to shut down abortion providers. It’s not the atheists who are trying to keep gays from marrying. It’s not the atheists who want children brought up in ignorance of science. It’s … oh, wait, who is doing that? Right. It’s the religious people.

Is it the religiously devout who can’t be elected to public office in the U.S. owing to bias against them by atheists? Why, no! It’s the other way around. Atheists can’t be elected to office due to voter bias, yet the most rabid, confused fundamentalists can march off to Congress and freely promulgate their bizarre views, to widespread public approbation.

The accusation that atheists are “as bad as” religious extremists popped up today in a conversation on Facebook, and I fired back. The conversation was dominated, it appeared, by agnostics. Their idea seems to be that we’re supposed to be polite to religious people, because who really knows?

Well, indeed — who really knows? None of us knows. For all we know, the entire universe could have been created ten minutes ago by a gang of giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts and Groucho Marx mustaches. I mean, really. It could have been. That hypothesis cannot be disproven.

It’s just not very likely. And from all the evidence that science has been able to gather over the past 300 years, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as “God” is no more likely than the hypothesis about giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts. The scientific investigation of the God question was conducted, at least for the first 200 years, not by atheists but by scientists who quite definitely believed in God and wanted to find evidence of the existence of God and the soul. Try as they might, they couldn’t find any evidence.

That being the case, to cling to the notion that “nobody knows — there could be a God” is just intellectual ineptitude wearing a fancy suit. Agnosticism is a refusal to look at the complete failure of scientific investigations of the question. It’s an embrace of ignorance.

I am impatient with people who embrace ignorance.

The “God” hypothesis has been used for millenia as an explanation of anything that people didn’t know how to explain in any other way. Love, seeds sprouting, being healed of disease, the movement of the planets in the sky — it was all God’s handiwork, right? But as science has learned about the real physical nature of these phenomena, there has been less and less need for the God hypothesis. The God of liberal religions today, some sort of vague cloud of universal love, is no more than a faint shadow of the God whose supposed acts were trumpeted by the old-time religion.

Liberal religious groups have retreated for a very good reason: The “God” hypothesis doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a useless and waterlogged piece of intellectual flotsam.

It seems to me that self-proclaimed agnostics want atheists to sit down and be quiet because they want everybody to be polite. Especially, we should be polite to religious people, because, you know, they might turn out to be right after all. Or at least in the name of tolerance.

Given the amount of mischief (a euphemism for bloodshed) perpetrated by religious people over the past few thousand years, I feel disinclined to remain polite. And as a member of a minority that is widely misunderstood and discriminated against in various subtle ways, I can’t help feeling that asking me to tolerate religious people and their views is being a bit one-sided. We know perfectly well that a broad swath of conservative religious people do not and will never tolerate atheists. Every time we open our mouths to express our views, we’re a threat to them. It’s not just that they don’t understand us, or that they fear we’ll force them to question their beliefs. They think we’re evil. A source of social degeneracy and blah blah blah.

Should we be asked to tolerate people who think we’re evil?

You can read a good summary of the atheist point of view here. This article is a little repetitive; reasons 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the ten reasons are a lot alike. And we could debate about reason 9, because the more glaring awfulness of many sects with long histories has in fact been moderated over the centuries. Nonetheless, anyone who thinks agnosticism makes sense should give it a read.

What I think people mean by the “just as bad” comment is not that atheists’ views of social policy are bad, but rather that atheists sometimes express their views of religious questions in terms that are just as uncompromising. Atheists can be stubborn and confrontational.

But why shouldn’t we be? We’re right. We have logic and science on our side. The religious believers have only tradition (poorly understood or selectively cherry-picked), emotion (treacherously fickle), assorted legends (worthless), and the herd mentality (never reliable).

You hand me an empty bushel basket. You tell me, “There might be a diamond in the basket.” I look in the basket. There’s no diamond. I tell you, “There’s no diamond in there.” You tell me, “No, there might be a diamond. Really. Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

If that’s the kind of intellectual tap-dance you enjoy, congratulations. You’re an agnostic.

Posted in religion | 2 Comments »

One Nation Under What?

Posted by midiguru on September 9, 2014

Sometimes I get a little steamed up. This morning on Facebook, one of my friends posted an item about the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This led immediately to a diatribe from one of his Christian friends (whose name I will omit, because I’m a considerate person):

“I visited this site and I read all the comments regarding the pledge. You know full well that this nation was founded on religious principles…..specifically the principles of Jesus Christ. To deny that is foolish. All one has to do is read the writings of the founders to know their heart. I was deeply offended by the incredibly noxious comments and vicious screed directed at those of us that are followers of Christ. And all this from a crowd that preaches tolerance. I simply can’t believe that you could align yourself with something this low.”

Another friend of my friend responded to this ridiculous statement as follows:

“With all due respect, you do know that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. He took out all the voodoo and the Hocus Pocus and left the direct words of Christ. This country was not found on religious principles and most decidedly NOT on the principles of Jesus Christ. That is why the Constitution has a provision that mandates that NO RELIGIOUS TEST be required for ANY Constitutionally mandated position in our government.”

I then added my two cents’ worth:

“As a matter of historical fact, you’re wrong. The founding fathers were very careful to keep religion OUT of political life. The fact that you fail to understand this shows very clearly exactly WHY they chose that path. It should also suggest to you why people get a little testy on the subject. To be specific, the Christians in this country fucking don’t get it.”

The Christian guy then fired back with this:

“First of all, my comments were directed to [the original poster], not any of you. Your revisionist view of history is typical atheistic garbage. Jim, I don’t fail to understand anything. I have devoted most of my sixty years to intensely studying the Bible and history and all I can say is that you and your ilk have succeeded in turning this once great nation into a third world rat hole. By the way, don’t use that kind of offensive language when you address me.”

Of course, there are numerous deep-seated problems with this, most remarkably the bizarre notion that the United States would be a wonderful nation today if it weren’t for the atheists. Also, I find myself wondering whether this fellow has ever done a point-by-point comparison between, say, a nice clean suburb in Southern California and an actual “third world rat hole,” such as, oh, maybe Somalia or the slums of Bangladesh. Probably not. The supposed horrifying collapse of the United States is not entirely in his mind — things have gotten pretty bad around here, though they weren’t exactly great in the 1950s, were they? There’s also a whiff of racism about his phrase, isn’t there? Just a little whiff.

In any case, I lost it, okay? Here’s how I responded:

“So you’re an intolerant asshole and an ignorant schmuck. I might have expected better of a so-called ‘Christian,’ but I don’t, usually. And fuck yourself in the ass if you don’t like my language, you piece of dogshit.”

I’m afraid I’m just not very tolerant of religious people anymore. Religious patriots are worse. Ignorant religious patriots … well, that’s a redundant phrase. All religious patriots are ignorant, by definition.

I do think it’s charming that this guy is posting on Facebook and thinking he has the right or can expect to control other people’s use of words like “fuck.” That level of cluelessness is a highlight of the conversation.

But the underlying problem is not that the guy is ignorant. We’re all ignorant about various things. The underlying problem, and the reason I get so tweaked about his brand of idiocy, is this: His religion forces him to be ignorant. His religion is one-size-fits-all. There is no room in his world view for divergent opinions. As far as he can see, Christianity is the One Holy Truth, and because he loves his country (a separate failing, and a topic for another time) he cannot conceive that his country was founded on other than Christian principles.

The logic (if you want to call it that) seems to be this: All good things come from God. Therefore, anything that is not good is due to people’s failure to worship God.

Never mind that the God of the Old Testament was, according to the documentary evidence, a sadistic motherfucker. Pay no attention to the deity behind the curtain.

Last night I was part of a very interesting discussion about tolerance. It seems to me that tolerance is a two-way street. Religious people tend to expect (if not demand) tolerance for their views — but many of them fail to return the favor. Their dogmatic belief is that they’re right — and if they’re right, atheists must be wrong. The stakes being (in their pathetic little minds) very high, they have little hesitation in striding out forthrightly to smite and bring low the evils of atheism. Of course they’re quite willing to love you as an individual … but only after you become a convert to their brand of hoo-hah, whatever it happens to be.

Last night somebody said, “Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t mean you have to put up with assholes.” If a religious person demands that you be respectful of their religion, while they’re refusing to be respectful of your secular values as an atheist, and then they accuse you of being intolerant because you ask them to hop off of their high horse and come down to earth — no. Fuck that.

Posted in politics, religion | 4 Comments »

Dumb Bunny

Posted by midiguru on September 6, 2014

A few years back, I bought a mystery by Michael Connelly called Chasing the Dime. I’m pretty sure I never read it, but the other day when I was looking for something to read, there it was on my shelf.

Turns out it’s not a Harry Bosch novel (though an old case of Bosch’s is referred to, sort of but not quite peripherally). The viewpoint character is not a cop or a lawyer, he’s a genius biochemist named Henry Pierce.

My first thought was, “Oh, this is Connelly’s modern take on the amateur sleuth sub-genre.” Amateur sleuths (the prototype is Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple) tend to be found in the “cozy” sub-genre, not in Connelly’s two-fisted, tension-filled corner of the mystery universe, so this could be interesting.

I’m now 3/4 of the way through the book, and it has now become apparent that this is not an amateur sleuth story at all. Henry Pierce is being set up to be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Dark forces are at work. But that’s not what I wanted to comment on.

The problem with the story is that Pierce keeps acting like an idiot. We’re told he’s a Stanford grad. Not only is he a genius biochemist, he also has enough business smarts to be running his own company with more than 30 employees. He reads patent documents on his lunch break. And yet, when confronted with indications of criminal misconduct, he does everything backwards.

He’s drawn into the mystery by the fact that his new phone is suddenly ringing off the hook with calls for a hooker. The number is on her web page, but somehow it has gotten reassigned to him. This, in itself, is highly suspicious, for two reasons. First, the phone company doesn’t usually reassign numbers for a few months after the old account has closed — but more significant, why was the old account closed? The hooker is missing and has quite likely been murdered, but she seems to have disappeared quite suddenly: Her house has been abandoned for a month or so, but the rent has been paid and the power hasn’t been shut off. So how did her phone number happen to get reassigned?

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by midiguru on August 30, 2014

A modular synthesizer is really good at making abstract sounds. If you’re seeking conventional tones suitable for melodies and bass lines — well, there are people who enjoy doing them with a modular, but frankly, there are better tools for the job.

The challenge, with abstract sounds, is how to use them in a way that makes some kind of musical sense. Because there’s nothing resembling harmony theory to fall back on, it seems to me it may be useful to be entirely intuitive — to not know, intellectually, what’s going on in a piece, and not to worry about it.

Here’s a modest example:


Borrowing a line from a poem by Gregory Corso, I call this piece “Scarlatti goes hip-hop through demented halls.” It was created using the Qu-Bit Nebulae, a few electronic beat loops I had lying around on my hard drive, and very little else. Well, some knob twiddling, and maybe a filter here or there. (I have no idea where the loops came from, but since they’re not recognizable, I’m not too worried about copyright violations.)

I recorded several raw tracks of Nebulae improvisation into Reason as audio, and then copied and pasted bits until I had something I liked. Generally there are at least two separate takes layered, sometimes three. The reverb on one track is Reason; everything else is straight out of the modular.

Oh, by the way — the Corso poem quoted above was published in 1958. The term “hip-hop” is not as new as you may have thought. Not that this music has anything to do with hip-hop.

Posted in modular, music | Leave a Comment »

Support Hose

Posted by midiguru on August 29, 2014

This is a story about how weird the Internet can get.

Last night I finished a mix of a synthesizer piece I’ve been working on. I wanted to upload it so that the six or seven people who wander over to this blog could listen to it and be amazed, disturbed, or just plain bored.

WordPress won’t let you upload audio media. Probably some lawyer has convinced them that users would engage in wholesale copyright violation (a good guess) and that WordPress could be liable (who knows?). What I do is, I upload the mp3 files to the server of my “real” website (musicwords.net) and then link to them from this blog. I call it my “real” website because it’s even less visited and less relevant than the blog. But I’ve had it for 12 years or so. It just sits there. It’s on a server operated by a company called Lunar Pages.

So I launch FileZilla Client, the ftp client that I use for uploading music to the Lunar Pages server. And FileZilla can’t access the server. This is the first time that has ever happened.

My first thought is, I just updated to a new version of FileZilla. That could be the source of the difficulty … or the Lunar Pages server could be down. Sure enough, my web browser can’t get to musicwords.net either. So I contact Lunar Pages tech support (via email, after getting tired of listening to their on-hold music). The tech reports that, working from a remote location, he IS able to get to musicwords. So are a couple of my Facebook friends, when I ask them to try. One of them can reach musicwords from a hotel in Guatemala — and within minutes of when I ask folks to give it a try.

The rest of my Internet connectivity works perfectly, but I can’t reach my own website.

So maybe FileZilla has hosed that particular IP address on this particular computer. But no, I have the same problem on my Mac, which connects wirelessly to the same home router. So the problem would have to be in the router, right?

I phone AT&T. It’s their router. The AT&T tech is unable to come up with a theory as to what might be going on. (I cleverly don’t mention to him that I updated FileZilla Client, because if I do, he will instantly blame them. I know how this game is played.) We try unplugging the router and plugging it back in. No luck. We try turning off Windows Firewall — not that that would help with the Mac’s inability to find the site. That doesn’t work either. I quickly turn it back on.

I post a query on the FileZilla support forum. Someone there suggests that I try pinging the server. That doesn’t work from here, either on the Mac or in Windows. ping (Windows) and traceroute (Mac) can’t find the server. So I locate a web page (wormly.com) that can ping a server remotely. wormly can find the server all right — it gives me the number address of the server. But it fails to connect. Evidently this morning the Lunar Pages server is down.

Sort of. Maybe. Sometimes wormly can get a response to 4 of the 8 packets that it sends (a 50% failure rate). Sometimes it gets no response at all. This is highly suspicious.

Naturally, I’m unable to get through to phone support at Lunar Pages. Their system invites me to register my phone number so that a tech can call me back. I do so. No tech calls me back.

Toward the end of the afternoon, after exchanging a couple of emails with Lunar Pages tech support, I try phoning their support line again. This time an automated message tells me that there’s a conflict between the Lunar Pages servers and the AT&T servers, and that AT&T is working on a fix. Well, what do you know! It wasn’t just me having a screwball problem. I may not have been the first to report it, but then again, maybe I was.

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Posted by midiguru on August 22, 2014

Note: At the moment, the server for my website has decided not to exist, so none of the audio in the blog is going to play. I’m waiting for a reply from tech support….

The latest addition to my modular synth is a Qu-Bit Nebulae, a nifty device that runs Csound code in its own little Raspberry Pi CPU. I haven’t yet tried loading any of my own Csound code; this morning I took Nebulae out for a spin using its default program, which does granular pitch- and time-shifting on samples.

This is a spoken vocal phrase that I happen to have lying around on my hard drive, being played by the Nebulae and processed by a ModCan Frequency Shifter and an Audio Damage Dub Jr. delay. Knob twiddling was employed — this is not an automated patch.

I figured the Nebulae and the ModCan would work well together. I was right.

Posted in modular, music, technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Walk Away, Rene

Posted by midiguru on August 4, 2014

The wonderful thing about modular synthesis is that once you understand how to do it, making sounds becomes a very intuitive process. Plug in a patch cord, grab a knob.

And then there’s the Make Noise Rene. Conceptually, it’s brilliant — very deep and powerful. As an actual piece of hardware, it could be improved by hitting it a few times with a hammer. And I say this with the greatest respect for Make Noise. I have two of their Maths modules, and also their DPO. Brilliant designs. Rene is another story.

The concept is, Rene is a two-dimensional step sequencer. It has 16 knobs arranged in a 4×4 grid, and you have independent control over the X and Y positions of the active step, using either a CV or a clock. If you don’t use a Y clock/CV input, the X control can either hang on one row or cycle through all 16 steps in various patterns. You can program it interactively, in real time, to skip certain steps. It has a quantized output, plus one that’s not quantized. It can glide from one output value to another. Plus a number of other features.

The knob tops are lighted so you can see what step is being played, or (in programming mode) what the current settings are. That’s good … but other than that, the user interface is really bad. There are two problems.

First, to program the rather elaborate functionality of the device, you touch one of the 18 touchplates (16 corresponding to the sequence steps, plus two for choosing program modes) with the tip of your finger. The trouble is, the touchplates are close to 100% nonresponsive. They ignore my fingers. This is apparently because my skin is not sweaty enough. I can get them to sort of respond, in a random unreliable way, by dipping my fingertip into a cup of water before touching the plate. Of course, if too much water gets on a touchplate, it may think my finger is there even after I’ve lifted it. So I dip my finger, dry it a bit on my trousers, and then it works for three or four finger-taps (maybe) before it stops working.

Second, and almost equally problematical, the device itself fails to provide nearly enough visual feedback on programming. There’s no LCD. There’s a row of six small colored LEDs that tell you which of the six programming modes you’re in. In each mode, the 16 touchplates do different things. To learn what they do, you have to consult the manual. Unless you’ve dedicated your life to learning how the device works, you may never manage to memorize all of the esoteric functions, so you’ll constantly be delving into the manual. And of course the manual is cryptic. The information is there, but you have to keep flipping up and down to different pages and … phooey.

If the touchplates worked, I’m sure I’d be able to learn the important functions within a week or two. I might even be motivated to do so. But right now, my motivation is seeping away into the woodwork.

To be fair, I have several other digital modules, including the Intellijel Shapeshifter oscillator, Mutable Instruments Braids, and the Tiptop Trigger Riot, all of which are brilliant, and none of which is exactly obvious. All three require more than a bit of manual-diving. (Shapeshifter is way deep.) Maybe I just need sweaty hands. On the other hand, they all have at least minimal data displays. You just have to learn what the lights on Rene mean by reading the manual, because zero information is actually visible on the panel.

Footnote: I contacted Make Noise, and they tell me they’ll recalibrate my unit to make it more sensitive. I’m shipping it to them today and keeping my (non-sweaty) fingers crossed.

Posted in modular, music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Back to the Modular

Posted by midiguru on August 3, 2014

I’ve been ignoring my modular synth for a few months. (Among other distractions, I was busy writing the new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming, which I’m hoping will be out by mid-January.) Today I thought I’d fire it up again. This is not a complete piece of music, it’s just a sketch:

As usual, I recorded the audio from the synth into Reason and did a bit of mixing there. The cool thing is, with a complex patch I can record up to six audio signals at once by using the Expert Sleepers ES-6, which sends ADAT-format digital audio to the PreSonus AudioBox. This particular sketch only uses three tracks, which means I can get twice as wild and crazy as this.

I’ll probably need a few more patch cords, though.

Rather than start with a musical idea, this patch started with a technical question: “Hey, can I use the Make Noise Maths as a slew limiter? I don’t remember.” Okay, that works. Let’s voltage-control the slew rate. Okay, how about running the output through a quantizer?

Yeah, that works, but I think I need to trigger the quantizer so as to produce a regular rhythm. That way, I can fire an envelope generator with the same rhythm, run the oscillator through a filter, and modulate filter cutoff.

And so forth.

This next bit, again just a sketch, wasn’t recorded all in one pass. It’s three separate mono tracks recorded using the same patch, with a few assorted tweaks. The rhythm is courtesy of Tiptop Trigger Riot, and the tone comes from a Morphing Terrarium, a digital oscillator that was indeed morphing actively (and being subjected to a bit of FM). My initial conception was to use all four sections of the Intellijel Quadra envelope generator.

I still don’t know if this type of minimal exploration qualifies as music, but I’m not sure I care.

Posted in modular, music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »


Posted by midiguru on July 28, 2014

It occurred to me this afternoon that in the past year I’ve done nine electronic arrangements of venerable Beatles tunes. Possibly a few other people might like to hear them. Some sort of digital download is obviously the distribution method of choice; nobody is likely to send me money for a physical CD.

I’d like this to be legal. Not that Paul McCartney needs the money, but maintaining legal distribution is an important ethical principle for musicians. So I wandered over to the website of the Harry Fox Agency to find out what it would cost. What I learned was a bit odd, and left some unanswered questions. There are, shall we say, difficulties.

The statutory rate for Permanent Digital Downloads (that is, files, not streaming music) is 9.1 cents per download for songs that are up to five minutes in length. Harry Fox Agency (HFA for short) licenses a minimum of 25 downloads per song. Since I don’t have what you might call actual fans, 25 may even be a good estimate. At that rate, I would be paying a royalty of $2.28 per song.

Here’s what’s weird: HFA themselves collect a fee of $16 per song (for each of the first five songs, and $14 for each song above five). At that rate, HFA would be raking in almost seven times as much money as Paul McCartney (and of course Paul’s management would pocket part of that). In concrete terms, by setting up an HFA account and becoming a legal purveyor of music, I would not be supporting the songwriters. I would be supporting the corporate machinery.

The HFA boilerplate, which for a change I actually read rather than just clicking Agree, was clearly drafted by high-priced lawyers. My money would be going, among other places, into the pockets of those lawyers. Color me less than thrilled about this.

Of course, if I were estimating that I’d sell 2,000 downloads per song, the HFA fee would fade into insignificance. But that’s just another way of saying that this is one of those places where the little guy gets screwed and the high-stakes players have an advantage.

Five of my nine arrangements are medleys containing two tunes each. Do I just pay once for the medley, or do I pay twice? If I were combining a Beatles song with a Stones song, it would make sense to pay twice … but if both songs are owned by the same copyright holder and the total length of the track is under five minutes, should I be charged twice?

The more serious issue is, how exactly does HFA propose to determine the number of downloads I’ve gotten? I have no commercial website set up to track downloads. That would be extra overhead for me, and the information would be of no value to me (unless I’m audited by HFA). What if I’m giving the files away — which is what I intend to do — and not keeping track of the number of downloads? Am I in violation of the law if I do that? To be specific, does the law require me to set up the machinery to track the downloads even if I’m not requiring my two dozen alleged fans to pay for the music?

I inquired, and received an answer from them on these points: I can give the music away, as long as I’ve paid for a mechanical license, and no metering is required. They simply require you to estimate, at the time when you request the license, the number of downloads you’ll be getting. This is good news.

The license is only good for 12 months, however. After that, I’m supposed to re-apply. And that would be another $16 per song going to Harry Fox.

The HFA FAQ explains that their mechanical licenses only cover the United States. Distribution in other nations requires separate licensing in those nations. The Internet being a more or less global thing, it’s a bit hard to see how any artist could comply with this when providing downloadable recordings of arrangements of songs by other composers. If a French fan downloads my files, I would become a criminal in France, even if I have complied with all of the U.S. licensing requirements.

I may be able to get answers to some of these questions by phoning HFA. (Well, no — you can’t even talk to anybody by phoning them. But they do answer inquiries made on their web form.) In any event, my money is still going to be feeding the corporate monster, not ending up in the pockets of the musicians. Do I want to pay Harry Fox and their lawyers a couple of hundred bucks? I can afford it, so it may be the safe thing to do.

Perusing the HFA FAQ, I learn that for a medley or an “arrangement of an existing song that alters the melody or character” (which all of my arrangements do — why else would I bother?), I have to get permission from the publisher as well as a license from HFA. It seems fairly clear that all jazz instrumental recordings of pop tunes would fall afoul of this requirement — so do all jazz recording artists have to jump through this hoop? I don’t know. But this requirement, frankly, pushes me over the line. I have no aspirations as a professional creative artist; I just want a few people to be able to hear my creative work. Clearly, the music publishing industry is NOT set up to support people like me. The music industry is set up in such a manner as to oppress people like me with burdensome paperwork and inappropriate fees.

On top of which, if I were to approach the publisher with my request, they might turn me down! Harry Fox can’t turn you down — they administer what are called compulsory licenses, a legal term meaning that legally you can’t be prevented from releasing a new recording of a previously recorded song, you just have to pay a standard rate. But we can imagine the consternation in the front office of the publisher of the Beatles catalog if I explained that I was planning to make my work freely downloadable.

Well, “consternation” is too strong a word. They wouldn’t bat an eyelash. They’d just say no. Of course, I could phone them and ask — they might say yes. But phoning them might put me and my electronic arrangements on their radar. As a practical matter, if I just upload the mp3s, they’ll never know.

So that’s what it comes to, sports fans. While crying foul about lost revenue due to digital downloads, the corporate-dominated music industry is quietly leaving independent artists no realistic alternative but to break the law.

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