To put differences aside for the common good

With summer vacation here (and all of Rhode Island’s many summer distractions calling me,) I worried that I might not have the patience to write something in depth. Knowing that most readers are probably equally distracted, I decided to write about something a bit smaller. In this case, I want to explore how the national headlines and my recent personal experience teach the same important same lesson, but only one of the two incidents came to any kind of really positive resolution.

This week I donated a print to an organization for their fund-raiser. The group, AS220, supports the arts, as they say on their site:

“…a non-profit community arts space in downtown Providence. Our mission is to provide an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. If you live in the state of Rhode Island, you will get an opportunity to exhibit or perform at AS220. AS220 is part Incubator and part Bazaar. We also build new audiences and infrastructure for artists to stimulate the cultural mulch in Rhode Island.” See: http://as220.org/front/

AS220 runs a photo program that includes what I am pretty sure is the last publicly rentable wet darkroom in Rhode Island. They work hard at AS220 to provide affordable public access to photographers at every level. In 2011 the photo program expanded to include digital printing, editing, framing, mating and studio lighting in a newly renovated space. All the way around, the photo program at AS220 does great things for all kinds of photographers. They support that great program by getting grants, changing some user fees and through a unique fundraiser they describe as:

The Photo Lottery …. allows patrons who purchase lottery tickets to take home a work of photo-based art. Each ticket sold corresponds at random to one of the works displayed at the reception. Everyone is welcome to see the work, but only ticket-holders go home with a photo. Every two years the Photo Lottery brings together the work of photographers from all over the country and is a chance for local photographers to be a part of this incredibly diverse and exciting show. See: http://www.as220.org/photolottery_2011/index.htm

The event showcases the work of a broad photographic community consisting of contemporary artists, youth photographers, photojournalists, commercial photographers and internationally acclaimed artists. In 2009, we received donated work from Jock Sturges, Danny Lyon, and Mona Kuhn as well as many of our own darkroom key members and students from our youth photography program, Photographic Memory. See http://www.as220.org/darkroom/

The Lottery is September 24th so if you are in the Providence area please join in!

Since AS220 is a great institution working hard to support creative practitioners in all fields in general and to nurture the next generation of photographers, an issue dear to my heart. Thus, I usually donate to the Photo Lottery, to support AS220, as they support the arts via their Community darkroom and other programs.

But life is not exactly a love-fest between AS220 and me. In fact, they do at least one really annoying thing that goes against their core mission to support the arts. Yet, I support their efforts because I believe in their overall mission. In essence, we agree to disagree, knowing we are in pursuit of a common goal and so we put differences aside for the common good.

That same noble idea, to put differences aside for the common good, was sorely tested recently and I do not think the parties involved on a national level showed themselves to be up to the task. Our leaders in Washington came within a few hours of destroying our economy and risking a default on the part of the U.S. government. I have my opinion on who is at fault. (Hint: which party has a strong, even growing constituency that does not believe in hard science, whether that is the science of evolution or the cold hard facts of economics.)

What was distressing was the “no compromise” façade that was put forward that nearly crushed the economy, via an economic default (which would indeed have happened. Ask the other countries that have been through such defaults. It is not pretty.)

So what does AS220 do that is on par with the rigid fanatics who almost drove this country’s economy into the ditch? Actually nothing that is even remotely similar which is why I donate to their fund-raiser.

What they do practice is their rather irrational attitude toward copyrighted music. They describe it as:

“….part of this commitment includes a boycott of ASCAP/BMI and the blanket licensing system they use, which we believe hurts independent artists ….

….outside of the predatory sphere of license-sharks…..

Read more at: http://as220.org/jukebox/

So exactly what are ASCAP and their sister organization, BMI? They are organizations that “…collect license fees on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as royalties to those members whose works have been performed.” (From the site of Broadcast Music, Inc. http://www.bmi.com/about/) Read more about the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers at http://www.ascap.com/

As it says on their site:

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is a membership association of more than 410,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers of every kind of music. Through agreements with affiliated international societies, ASCAP also represents hundreds of thousands of music creators worldwide. ASCAP is the only U.S. performing rights organization created and controlled by composers, songwriters and music publishers, with a Board of Directors elected by and from the membership. ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works. ASCAP makes giving and obtaining permission to perform music simple for both creators and users of music.

As it says on their site:ASCAP members are individuals who make their living writing music. As a society of composers, songwriters, lyricists and music publishers, we know very well that there are many steps between creation and compensation; months, if not years, can pass between the creation of a song, its recording, its release, its performance, and the day when the revenues due to the writer actually arrive. A music creator is like a small business, and ASCAP exists to ensure that music creators are paid promptly when their works are performed publicly.

Restaurants and bars where popular music is played, usually via the radio, pay license fees to groups like ASCAP, who then are supposed to pass part of those fees onto the owner of the copyrighted music.

Are ASCAP and BMI perfect operations? No. Do they represent all musicians effectively and treat all musicians equally fairly? Probably not always! I am equally sure that 99% of the serious photographers I know wish that we had something similar for photographers, securing real payment from the people who use and re-use our images (too often without paying for them.)

So if young artists want to give away their creative efforts for free, so be it. But once they reach about thirty years old or so, my guess is they will realize they are not making money from what they love doing and they will likely reconsider. Yes, ASCAP and BMI are businesses, but they are businesses that support creative artists who are pursuing their passions (and need to make a living as they do that.)

Frankly, most serious musicians dream of making music that would earn them fees via groups like ASCAP and BMI. Those that claim otherwise are either dissembling to hide their capitalist underbellies or are not thinking realistically about their own futures.

The funny thing about the policy against ASCAP and BMI licensed music is that it probably does spurs some musicians to create important new music to perform at AS220. That is definitely the upside. The downside is that plenty of crappy performances are given by bands that might be better off covering the good music of others rather than belching out their own bad creations.

If the people behind AS220 were half as serious about teaching young artists valuable business skills, they would change their attitude toward ASCAP and BMI. They still may want to require musicians to perform their own work rather than cover the work of ASCPA/BMI licensed songs. After all that approach seems to nurture creativity, which is a good thing.

But heaping scorn on important organizations like ASCAP and BMI is rather short sighted. Those two organizations go a long way toward supporting creative practitioners in the music world in ways that NO OTHER organization, including AS220 does. Those organizations actually get real money, from actual users, which then goes (in part) to the creative individuals who made that music. If that is not supporting the art(ist)s then nothing is.

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