We got this submission from a performance artist who wishes to remain anonymous, for reasons that will be clear below (though we’ve verified that it is from a well-regarded performer). While we generally run attributed pieces, it’s good to have a reminder once in a while that there are many artists who are impeded by copyright but who, for professional reasons, can’t talk about it openly. When trying to measure the damage done by copyright restrictions, one must allow for the fact that creative repression is an underreported crime.

I have this one show which is kind of languishing, in part because I don’t know what to do about the music. I developed the show over the course of a couple of years, playing around with different pieces of music as the show evolved. When I came to the point where the show was “finished” and I had found music, I was so overwhelmed at the prospect of licensing it all that I… just never did.

I showed the piece once, without doing any licensing, to a packed house and a very warm reception. I did, by the way, contact the artists who made the music in my show. They’re local. And they were like, “Oh, hey, this sounds great. Yeah, go for it. But you know, it’s not our permission you need.”

And when it came time to start looking for a longer run, the licensing process was just so byzantine that yeah, I got overwhelmed and I just decided to start work on the next project.

So that show is kind of in a coma. Which is a shame! I’ve been thinking about reviving it and taking it to some festivals. I know a lot of artists in my genre who don’t ever bother licensing work, some because it’s just too complicated and some for reasons of moral indignation. But I’m afraid of doing something illegal.

The thing is, I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to make art. I have spent no time learning how to negotiate the licensing of music. These are very different skills! It’s bizarre that in order to share my art, I need to have the latter skill set, or hire someone who does. The lack of that skill set results in my work being kept secret.

It’s really backward. I would love to talk to artists directly, and negotiate something that’s mutually beneficial. Right? My work calls attention to their work. I’m a big fan of their work. I want to support their art and their livelihood. I want everyone to know about and support their work. It’s such a natural alliance, but it’s perverted by this system we have now.

And also, by the way, this system we have now seems to assume that every venture is intended to be profitable. And I know that it’s bizarre and crazy-sounding, that I might make art knowing that there’s very little chance I will make a net profit. But I do. I do that.

But the licensing system doesn’t really seem to be set up for that possibility — the possibility that my making work might benefit me in ways that are not financial, and the possibility that my work might benefit other artists — maybe even financially! — in ways that don’t come from licensing fees.


1 Comment on "Showstopper."

  1. I ran into some similar troubles recently. I was going to put together a little short film and needed to figure out how to license a specific recording of Mozart’s “Musical Joke.” The original record label on which the song was released is gone, so I had to spend a few days trying to track down the current owner. I concluded it was probably Universal Music but couldn’t seem to get in touch with anyone who would confirm that. So I decided to go ahead and try to fill out the clearance request form, but was having a lot of trouble trying to figure out what the difference was between “Nature of Use” “Duration of Use” and “Term.” Also kept worrying what kind of response I’d get sending in a form declaring it’s a movie with a $500 budget and I have $70 to spend on music. 

    In the end the movie was cancelled for other reasons so I never found out whether my estimations were correct or not.