Music industry ‘tabs’ out yet again

Why can’t we learn to play songs together?

Adri Mehra

So, who’s ready for another chapter of “Pathetic Dying Music Industry vs. You the Ironically Faithful Consumer”?

Ever looked up how to play a song on the Internet? If you haven’t, you should – and quickly, because your window of time is slamming shut faster than Lars Ulrich can stimulate himself to a market-raping orgasm.

For nearly 15 years, armchair guitar heroes and general pop music enthusiasts have been sharing chords and tablature charts for their favorite songs via listservs and newsgroups online.

In fact, “tab” sites (shorthand for tablature, a simple form of musical notation using pictures of the strings and numbers of the frets to depict notes on the guitar) are as old as the Web itself. OLGA, the On-Line Guitar Archive, dates back to 1992 – predating even the most elderly of Net behemoths, Yahoo, by nearly three years.

Millions of musicians – young and old – have requested, posted, revised, printed and ultimately taught themselves how to play tens of thousands of killer tunes on guitar.

And even though this operation is the most benign, candy-coated swap meet of amateur ideas you’ll ever see, leave it to the filthy tentacles of corporate America to suck the marrow right out of it.

After a fairly successful campaign against illegal downloading – which was conducted mostly by criminalizing teenagers and their grandparents – the apparently emboldened music industry is now turning its ever-weakening guns on the tab sites.

The National Music Publishers’ Association in Washington, D.C., accuses tab sites of infringing the copyrights of songwriters, and has issued cease-and-desist orders to nearly every one they can Google.

Sure, technically you can buy or order sheet music for certain albums and individual songs, in which a royalty will go to the composer and the artist. But what if you’re just fooling around with a song and you want to trade opinions about it online?

“When you are jamming with a friend and you show them the chords for a song you heard on the radio, is that copyright infringement?” asks Rob Balch, manager of Guitar Tab Universe, in a letter he posted on his Web site.

“What about if you helped them remember the chord progression or riff by writing it down on, say, a napkin … infringement?”

“If he or she calls you later that night on the phone, or e-mails you, and you respond via one of those methods, are you infringing?”

The thing is, even if sheet music was deemed the only legal acquisition of instruction on how to play a song, most pop and rock tunes have never been formally transcribed. That could take years, and who would front the cost to build such an apparatus?

Obviously, this is creating a problem where none exist. This is nothing more than the shallowest of power plays from an industry still stuck in the winner-takes-all, top-heavy Brill Building mentality of the 1950s, when “snappy tunes” were farted out by white-bread mama’s boys while the fat cats in the boardroom cavorted with glee.

Too bad it’s not anything like that sickness anymore. People love music too much to make it anything less than utterly democratic – particularly when they’re playing it.

Rave on, tab sites. And thanks for the advice – without it, almost no one in my generation would be playing guitar like they do.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected].