BOOK REVIEW: Theft! A History of Music By James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins & Keith Aoki

BOOK REVIEW: Theft! A History of Music By James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins & Keith Aoki

Whilst listening to music and discovering new artists and genres of music, along with the antics and personal lives of some musicians can be mesmerising, live changing, fun or just hilarious; studying the history of music can occasionally fail to muster similar enthusiasm. At XS Noize, after searching far and wide, we found a way to make discovering the history of music as rock ‘n’ roll as erm… rock ‘n’ roll. Through the forum of the graphic novel; James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins tell us this history beginning from 1400 BC in Mesopotamia (Ancient Greece) where we see the earliest use of musical notation which was developed further by the Romans who added symbols above the text for notes with lines representing rhythm.

One learns quickly our notion of music being “frozen in CDs or MP3 files…” is false. Prior to (what is actually in the context of history a modern innovation of) “mechanically recorded” music; “it (music) was all just an experience”. Music couldn’t be owned “any more than a smell or a laugh”. Therefore, unlike today there was no sense of music “ownership” or “property control”.  This isn’t as liberating as it sounds for the Greeks aggressively regulated music. Only certain instruments were permitted and they believed (as Plato openly did) mixing musical forms involved “meddling with the… order of the cosmos”.

In the short term as history progressed; D:Ream’s predictions did not come to pass. Whilst the Greeks may have restricted the musical instruments one could use; instrumental musical was “scorned” all together in the eighth century AD at the Court of Peppin III under Pope Stephen II claiming instrumental music was a distraction from the gospel message.  By this time musical notation had died out and was only reinvented a century later.

Whilst the music didn’t die (as Don McLean claimed); it only started to rejuvenate itself through the innovation of musical printing which took off in the sixteenth century. Till then the majority of music was played from memory. The advancement of printing fostered musical innovation and experimentation. However, the majority of musicians had no legal protection over the original work they created; this resided with the printing firms. The first successful legal victory awarding a composer legal rights of their work was in 1777 in favour of Johann Christian Bach. There would be a long way to go before legal rights around permission of performing musical scores live would be covered; nonetheless, the idea of the “original genius” was born where power moved from the printing firms to musicians.

As one learns about sampling; one realises that this is not a modern theme with the advent of hip hop and the rise of the DJ, but is something that predates rock ‘n’ roll and even jazz. Our authors demonstrate the marvellous and mind-blowing story of how musicians have borrowed from each other in a “classic” game of Super Berio Brothers. Whilst there were many uncorrected injustices in history; there were occasions where what went around came around. For example, Mozart, who often “parodied” (evolving another musical work in a humorous or satirical way) had his “Magic Flute” heavily “parodied”. One learns that the history of the music of the American national anthem has less than patriotic roots.

The mass production of music we have today came to pass towards the latter half of the nineteenth century owing to technological innovation allowing instruments such as pianos to be mass-produced with the ability to record music and transmit music via radio. These developments fostered changes in legislation and legal battles as the recording industry and broadcasters initially felt under no obligation to pay composers.  The rise of direct sampling in music particularly in hip hop would see a colossal number of legal challenges and changes in legislation.

One interesting argument put forward by James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins (using a deftly drawn Mick Jagger) is that musicians were only well paid for physical recordings during 1970 – 1997. Despite the rise in legislation covering legal rights and ownership; one can legally create a song that can be identical to another song provided the musician can prove that they had no knowledge of the existence of the other song already in existence. This is much easier than it sounds for one can be found guilty of “subconsciously” copying another artist as George Harrison was in 1976.

As well as demonstrating how the history of music and how in many ways the history of music is actually a legal history; the imaginative way the authors do this is of the highest calibre. As well as using caricatures of artists and key persons throughout history; the history of music is also given a helping hand from George Orwell’s 1984 lead character Winston Smith, Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an 800-pound gorilla and many other characters.

The actual history of music and its many legal aspects is unforgivingly laborious and complex deriving from a plethora of global sources across several millennia. One truly feels in debt to James Boyle who as a law professor co-presented this history in such an accessible, elating and imaginative manner. One of the greatest aspects it that the authors were also able to throw in several very cheesy witty puns too including Question “Why can’t I write a song with the same groove as another? I feel like there are blurred lines.” Answer: “I didn’t think you were that Thicke headed”.

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Xsnoize Author
Michael Barron 296 Articles
Michael first began writing whilst studying at university; reviewing the latest releases and live gigs. He has since contributed to the Fortean Times as well as other publications. Michael’s musical tastes vary from Indie to psychedelic, folk and dubstep.

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