Let’s All Play the Bass Clarinet


“Why, I just met someone in Geneva who is interested in meeting you,” said my friend Bendik, president of the World Composers Association. “Like you, he’s obsessed with bass clarinets.”

“Well, there are a few of us clarinet nerds around,” I smiled.

“I think you might want to talk to this guy.  He’s the chief copyright lawyer for Google.”

bass clarinet in parts

Bill Patry lives in a quite modest suburban house. Half of it is immaculate and organized. “That’s my wife’s half.” He seems proud. “She’s a caterer.” The other half is a complete mess: piles of papers everywhere, hundreds of clarinet mouthpieces, gold plated bass clarinet necks, clarinet stands, sheet music, various giant screen monitors. The two parts of the house are divided by a single book sitting on a shelf, one book in eight volumes about U.S. copyright law, thousands of pages—the largest single work on this subject ever written.

“Try this one,” he beamed, holding up a rare clarinet mouthpiece. “Beautiful, isn’t it? And now this one. And now this one.” So many beautiful clarinet accessories.

“So how do you work here?” I asked. “Do you practice the bass clarinet for a few hours, then swivel your chair to this computer here and work for a while, and then back? Do you carefully organize your time?”

“Not at all,” Bill said. “Maybe I’ll play a little, jump to the computer a little, jump back, practice a new piece, try a new reed, a new mouthpiece. Not very disciplined at all.”

“And do you ever go to the office?”

“Not if I can help it. Got everything I need right here.”

“So what is your job exactly?”

“Well, think of all the information coursing around on the Internet. Someone owns the rights to many pieces of that information. And we are trying to develop a way for those who own the rights to get paid every time someone accesses that information.”

That’s a tough challenge for our information economy. Maybe the biggest intellectual property dilemma of our age. Almost as hard as playing the bass clarinet.

clarinet mouthpieces

I have no doubt that a copyright lawyer can learn a lot from playing the bass clarinet on and off throughout the day, but I’m not sure what. And I know the publishing industry has learned something from the music industry in figuring out how to digitize itself and still convince people to pay for something that courses freely through the digital world. As recorded music courses freely over the virtual waves, files of texts which take even less space are somehow being more widely sold and less widely stolen, because the industry has created ways in which people seem happy enough to buy and read them. I believe people who value culture should pay for culture, as much as we can afford—if for no other reason, to prove that we do value it. My students want to steal as much software and music as they can, but they also realize there is something morally and legally wrong about the practice. They wrongly believe that most of the musicians whose work they love are rich, and don’t need money from fans. Sometimes a little basic economics lesson is in order.

The popular cellist Zoë Keating has been very forthcoming in releasing the details of the money she makes through various forms of electronic media sales. She does quite well by independent music standards. On iTunes she sold 32,170 tracks and 3862 albums, earning her $38,195. On Spotify 403,035 streams earned her just $1,764, and 1.9 million YouTube views earned her $1,248. So on Spotify, she earned $0.0044 per stream, and on YouTube $0.00064 per stream.

It is quite instructive to read such figures. For all the music we can instantly access by streaming for a reasonable subscription fee, the artists get almost nothing. It’s close to stealing, and only Spotify is raking in the bucks.

Clearly Patry and his employer have yet to implement their system to fairly compensate artists through the magical Internet of possibilities.

I try to tell everyone I know who claims to care about culture to pay for it whenever they can afford to. If you like someone’s music, buy one of their songs. Show some love, put in a dollar. They will appreciate it.

I just heard today from a newly minted PhD philosophy graduate that most of her friends in academia spend their browsing time scouring Russian websites to download free copies of overpriced academic books that only a few people in the world can really understand or really want to read.

Now if these people are stealing books, why would anyone want to pay to publish them? I know we didn’t get into this life of words and music to make money, but it’s still nice to earn a living from the world and work of stories and ideas.

Pay what you can. And pass me that next mouthpiece…ah, you’re right, it really does sound beautiful.


One thought on “Let’s All Play the Bass Clarinet

  1. This makes me think of an ongoing discussion in the world of digital fonts, which like the music industry involves a lot of free downloads of copyrighted digital material, while the creators & distributors are trying to make money from what they create. There was a lot of negotiation back and forth before the type community generally agreed on a workable format for web fonts – i.e., fonts that could be downloaded to web pages as the page is being viewed – a format that protected the creator’s rights but didn’t make it impossibly restrictive. It turns out that most people “will do the right thing if you make it easy”: if they see that a font isn’t a freebie, and it’s easy to pay for it, most people will pay for it. Not everybody, but most. That’s encouraging.

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