World Music Raises Questions of Ownership Ethics

Willa Rubin

The genre of “world music” is not as open as it seems, claims David Novak OC ’92, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara. In his Tuesday lecture, “Ethnomusicology, World Music and the Public Sphere,” Novak argued that issues of access to recording devices and limitations of creative freedom through copyright and intellectual property laws have created many new questions to ask of all forms of media.

According to Novak, many ethnomusicologists consider North American music engineers, recording local artists’ music internationally and selling it on the Internet to be imperialistic. There are many Western artists, like Paul Simon, who has recorded tracks for songs in Africa and Southeast Asia, only to bring them back to America and claim complete ownership over. Then this also happens on more extreme levels in many countries; some Westerners will record music that belongs to artists in other countries, rip it, and put it on the Internet. Novak insisted that this is a double-edged sword. While the artist might not be getting credit or profits from their work (even though they should as per current copyright laws since 1998 in the beginning of the dot-com era), the people who share this music online are exposing their music to new audiences and improving access to their music. This raises the question: how do copyright laws pertaining to intellectual property, and the freedom to reproduce the work of others affect listenership and access to world music when only some people have the freedom to share it?

Novak also touched on the anti-corporate tone of many world music artists, equating it to the garage band and punk scenes the U.S. and West are beginning to see disappear with independent labels and advanced technology. The appeal of the extraordinarily raw sound suggests that Americans are becoming nostalgic for distorted, angry echoes, as these effects can now be replaced with enhanced, remastered songs in stereo. If Western engineers were to give some of this technology to these artists, Novak argues that this would be seen as imperialistic, but it would also mean that the artists themselves would lose some of their appeal to Western audiences; their distortion and lack of impeccably polished sound makes them unique, and to remove that would be to extinguish a huge part of the music’s quality. 

Novak briefly talked about how the Internet makes art accessible, but the takeaway questions were: how do permissions and fair use affect the distribution of music from countries with less access to advanced recording devices, and what can engineers do to allow music can be shared while still giving artists music royalties