Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering OLGA

No, this post isn’t some nostalgia trip for a long lost love of Eastern European extraction; it’s about the Online Guitar Archive—remember that? Home to page after page of chord charts & tabs, many of them not very well-conceived, but conveying at least some idea of how to play songs ranging from the most famous artists to the most obscure. OLGA has been shut down for quite some time now under the threat of legal action from the music publishing industry, tho of course scores of other chord sites are still available.

My history of OLGA in this paragraph was adapted from Wikipedia’s, so you can get pretty much the same info here. If you don’t feel like opening a new tab, I can tell you that OLGA developed from a newsgroup at the University of Nevada Las Vegas at which a host of other folks started compiling chord charts & tabs. In 1992, these files (which had been purged from the newsgroup every few days) were collected onto an ftp site, which later developed into OLGA.net. In the early, heady days of the internet the collection expanded like dandelions on our lawn in April. Now, you can look at dandelions one of two ways. They are actually quite pretty flowers, & they also attract goldfinches. However, to most folks’ eyes, they’re just odd & unattractive when they go to seed. So it was with OLGA; the online guitarist community loved it, while the music publishing industry saw it as their worst nightmare. EMI filed a complaint with the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1996, & as a result the burgeoning archive was booted off their server. OLGA found a new server, & then again was forced to shut down in 1998 following a threat of legal action from the Harry Fox Agency. A third version of the archive, now OLGA incorporated, was closed following a takedown letter in 2006 from lawyers representing the National Music Publisher’s Association & the Music Publisher’s Association

So OLGA is no more, & realistically is not likely to resurrect itself. What is the actual basis of the Music Publisher’s objection to OLGA & similar sites? At first glance it would seem obvious: making a chord progression public without licensing must be a copyright infringement. Well, wait a moment there. A chord progression can’t be copyrighted; any number of songs share the same chord progressions; 12-bar blues is by definition a standard chord progression, & to name all the country songs built around a strict I-IV-V chord progression would result in a very looong list. The "Heart & Soul/Blue Moon" progression also has been used in hundreds of songs, from the two old standards I used to name it to "The Tide is High" & "Hungry Heart." & then there’s the time-honored jazz tradition of “the head”—basing a new song on the chord progression of an old standard. Any number of jazz tunes—each itself a copyrighted song—are built on the chord progression of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which is also still under copyright. Some other famous heads (with the original song on which they’re based noted in parentheses) include: Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), Charlie Parker’s “Crazyeology” (“Back Home in Indiana”), Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” (“Whispering”), Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” (“Blue Skies”), Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” (“How High the Moon”), & Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” (“Exactly Like You”). This is a very selective list, & doesn’t include any of the numerous heads based on “I Got Rhythm.”

But the publishing industry was within their rights, not about the chord progressions per se, but about posting the lyrics along with the chords (without the lyrics, it’s more difficult to figure out where the changes come), because lyrics are copyrighted. Also, tablature that attempts to give a note-by-note transcription of a solo would be considered a copyright infringement. At first glance this makes perfect sense, but logically (if not legally) it seems a bit more complicated. If, as has been asserted, a number of such tabs were actually incorrect, they actually were re-interpretations (willy-nilly, perhaps). Any melody played against a given chord progression will have notes in common with another melody played against that same progression—thus you can typically hear similarities between a head & its original: only so many notes, even in a jazz context, will harmonize against the chord. In country or rock songs with shared chord progressions, there tend to be fewer harmonizing notes, simply because these types of songs don’t tend to have melody notes falling “outside” the chord changes (notes that aren’t part of the scale related to a given chord). It is interesting that OLGA removed lyrics from the site at some point in the 00s, & was still taken down, even tho lyrics seem to be the one irrefutable case of copyright infringement.

Now, I’m a musician myself, & I’m all for musician compensation. Being a musician in a small town where folks kind of expect musicians to play for free at various events & can react with anything from surprise to indignation if you ask for any remuneration, I know it’s tough to make a living off music. I don’t think that Keith Richards’ quality of life is materially affected by some kid downloading tab to “Wild Horses,” but I understand this is legally irrelevant. Why the kid wants to play a song exactly like Keith Richards (or anyone else) rather than like him/herself is a more complicated question for another time. However, I have a few points to raise about this legal dilemma which I believe are valid (tho I’m sure they’re not “legally” valid—it’s just that they make sense).

I understand that the MusicNotes site is backed by the Harry Fox Agency. This site offers sheet music downloads of individual songs at a reasonable price: $4.00-$5.00, which is pretty much the going rate for piano sheet music. In addition, a recent random & unscientific search I did on the site showed me that they have some stuff I wouldn’t have expected them to offer; it’s not all the 100 best-known songs. Based on this I’d have to applaud MusicNotes & Harry Fox Agency for going this far in addressing the situation.

But there’s still a problem. OLGA’s collection wasn’t based on what the music industry wants to peddle to us (even if they get sufficiently hip to realize folks want songs in addition to the best known or most aggressvely marketed). OLGA offered whatever some guitar player had the initiative to figure out & then post, so there was a lot of obscure stuff there; & frankly, once OLGA shut down, a lot of that stuff disappeared for good. So I guess one thing I wonder is: what’s the legal basis for enforcing copyright on material that publishers don’t make available? It seems to me (again, from a logical not legal standpoint) that the privileges & benefits of copyright should entail some obligation—i.e., “use it or lose it.” If you don’t want to go to the expense of making your copyrighted material available, I’m not sure that you really have moral high ground when you try to prevent others from doing so. Of course, I realize there’s a “real world” argument about this—do enough people really want the Yo Lo Tengo songbook (dating myself here) to justify publishing it? But it’s not just indy bands we’re talking about. I recently thought I’d learn the Willie Nelson song “One Day at a Time” for a local monthly jam session (I actually know the Flatlanders’ version, but Willie wrote the song). Being lazy, I looked up the chords on the internet, & found they’d been removed from several sites & didn’t appear to be available. Out of curiosity, I looked at the available Willie Nelson songbooks—none of them contain this song, nor could I find any anthology songbook that does (several contain the Kris Kristofferson song of the same name, but it’s not the same song). Now all of this web surfing took longer than the time it later took me to sit down with a guitar & figure out the chord progression myself—I mean it’s not rocket science, but then I’ve played for some time, have played in bands, teach guitar, etc. Would all Willie Nelson fans with a guitar be able to do this? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect some wouldn’t. The fact is, Nelson’s publisher apparently asked sites to remove the information without themselves being willing to make the information public (the Nelson song also isn’t on MusicNotes, by the way). Unless the publishers actually make the material available for purchase, it seems kinda difficult for the artist to profit by it.

& there’s another deep dark secret the music publishers may not want you to know as they bewail the lost revenue to artists from tab sites. There are a number of songs out there for whom the copyright claims are extremely dubious. One famous example: “Love Me Tender.” According to the Hal Leonard Ultimate Country Fakebook, the words & music to “Love Me Tender” are by Elvis Presley & Vera Matson, & the song is © 1956 Elvis Presley Music. This seems to ignore the fact that the music for “Love Me Tender” is identical to the song “Aura Lee,” which was written by George R. Poulton in the 19th century. While no one can deny that the words to Presley’s songs are different from “Aura Lee,” no one can deny that the tunes are the same—not similar but identical. I wonder: does Poulton have any descendants who are getting ripped off by this (again, I’m sure they probably have no “legal” claim, but it could be said they have a moral one)—should they have no remuneration simply because a rock & roll legend made a legal claim on music he didn’t actually write? In fairness, “Love Me Tender” is just an easy target—it’s by no means an isolated case. Another famous example would be the many 19th century parlor songs that RCA Victor had copyrighted in the name of A.P. Carter back in the 1920s. Just one other example—this one cracks me up: “Dance With a Dolly,” a tune from the 40s (that statement also should be in quotes); the Hal Leonard Ultimate Fake Book says the song has words & music by Terry Shand, Jimmy Eaton, & Mickey Lender, © 1940 Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. Now in this case, not only is the music identical to the old folk song “Buffalo Gals” (which may or may not have been written by minstrel show banjoist Dan Emmet, & writer of “Dixie,” but in any case was in existence in the 19th century), but the words are almost identical, too.

I’ll let you to draw your own conclusions—I’ll admit it’s a complicated issue, just as I’ll also point out the issue isn’t without double standards & misleading, self-serving arguments. I also don’t believe it’s any great secret that money & power & legal standing make a very cozy threesome of bedfellows….


  1. Back in the 80's when I was just starting out in music everybody I knew kept little notebooks for jotting down song lyrics, chord charts and tab. We would pass them around so we could copy stuff into our own notebooks.

    It was kind of like the Amish Internet.

    Here is the crazy thing - that stone age file trading system was perfectly legal and more importantly, the act of writing stuff down did a great job of helping us retain the information.

    I have managed to help a lot of music students through the Internet, but I sometimes think things were better when all we had was a pencil, a dime store notebook and a front porch.


  2. Thanks for the comment Patrick-- I like the "Amish Internet" comment & concept a lot. There are pluses & minuses to this electronic version: the type of "file sharing" you're talking about involves a real life community, & there's a lot to be said for that. On the other hand, like you, I've found resources to help students (& myself) on the www.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.