October 12, 2006

Commentary: Guitar tablature builds a market around making music

by Jonathan Opp

When I first wanted to write about guitar tablature, I'd intended it as a feature about the Online Guitar Archive (OLGA) and the community that has grown around the site. But in the week that I began researching, OLGA went offline. That's when it became a different story. You can read what happened here.

I started playing guitar when I was six and took lessons until I was 15. I stopped playing three lessons after I backed our pickup truck into my guitar teacher's car. Learning to play the guitar suddenly became a lot less important than learning how to drive.

Until about 18 months ago when watching my 15-year-old nephew shred AC/DC riffs with my old guitar reminded me how much I used to enjoy playing. So I started again, but after a few days I'd exhausted the short list of songs I remembered how to play. Somehow "More than Words" and "Bad Medicine" haven't quite held on to their late-80s street cred.

Just when I was ready to push the guitar back under the bed, I did a Google search for "Radiohead" and "guitar" and found OLGA.

Which brings me to the irony of the publishing industry shutting down these sites.

In the time that I've been playing again, I have become a very good sheet music customer. I've bought a stack of books and magazines, some songbooks, some instructional, all with the official, authorized versions of songs--none of which I'd have purchased if not for inspiration from OLGA. Not one.

So in my experience, OLGA didn't replace sheet music sales, it created them.

Which begs the question. Was OLGA creating a market bigger than the one it was claimed to be taking away? Guitar sales are at an all-time high in the UK. And here in the US, superstores like Guitar Center are raking in profits. Two years ago I wouldn't have bothered to walk in a guitar store, now I do it every weekend.

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Of course my experience may be unique. It is possible that tab sites are taking money away from artists, songwriters, and the organizations that support them. In all seriousness, no one wants that to happen. I love music. I buy CDs, go to live shows, take home t-shirts. And I want the people who write and perform my favorite music to get paid for it. Otherwise they might stop.

But I can't help but wonder what would happen if the tab sites were allowed to peacefully co-exist in a world with real sheet music. To consider these sites as simplified, community-generated, typically incomplete or even incorrect versions of these songs. Like sheet music training wheels.

It's easy to appreciate the quality of accurate and professionally transcribed sheet music. Guitar players know there's a big difference between the quality and completeness of songs on the free tab sites and the ones you buy in books. (Assuming the free versions weren't copied directly from the sheet music.)

Guitarists also know the number of songs that have been officially transcribed is small and generally limited to mainstream music. I can't imagine a song from a local indie band will ever be worth a professional transcriber's time. So why not make a business out of it. Let the community tab, and find a way for the artists to get paid. Whether through advertising, subscriptions, whatever.

The law is the law. And while the music publishing industry may claim copyright infringement, and they may succeed in that claim, especially when the lyrics are involved--I can't help but wonder if they're missing a bigger opportunity.

In the same way that they tried to stop sheet music sales. Or railed against the cassette mix tape. Or when former Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti said the "VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

This industry is one that historically resists change, is ultimately is forced to evolve, only to find themselves in a market more lucrative than the one it started with. Now might be the time to try evolving.