Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Thank You For Holding, Your Call Is Important To Us, Title 17 Anti-Muzak Amendment for Public Mental Health

It’s hard to predict all the small ways in which life is going to change as the economy continues to go down the toilet, but one thing for sure is that we are all going to spend a lot more time on hold. With each round of layoffs and corporate consolidations, human contact on the phone will be one notch more elusive. And what will follow each affirmation by an infuriatingly friendly-sounding woman that your call is important to her? More Muzak.

Muzak is among the worst of all human creations. In the list of things humanity can be proud of, Muzak ranks somewhere between the Tuskegee experiment and the dropping of the second H bomb. As more of this artistic abomination is forced upon us, what is now a moderate germ of annoyance is going to balloon into a pandemic.

Why do we have to listen to Muzak?

When the nice lady on the phone tells you that your call is important to her and that the estimated wait time for a customer service representative is 37 minutes, what she really means is this: “the company with which you are waiting to do business has conducted a cost / benefit analysis and determined that connecting you with a customer service representative in 36 minutes would cost just slightly more than the risk of losing you as a customer, and that making you wait 38 minutes to speak with a customer service representative might be just aggravating enough that you decide to screw it and just live without electricity / life insurance / gas / frequent flier miles. And when you are being pushed right up to, but not over, the brink of gouging out your own eyeballs, the theory goes, a little light music would be nice.

OK. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone likes music. Soothing is good. But why does it have to be bowel-loosening, soprano saxophone, duel-octave, no-reverb guitar lick drivel? Musical taste is subjective, but only up to a point. Muzak crosses the threshold: objectively speaking, it is a cold, hard scientific fact that Muzak is absolute shit. Calm, soothing music does not have to be absolute shit. Think of a Miles Davis ballad – wispy, muted trumpet phrases so hauntingly beautiful they could move a person to tears. Or some nice bluegrass - Jerry Douglas creating such entrancing sounds with his dobro. Yo-Yo Ma and his cello. Or even some Steely Dan. So how does laxitive-esque bowel-of-the-creative-universe trash beat out the crown jewels of human artistic achievement in the telephonic broadcast realm? The latter just can’t compete on cost. Muzak is cheap; good music is not.

A Few Legal Concepts to Frame the Issue

United States copyright law is built upon the premise that you should not be able to steal a person’s work. Just as, if a carpenter builds a house, you can’t have it unless you pay him for it, you can’t take a musician’s song without throwing a little cash compensation his way. An artistic product is the property of its creator (I don’t mean God; I mean the starving singer-songwriter). But there are exceptions to all property laws. Under the concept of eminent domain, for example, the government can confiscate private property if the greater public good requires it. Finally, while a person is generally free to do whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t harm others, there are even some legal limits to that concept. You are not allowed to sell yourself into slavery or hawk your organs on E-Bay, even if you decide it would be in your best interest to do so.

Let’s apply all of this to life-on-hold. At some point, the decision as to whether to keep holding for the next customer service representative, to whom your business is important, is really not a choice. You have to do it. If you hang up and your electricity account gets cancelled, and you can’t heat your house or watch Two And A Half Men, you are effectively surrendering an essential freedom. You are being held against your will and having Muzak forced upon you, and that is akin to slavery. There being no practical way to end this modern fact of life, at the very least, its harmful effects need to be mitigated. Muzak must be banned and good music provided in its place.

Proposed Revisions to United States Copyright Law

Title 17 of the United States Code outlines the parameters of copyright protections and exceptions. As explained by the revered Justice Potter Stewart, “the ultimate aim of [our copyright law] is to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.” While copyright law generally requires that an artist be compensated for the use of his music, there are exceptions, such as fair use, when the benefit to the public of having access to the music outweighs the loss to the artist of not being compensated for it. Royalty-free broadcasting of an artist’s work over the phone lines for the segment of the population that is waiting for the next available customer service representative to whom its business is important would be of great benefit to the general public. Such permitted use should be the law.

No evaluation has ever been conducted of the loss to society due to insanity, suicide and worse, resulting from forced exposure to Muzak. But, unquestionably, such loss is staggering. The benefit of preventing these widespread atrocities would far outweigh any loss to the artistic community. The forced licensing of good, soothing music, could actually stimulate creativity. The billions of man-hours spent on hold could foster a whole new generation of creative minds.

What I Intend To Do About It

I am moving to Washington, DC soon and, when I get there, will immediately start lobbying congress to pass my first bill: the Thank You For Holding, Your Call Is Important To Us Title 17 Amendment for Public Mental Health. This legislation will be simple to draft – no royalties due for any music broadcast over the phone lines to any person who is on hold – and even simpler to pass since, for the past 32 years, the entirety of the U.S. copyright regime has become the unabashed whore of corporate interests, led by Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse (I’m not making this up; these are the facts). Passing this legislation will be in the best interest of the corporate community since it will pacify, and increase the lifespan of, its customer base. I’ll get to DC on a Monday and, assuming I can set up a quick lunch date with Walt Disney’s lobbying firm, I’d expect this to be signed into law by a week from Tuesday. If that fails, I’ll look into gathering some funds to purchase a sovereign nation (one of the many abandoned oil rigs located just far enough off the coast to be in international waters, which used to house most of the world’s porn and gambling servers and which, following the Y2K dot-com crash, can be had for cheap). From there, I could set up some phone banks from which good music could be broadcast subject only to my country’s own copyright laws (drafted, of course, by yours truly with, maybe, a little help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Muzak is a disease that must be eliminated! The future of humanity depends on it! Give it some thought the next time you’re on hold. Do not give in. The time for change is now!

1 comment:

Rich said...

Without Muzak how would I get my Rick Astley fix?