Local Rhythms – Bragg’s Message to Moguls: Pay Up

I know, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it – and everyone young and old has an opinion about music. Thus, the debate over its future matters, even if the subject doesn’t have the weight of, say, Bernake’s prescriptions for the economy or General Petraeus on Capitol Hill.

Believing I understood all the angles of this argument, Billy Bragg’s views surprised me. He’s mostly known as a leftist political rocker, so one might expect him to side with the “music wants to be free” proponents.

Bragg’s response to the 1980s campaign for a tax on cassette tapes was to print the message “capitalism is killing music” on one of his records.

But he’s less predictable on this subject. Why, Bragg wonders, should Internet companies profit from the public’s hunger for music while the artists themselves struggle?

Sales of social networking sites have brought riches to investors. Would News Corp. buy MySpace or AOL snap up Bebo without the creative output of thousands of independent musicians?

“The powerful start-ups,” says Bragg, “are blithely following the consumer’s argument that they don’t have to pay.”

The mouse-clicking millions don’t seem to realize that easy access does not equate to zero value.

Though the exchange of music has become free, Bragg told a British webzine last week, the technology moguls exploiting it are making a fortune.

Bragg is taking a lot of heat for an op-ed he published a few weeks back in the New York Times. “The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise,” wrote Bragg. “Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets.”

He’s just asking to share in the bonanza.

Artists need to step forward and shape the future, he says. “We can’t go back to the $15.99 CD, but we want to make a living from this – help us to convince big business to cut us in.”

The alternative, says Bragg, is to be spoon fed megastars like Hannah Montana by corporations who have put songs through focus groups like detergent or light beer.

“Someone who is a bit quirky – and by quirky, I mean a Radiohead – will never get out of Oxford.”

Far from being a geek utopia, Bragg says “it’s cutting the legs off from the next generation of musicians … condemning them to never really give up their day job.”

Words to ponder while you consider these upcoming performances:

Thursday: New Blue Trio, Sophie & Zeke’s – They’ve changed their name and added more cool jazz to their sound, but the core musicians of New Kind of Blue – recently known as the Roland Yamaguchi Band – still possess the same excellent musical skills that made them perennial Thursday night favorites in downtown Claremont. The piano, upright bass and guitar are, like the food, simmered to perfection.

Friday: Amity Front, Salt Hill Pub – This Northampton band sells out venues to the south, but their third Lebanon appearance is, like the two before, a no-cover affair. When they strip down to guitars and mandolin, Amity Front delivers a high lonesome sound. But they can also plug and play, with revved-up Americana reminiscent of Wilco. Their latest CD, “Border Towns,” offers a bit of both worlds.

Saturday: New Black Eagle Jazz Band, Claremont Opera House – A bunch of New Englanders with a love for New Orleans music, this band got its start playing on a riverboat – in Boston Harbor. If you dig Dixieland jazz, you’ll go crazy for these guys. They’re as real as it gets, and wildly exuberant to boot.

Sunday: Leo Kottke, Lebanon Opera House – A master of the six and twelve string guitar returns to the area. I once had the privilege of sitting in the front row for a Kottke performance; he was the opening act. I’ve never seen anyone’s fingers move so fast. He played seated at the edge of the stage, in front of a curtain; the band that followed him couldn’t match the sound he made with just one instrument.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & David Westphalen, Tip Top Café – Another White River Junction hot spot for food and music welcomes two musicians who keep a busy schedule playing with area bands. Rosen fronts his own trio (at Sophie and Zeke’s Friday), while Westphalen is the go-to bass player for Emily Lanier, among others.

Wednesday: Pat Benetar, Lowell Memorial Auditorium – Since her beginnings as a rock diva in 1979, this pint-sized powerhouse has charted a ton of hits, one of which (“Hell Is For Children”) launched a charity, and been an MTV goddess when such a thing mattered. She’s still missing from two places, however: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and iTunes.