Tweedy Set

New York

Left: Lawrence Lessig, Steven Johnson, and Jeff Tweedy. Right: The crowd.

How to regain your writer’s pride as you’re being shunted to the back of a two-block line outside the New York Public Library? Simple. Pass by a similarly shunted rock star (David Byrne), a longtime Rolling Stone editor (David Fricke), and a downtown DJ/theorist manqué (DJ Spooky) on the way. This spottily luminescent throng was assembled to hear Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and Stanford law professor and intellectual property activist Lawrence Lessig discuss copyrights, copywrongs, and their effects on contemporary creativity. Moderated by Wired contributing editor and digital culture writer Steven Johnson, the bill—with its attendant sell-out crowd—was a far cry from the library’s hairnet-set events I knew as a child.

Finding my seat amid the indie-rock fans, New Yorker festival regulars, and former Talking Heads, I was soon listening to Paul Holdengräber, the recently hired mastermind of the NYPL’s shock-of-the-new approach to public events, who took the stage to welcome the audience and elaborate on his mandate to “oxygenate” the library, to make “the lions roar” and “this heavy institution dance.” His bookings, under the rubric “Live from the NYPL,” are indeed impressive, but I couldn’t help thinking that our host’s exuberant metaphor mash-up was leaching spare oxygen out of the room.

Following Holdengräber, self-described “pear-shaped nerd” Lessig delivered a PowerPoint presentation about copyright and creativity. The man whom moderator Johnson calls “the Elvis of copyright law” and who inspired a cameo character on “The West Wing” has, over the course of several books, laid out the most compelling argument for freeing culture from draconian, ever-extending copyright privileges that squelch individual creativity while filling corporate coffers. Lessig’s brief, well-rehearsed distillation of his work wouldn’t have flown over the heads of a class of sixth graders—a populist approach that was admirable but a bit disappointing. Outside of a few basic graphics and two amusing video cut-ups of Bush and Blair, Lessig’s PowerPoint arsenal was limited to projecting keywords from his talk in a funky, distressed font. His main point was that the three Ls dominating the copyright debate—Lawyers, Lobbyists, and, er, Lessigs—should shut up and start listening to the artists who are hamstrung by the laws in their work.

Cue Tweedy, emblematic artist of the low-key, loose-copyright variety, who has put his music (and money) where his mouth is by allowing fans to tape his live shows and offering his studio recordings (including the entirety of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) on the Internet gratis. He’s also living proof that Napster-style peer-to-peer music sharing does not hurt record sales (YHF far outsold Wilco’s previous efforts). The unassuming, dressed-down Tweedy received a big cheer from the audience as he took his seat for the trialogue with Lessig and Johnson, even if there was palpable regret that he wouldn’t be sharing any songs with us.

A minor technical glitch—Tweedy’s mic volume was lower and more distant than that of his interlocutors—mirrored the balance of the ensuing discussion. Tweedy was laconic, if sweet, humbly explaining the YHF episode, his legal settlement with the owners of the cult found-sound collection The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations, from which he sampled the broadcasts that gave the album its title, and his view that current copyright laws incorrectly presume that music is created in a vacuum, free from influence or borrowing. He displayed a bit more zing when he noted that the musicians who complain about file-sharing tend to be super-rich stars “who should never be paid again.” “Music makes connections,” he said. “To draw boundaries within it is fascism.”

Lessig, on the other hand, reminded me of John Turturro’s Barton Fink, constantly interrupting John Goodman’s working-stiff anecdotes to pontificate on his own campaign to create theater for and about “the common man.” As an editor friend pointed out, for someone who insists that we stop listening to lawyers on copyright issues, Lessig sure had a lot to say. To be fair, I agreed with most of his points, but the imbalanced conversation suggests that the evening’s format should be remixed. Next time, Lessig should team up with an artist whose volubility matches his own. Busta Rhymes, say.

Andrew Hultkrans