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Why Frank Zappa’s alternative to the PMRC wouldn’t work today

Lost in all of the drama of Frank Zappa vs. the PMRC is the detail that Zappa actually proposed an alternative to the PMRC’s record rating system. Here’s how Zappa proposed to address the question of record content in his September 19, 1985 appearance:

I have got an idea for a way to stop all this stuff and a way to give parents what they really want, which is information, accurate information as to what is inside the album, without providing a stigma for the musicians who have played on the album or the people who sing it or the people who wrote it. And I think that if you listen carefully to this idea that it might just get by all of the constitutional problems and everything else.

As far as I am concerned, I have no objection to having all of the lyrics placed on the album routinely, all the time. But there is a little problem. Record companies do not own the right automatically to take these lyrics, because they are owned by a publishing company.

So, just as all the rest of the PMRC proposals would cost money, this would cost money too, because the record companies would need — they should not be forced to bear the cost, the extra expenditure to the publisher, to print those lyrics.

In subsequent questioning by then-Senator Al Gore, the idea was discussed more fully:

[Senator Gore] Your suggestion of printing the lyrics on the album is a very interesting one. The PMRC at one point said they would propose either a rating or warning, or printing all the lyrics on the album. The record companies came back and said they did not want to do that.

I think a lot of people agree with your suggestion that one easy way to solve this problem for parents would be to put the actual words there, so that parents could see them. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters made exactly the same request of the record companies. I think your suggestion is an intriguing one and might really be a solution for the problem.

FZ: You have to understand that it does cost money, because you cannot expect publishers to automatically give up that right, which is a right for them. Somebody is going to have to reimburse the publishers, the record industry.

Without trying to mess up the album jacket art, it should be a sheet of paper that is slipped inside the shrink-wrap, so that when you take it out you can still have a complete album package. So there is going to be some extra cost for printing it.

But as long as people realize that for this kind of consumer safety you are going to spend some money and as long as you can find a way to pay for it, I think that would be the best way to let people know.

Senator Gore: I do not disagree with that at all. And the separate sheet would also solve the problem with cassettes as well, because you do not have the space for words on the cassette packs.

FZ: There would have to be a little accordion-fold.

Gore’s interjection of the issue of cassettes illustrates where we were back in 1985. At the time, both Gore and Zappa were thinking of vinyl record albums as the presentation medium for long-form music. Record albums, of course, are large, and have plenty of space to include lyrics – something that the Beatles demonstrated in 1967.

However, by 1985, cassette tapes – which were much smaller – were becoming very popular.

And within the next few years, compact discs – which include “compact” in their name – would emerge.

Today, for many people, all of these physical distribution forms are meaningless. Even a Luddite such as myself hasn’t bought music in a physical form in years.

So if your LP cover has become a smaller cassette or CD cover – or no cover at all in the case of downloads – then there’s no place to put the lyrics.

Yet the question still remains – before I buy a song, how do I know whether the contents are something that I would find to be objectionable?

“Go to the online lyric sites,” one may respond. However, the financial issues that Zappa addressed nearly 30 years ago still exist today. You see, many of those lyric sites engage in illegal activity by posting those lyrics.

Music publishers are staging a press conference in Washington on Monday to announce that they have targeted 50 websites with takedown notices for unlicensed song lyrics, arguing that they profit from the copyrighted works by collecting advertising revenue.

The National Music Publishers Assn. said that they will take legal action against sites that don’t remove the content.

For a list of the Undesirable 50, look at the PDF at the end of this press release. Rapgenius subsequently agreed to meet with the NMPA.

Oh, and while we’re talking about lists, I have one question about the PMRC’s Filthy Fifteen – how come there were no country songs on the list? Oh, I forgot – country music is filled with songs such as “I Will Only Consume a Small Amount of Alcohol” and “Cover Your Body, You Brazen Hussy!”

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