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Issues of Music Ethics Grow With Advancing Technology

WHILE the synthesizer craze of the '80s levels off and a more tempered approach to music making settles in, musicians have identified some ethical ambiguities raised by electronic instruments that will need to be resolved in the '90s. From lip-syncing scandals to copyright issues, controversy and debate have dogged the complex digital technology that has permanently changed the pop music scene.

One issue already being looked at by state legislators is the not-so-unusual practice of faking the words, or lip-syncing, without letting audiences know.

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``Milli Vanilli is just the tip of the iceburg,'' says Steven Young, president of the Boston Musicians Association, referring to the celebrity ``singers'' who never actually sang on their debut album or in concert. For live performances, he says, the public should be informed whenever lip-syncing, prerecorded music, or synthesizers imitating acoustic instruments are used.

``Let the public know what they're paying for and if [the producers] don't, they should pay a fine,'' Mr. Young says. He complains that ``greed and a desire to make a bigger buck'' are often driving such practices, which reduce production costs but not ticket prices.

Massachusetts is one of several states including New York, Michigan, and California that have recently filed or are considering filing legislation that requires concert advertising to specify what is being performed live and what isn't.

During the last decade, as electronic keyboards have improved their ability to imitate horns, pianos, or drums, the loss of jobs for acoustic musicians has been a serious problem. Some musicians, though, see it becoming less of an issue in the coming decade.

``In the '90s there will be a more even-handed perspective as to what these instruments are really capable of doing,'' says Brian Banks, a film and commercial composer in Hollywood. He says film directors and record producers have already begun using more human performers again.

David Mash, faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston, agrees.

``If you're a typist, and you haven't gotten into word processing, you're hurting these days,'' Mr. Mash says. Society has already accepted that fact, and similarly, the arts industry is coming to accept electronic instruments as ``new tools that enable people to work in a different way,'' he says.

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Association president Young is not so sure. With powerful drum machines and sequencers, ``people are there to make more money at the expense of others and they're cashing in on this,'' says Young. ``After a while, the public will become so conditioned [to electronic sounds] that it won't matter. I see that happening.

``The public is the key factor in all of this,'' Young continues. ``Does the public care? Are they willing to spend more money for less?'' The role of electronic instruments should be ``enhancement'' of acoustic instruments, not replacement, he says.

``There are musicians on both sides of the issue,'' says pianist Art Matthews, who started performing, composing, and teaching with electronic keyboards about five years ago. ``You can't bury your head in the sand or you're going to be left behind,'' he says.

``I've chosen to try to keep up. I've created work for myself that I wouldn't be able to do before.''

Musicians also say the coming decade will bring legal battles over copyrights. ``If I take half-a-second of someone else's recording and integrate it into my music, which is easy to do with this technology, have I violated a copyright?'' asks Mash. ``If the sound I borrowed was a bass drum, did I infringe on the copyright of the person who played the bass drum, or the person who recorded it? Or the person who manufactured the bass drum? Who owns that sound?''

With musical notation programs, musicians can become ``publishers'' of music retrieved from some other musician's computer files by making a hard copy of it on their printers. ``This is something that never existed before,'' says Mash. Today's copyright laws ``do not deal adequately with any of this stuff.''

``I think it's going to get worse before it gets better,'' says Dominic Milano, editor of Keyboard Magazine. A current practice in rap and dance music is to lift small portions or ``samples'' from past songs, like a Motown hit, and weave them into new tunes, repeating them over and over.

``It's happening all over the country,'' Banks says. In some cases, record labels have informal agreements to pay each other when that happens, but the practice has not been regulated. ``That's going to be one of the biggest issues,'' he says.

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