Travis Charbeneau -- EDITORIAL PAGE






Travis Charbeneau is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Virginia. He takes a special interest in covering social trends and cultural impacts resulting from the evolution of technology.

Charbeneau has written as a syndicated stringer for Alternet and Copley News Service, and appeared independently in Utne Reader, The Des Moines Register, The Futurist, Newsday, The Sun, The Christian Science Monitor, In These Times, The San Jose Mercury-News, The Detroit News, The Dallas Times-Herald, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and many other periodicals.

His essay "My Story" won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize in 1985. His self-published novel, Days of May  is available at

Freelance since 1973, Charbeneau first began working in journalism for The Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he graduated in 1967, majoring in English Literature. Pieces below include recent output, followed by a section containing work from each of the last 20-plus years. 

New and recent, some unpublished:
 All copyrighted & available by contacting
Travis Charbeneau at

Comments are always welcome.

"For a Song"
Travis Charbeneau


PULL QUOTE: "The computer gave us a music revolution. Now, it's devouring its children."

How much is a song worth? This should-be-simple question is fundamental to an ever-more complex intellectual property debate. Normally, to determine how much something costs, you go to the store and check the price tag. Easy.

But millions of us now buy songs off the Internet, where there is no "easy." The old Napster-style scheme, essentially music for free, is supposedly shut down. But new outlets have sprung up, hundreds of MP3 sites that all want your credit card. But ... again, "how much?"

Apple's iTunes emporium originally called the tune at 99 cents. And they still dominate the market. Rhapsody, a chief competitor, fooled with 49 cents, but settled at 89. And, exploiting international copyright loopholes, a huge number of Russian and Ukrainian sites have appeared with high-quality MP3s available anywhere from nine cents to 20. Most famed of these is probably, which was sued for 1.65 trillion dollars by the RIAA. It simply morphed into MP3Fiesta and/or MP3Sparks. Some ex-AllofMP3 customers report that they found their accounts still in good order when re-directed to the new sites. Over 1.5 trillion bucks is big, scary money, unless you don't have to pay it.

We also have "unlimited use" sites that still use file sharing, but somehow have remained legal. The much-lauded, running off the old Gnutella network, has a one-time-only charge of $34.44 for the "pro" version, which gives you lifetime, unlimited access to 12 million songs, plus DVDs, games, etc. If I download just half their catalog for $34.44, that comes to 0.00000574 "cents" per song.

Some out there will recall when The Beatles decided to stop performing. Amongst other difficulties, they felt incapable of reproducing their recorded artistry on a live stage. This worked out marvelously for many groups. For a very short time.

The day when musicians could expect to make money from their recordings alone seems all-but-over. Old acts accustomed to residuals from their records are naturally concerned. New artists find that the Web may get them previously-unavailable exposure, but what then? With recordings going for nothing, they're "lucky" to be left with endless drives to live shows and motels for any sort of "livelihood" ("endless drives to live shows and motels" is also known as "Death"). Established groups from U2 to RadioHead to The Eagles have tried alternative marketing schemes to so-far-dubious results.

It's possible that any musician's prospects of making a living from his or her recorded work may only have lasted around 50 years; the second half of the last century. Like the blue collar autoworker who could put a boat in the driveway and two kids through college on a single paycheck, the rock star millionaire may likewise have come and gone.

In truth, the historical picture isn't even that sunny. For the first 30 of those 50 years, artists were ripped off by the record companies in the grand old style perhaps best exemplified by Col. Tom Parker's "handling" of Elvis. For the last 30 years we've had "piracy" via technology, from the dual-tray cassette deck to MP3s. This would leave the "day" of the rock and roll millionaire about ten years and 24 hours short.  

Some will argue that the whole phenomenon was simply a wild historical aberration. Consider the old expression of a real bargain as something you got "for a song." That doesn't say much for music's traditionally-perceived worth.

Mozart and his contemporaries were often considered little better than court jesters, and even wore the livery of their masters, just like the footmen. They were subject to the artistic demands of their "fan base," often some tin-eared aristocrat complaining about "too many notes" (see "Amadeus"). And, of course, like Mozart, many died paupers.

Their predecessors, the first guys to take music secular, were the troubadours of the 12th century, forever "on the road," lucky if they could find a house where they might "sing for their supper." Their predecessors in sacred music were most likely to have been monks on a vow of poverty. Nary a hint, much less a popular dream of riches.

Then, starting with Edison, fame and fortune glimmered for the talented and lucky songwriter or actor. New technologies and more abundant leisure time fed appetites and dreams, inspiring and enabling imitation. Eventually, the computer gave us a music revolution. Now, it's devouring its children.

And we still don't know the fair price for a song.

At 12 I bought some Elvis tunes as 45 RPM records. Cost: 99 cents each. I bought them again on LP; the 8-track cartridge, on cassette and the (insanely-overpriced) CD. Now iTunes wants me to pay another 99 cents?

And, again, new songs by new artists are problematic. What's a fair price? And how will we ever find out? And what about the other arts, as books, films, photos, etc. all mutate into the digital equivalent of the MP3? All this "intellectual property" is merely so much information. Once digitized (and any copy-protection scheme can be hacked), it becomes free.

Only artists are crazy enough to work for free.


"Why We Fight"
PULL QUOTE: "In this primitive dance, rationality has no partner."
 -- 741 words, October, 2007
"The Frontier is Here"
PULL QUOTE: "Asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi famously replied 'it would be a good idea.' It still is."
 -- 811 words, June, 2005
"Mistakes Were Made"
PULL QUOTE: "Why is the sincere admission of human fallibility, an act considered wise and mature in individuals, so impossibly
humiliating for a crowd?" -- 792 words, February, 2005
"We've Polled the Drug War!"
PULL QUOTE: "The President would like to know how much, if any, cocaine you used last year." -- 884 words, December, 2004
"The Dark at the Bottom"
PULL QUOTE: "Kids are ignorant, not dumb. They see the priorities. Why should they value education when, plainly, we don't."
898 words, Style Weekly, Richmond, VA, August 24, 2004
"I Didn't Own No Slaves"
PULL QUOTE: "Collective guilt is just the way history seems to work." -- 839 words, Toward Freedom, Burlington, VT, Summer, 2004:

                                         bylines from each of the last 20-odd years:

Have Primitives Captured the White House? 658 words, Vermont Guardian,  January, 2005
Revenge on the Untermenschen:  819 words Alternet, San Francisco, CA, (NY-Metroland), June 22, 1994 
Liberalism and anticommunism: 747 words The Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 1988   
Demand a Doctor Who Cares: 953 words The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 3, 1989   
Childhood and the Prohibitionist Urge: 853 words Slant, Richmond, VA, June 11-25, 2004  
Rewriting the rules of evolution: 619 words Copley News Service, San Diego, CA, (State Journal Register, Springfield, IL), Sept. 9, 1990 
Fin de Millennium: 797 words The Futurist, March, 1998
New Hope Stirs in Dumpty Tragedy  703 words, The Redbridge Review, October, 2006
Legalize Drugs; Use Profit to Treat and Educate: 1347 words Newsday, March 24, 1988
Blues: the New World anthem: 974 words Toward Freedom, May, 2000  
Thing about 'Nam written all over him: 1289 words The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 28, 1990 
U.S. Mimics Great Britain's Errors: 894 words The Des Moines Register, November 1, 1988  
Commie Health Care Winning Favor: 851 words Flagpole, Athens, GA, December 17, 2003  
Ragged Individualism: 784 words Utne Reader, May/June, 1992  
Does High Technology Equal "Progress"?: 712 words The Exquisite Corpse, No. 53, 1995  
Tax Status, Not People: 841 words Monday Magazine, April 5, 2001  
For Now 'Up' is 'Here': 1143 words The Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 6, 1984  
The Book is Back: 196 words Esquire Magazine, March, 1985   
Detroit:  2037: 2704 words The Detroit News, February 22, 1987; Sunday supplement "Michigan"
The Seduction of Consciousness: 3794 words The Sun, November, 1991 
Baby Boomer Humor: 1519 words The Virginian Pilot Ledger-Star, May 4, 1986  
I'm a victim and I'm proud: 958 words On the Issues, Winter, 1993  
Is Anything for Real?: 2417 words World Monitor, March, 1991  
X: 1250 words Folio Weekly, Jacksonville, FL, March 12, 1996  
Beyond Feel-Good Consumerism: 2636 words Country Connections, Sept/Oct, 1997  
In Defense of Auntie Sacagawea: 846 words The Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 21, 1999  
Moral Relativism Unmasked: 859 words Portfolio Magazine, February 27, 2002  

All work copyrighted. It's illegal to transfer or reuse these essays without permission and credit. I reserve rights to recover value of the material, as well as costs involved determining copyright infringement and enforcing settlement.

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