In 1942, a radio station director named George Goodwin published a set of three inch by five inch cards. The front of each card was printed with the most basic musical information about a song — lyrics, notes — and the back had text about the song’s authors, publishers and copyright holders. Goodwin called this collection the Tune-Dex, and it would change music forever.
Goodwin’s Tune-Dex was based off the card catalogue system, an apparatus that was for many years the basis of every library’s organizational structure. In 1942, Goodwin placed a full-page advertisement in “Variety,” calling his creation the “First and Only Permanent Living Index of Popular Music.”
Tune-Dex was one of the first subscription services, delivering new cards to those who had applied for “charter subscription.” In the days before the internet, musicians had to contact publishers for sheet music. The whole process was labor-intensive and expensive, and it didn’t really serve the needs of people who wanted to learn new, popular music. Tune-Dex was intended for professional musicians who needed to pick up songs very quickly and didn’t have time to contact the copyright holders. Radio stations and lounge owners were also interested in keeping up with the latest hits, but it wouldn’t have made sense for them to order sheet music either. Somehow, Goodwin convinced publishers to let him copy and sell abbreviated versions of their music. When Goodwin died in 1965, the Tune-Dex monopoly — which was largely a one-man operation — came to an end.
But Goodwin’s idea had caught on, and musicians (and other interested parties) were no longer willing to buy hundreds of pages of loose-leaf sheet music from publishing companies. Beginning in the 1940s, cocktail lounges were springing up everywhere, a mix between a bar, a dance hall and a restaurant where you could drink and hang out while listening to live music. The musicians who played at these places were often asked by patrons to play current hits, a feat which was much easier if they had Tune-Dex cards for the songs. Musicians wanted something convenient and cheap to help them navigate the flexibility they were now expected to have. Tune-Dex cards were easier to carry around than sheet music and helped musicians keep up with the latest songs, but the cards could easily be lost, so when Goodwin died, the Tune-Dex concept was altered slightly. Abbreviated songs were formatted as “fake books,” a way for musicians to keep track of tunes they had heard once or twice, but didn’t know well enough to play without some foundational direction.
Music publishing companies didn’t create these fake books, so musicians were forced to go underground. This is how the bootleg fake book industry was born; out of necessity, not maliciousness, and in response to the changes in audience demand and performance styles that were recognized by musicians, but not copyright holders.
This is a moderately interesting (if technical) anecdote in the recent history of the music industry. It’s also a useful example of how publishing and copyright companies have difficulty keeping up with cultural and technological changes. The story of fake books is about both publishing and music, about the ways that words are protected by the law and how artists find ways to say the things they want to anyway.
Copyright and art has a very complicated history. Copyright law protects artists and creators, but it also limits the consumers of their work, meaning that the same channels through which an artist can make a living are also the ones that can prevent them from gaining experience and an audience. Fake books are an example of a phenomenon that can be found anywhere copyrighted content gets too expensive or burdensome. Just as musicians found a way around the expensive establishment methods of music distribution, students are exploring different channels of acquiring textbooks. I know this seems like a leap, but stay with me.
In recent years, textbooks have become so expensive that many students simply cannot afford them; Vox reported an 88 percent increase in prices from 2006 to 2016. There are a few reasons behind this. Textbooks now often come with single-use access codes for online materials, and the lack of competition (five companies own 80 percent of the market) means publishers don’t need to worry about students buying a cheaper version of their product.
The strategies that textbook publishers are using to make their products more affordable are not cutting it. Cengage, for example, offer subscription services, so that students can have online access to a number of textbooks for one price — but that option can be nearly $180 per semester, with a firm access expiration date and no possibility for reselling.
In response, students have found a solution that takes a similar approach as fake books: open access textbooks. Free the Textbook is a non-profit working to help students and professors create a new culture around textbooks. They ask professors to consider the cost of textbooks when assigning material, stop requiring students to buy access to quizzes and homework and collaborate with librarians and scholars to create high-quality, open source textbooks.
Like fake books, the open access movement is about fixing an issue that publishing companies have so far been unable to address adequately. While it’s important to compensate authors, the current textbook system prioritizes corporate profit over students’ education. Luckily, students and their professors are finding new, innovative ways to make knowledge more accessible. Open access textbooks are the fake books of higher education, a way to democratize an industry by providing students with knowledge in a way that is both accessible and affordable.