Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sharing rather than taking

escaping the frame

The story of music in the technological age features heroes, villains, and a vast sweep of people who fall between the neat and easy classifications. I think lately about the early songcatchers. In the United States, folks like Alan Lomax recognized the virtue in using the advent of recording technology to capture folk, blues, gospel and rural music. In so doing, folks like Lomax helped propagate worthwhile music and spread it into mass culture. It's no over-statement to say that most of the modern pop, country, hip-hop and rock music we hear today shows direct influence from the process of introduction of these "folkloric" or "roots" forms to the recording industry.

The conundrum arises from the way the early songcatchers profited from this process. Lomax himself copyrighted songs he "captured", without crediting or sharing with the actual authors.A discussion of the issue is contained, for example, in this radio transcript. The list of songs is long (and chart-topping) which were appropriated from their original roots and then used to make profits for the "songcatchers" who admirably publicized them, but dishonorably did not share the profits. The story is all very complex, and in the case of the early songcatchers, there are many good points and bad points, to my way of thinking. Yet, sadly, the view of folks like the UK folk preservationist Cecil Sharp ruled the day. Sharp said:

"A collector who takes down a song from a folk-singer has an exclusive right to his copy of that song. It is always open to someone else to go to the same source, exercise the same skill and so obtain a right to his copy.”

Through Sharp's efforts, a folk music revival launched in the UK which extended for decades, and arguably continues today. Composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams created a nationalist UK classical tradition that won over generations of listeners. The recordists of the music got the royalties. The creators of the music, when fortunate, got stray and often incomplete attribution.

I will not tarry over the many travesties of the recording industry treatment of artists and authors in the 1950s-1970s. The British Invasion bands typically liberally borrowed/appropriated or even merely covered American blues classics without paying royalties. Record labels routinely did not pay the royalties they promised to pay, and only remedied this in insufficient part under the threat of litigation. The recording industry contract remains a form of unfortunate financing at exorbitant rates, funded by a consortium that once held marketing sway over the shelves from which consumers purchased, and now flounders a bit from the change in technology. All that's pretty well known on our board, and it's not worth burning a candle to shed further light on it.

Where I will tarry is to pose the fundamental issue of Creative Commons music.
I hope you will pardon me if I make a few assertions. I believe very much in attribution-only Creative Commons music licensing, and in attribution non-commercial Creative Commons music licensing. Among the genres to which I listen, including ambient, post-rock, chill and the music defined by the woefully non-descriptive [and usually inaccurate] term "experimental music", a sub-culture of freely-licensed music has expanded listener bases and created a niche culture of "netlabel music". Similar things have happened among my friends who listen to electronica and techno music. The explosion of tiny labels has created the proverbial wheat-from-chaff problem, but the amazing thing is how many listeners enjoy all the wheat-and-chaff.

So let me posit a few things that I do not think will be controversial, but which I set out for the sake of discussion:

a. our liberal licensing cause streamlines our permission to use our works if we get due attribution. Speaking for myself, I have a day job, and see the importance of this sharing as reflected in the wonderful structures that have arisen in the wake of shared music. The wonderful ambient netradio Stillstream elected not to fight the internet radio royalty battles of a few years ago, and switched to all-CC and liberal permissions music. The result has been a vibrant radio station, with listeners from around the world, to whom ambient artists regularly go to give free on-line live concerts.

b. the point of sharing culture is not only to get attribution, but to give it.
The point of making music freely available is not only to give music, but to participate in the joy of listening to others' music. In this vein, I mention the wonderful interview in essential netlabel on-line magazine Phlow with Thomas Raukamp, of the also essential CC-focused Beat Magazine, and the discussion in the article and comments.

c. a necessary corollary is that our goal is to see each artist we sample get attribution and credit, too.

d. I believe that a few folks in CC culture worry a great deal about how to make CC music "more mainstream". The problem of the right business model for sharing music is understandably a key concern to many now. I am not of the open source camp who insist that no commercialization of music is possible in light of the ease of sharing via person-to-person file sharing. I believe that people can and will pay for music.

Yet I think that we who make CC music should recognize that our sharing model goes beyond a traditional "business model". Rather than figuring out how to service the consumers of the brave new soft-studio world, we are instead creating a new way of experiencing music culture. I suggest that this way has more in common with the analog world of the 19th Century than with the mid-20th Century recording industry.

In our time of a "new parlor music", we buy software and hardware in the way an early generation bought pianos (or autoharps) and sheet music. We then create and remix songs to be used in the parlor pursuits of our time--youtube videos, recordings, websites, weblogs and scads of other creative expressions. We do not need to be bound up in 'will it sell?' or 'can I get this into a movie or vidgame'?

I submit there is a positive virtue in the sharing itself. I submit that we can create a culture of listeners to shared music who will experience and enjoy the music itself--and that this has a virtue beyond notions of "page views", ad revenues, licensing fees and business models. Yet:

e. for all of the folderol (which I love and yet am bemused by) about 'free music',
our sharing culture is not 'intended to' require people to give their music away for free. Our sharing is instead intended to make a gift of the right to listen and share--whether the motive be altruistic, exhibitionistic, loss-leader-ish, or NIN/Radiohead savvy.

I am a bit familiar with mail art, in which calls I have participated a bit. In that arena, the expression "mail art and money don't mix" reflects the dramatic rejection of any commercial exploitation of the medium. I do not mean to speak for mail artists (for whom I am not qualified to speak, both because I was never that active, others are much more 'real' than I am at that pursuit, and because there is not "one view" in its Eternal Network of participants). Yet my own understanding is that the rejection of commercial pursuit of mail art was seen as a further repudiation of a bloated gallery system seen as rigid, unappreciative of artists, and bound by a gallery construct that technology (in this case, efficient mails) rendered unnecessary.

Yet as much as I admire mail artists, I do not think we need emulate them. I go further--our goal is not to liberate artists from making money, but to license work to people to help them make creative material. I think it would be a sad story indeed if we were liberated from corporate megalith record company control of recorded music, only to see a world in which musicians being able to make money from music is considered a sin. I follow with intrigue as some of the pioneer netlabel experiment with a few paid-CD releases, only to meet an outcry that they have 'betrayed' their mission as free-music-netlabel.

I don't have some grandiose point that's different from what we all think about on these topics. I set this all out without a grand conclusion, and without a sure moral to my story. Yet I keep pondering two ideas--
--surely this sharing of music is about more than some odd circulation of demos in an outdated, outmoded carnival of seeking some mythical "deal", and
--our technology and our liberal licensing has and will inevitably change music. But the need to have a professional set of musicians who help define our culture will not change, and our shared music, in and of itself, is neither its bane nor its salvation.

I admit to a purity of faith. I believe we do something very important at ccMixter, and in netlabels, and in every similar form of sharing. My faith goes further--
though I think we need not change the "business of music", I think it likely that we can help do so. In this connection, I think that dogma about "free beer" is less important than nimbleness about freedom from an old, oppressive system, and a desire that artists, freed by technology, free music to become an indie, small-business profit-making pursuit. I don't think it essential that we 'remold the music economy'. Quite the contrary. But I think it possible--if we keep a faith in the power of this sharing culture to do so.


michaelGregoire said...

Terrific read. I also think that there's not a thing wrong with hybrid models in the cc/netaudio world and have long been thinking of a hybrid model that I hope to try out at blocSonic in 2010 or 2011.

jp said...

thank you Robert.

Anonymous said...

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Alex said...
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