Downloading music: biting the hand that RSS-feeds you

The Net […] interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.

John Gilmore.

There’s no point in treating the recording industry as a monolith, and so we can’t treat them as though SOPA etc. represent their views (it’s more likely to be hedge funds, pension funds, big finance, etc. who piggyback on the productivity and creativity of others who do not want the cash cows slaughtered). Accordingly the reality of the matter, rather than the rhetoric, is as follows. Music today is all about the new: a sound we haven’t heard before, a voice that surprises us, a way of presenting sounds to us that is unfamiliar and valuable. When you popularise, and industrialise this, an entire machinery judders into action which adds the sheen of novelty and spontaneity when it is not there to begin with. This is no big deal. Accordingly, a video with a DIY aesthetic appears on YouTube, a buzz passes around the blogosphere, and the winds of Twitter blow. The effort to present novelty (which is equated with Originality and Validity, perhaps leading to Integrity and Keeping It Real) is outsourced. A&R is taken out of the hands of executives and managers, and given to the ether. When this spontaneously happens (through a conscious decision to avoid the traditional media route) the results can seem explosive (such as the ICBM-like rise of the Arctic Monkeys).

This needs to be understood in the context of biological comparisons. Terms such as “viral marketing” are evocative, but misleading in the essentials. Network theory gets the basics right, but misses the details that give the whole HD-view. What is in action here is an ecology of marketing. One extreme is the total DIY approach. Then there is the Simon Cowell Method, or “America’s got Schadenfreude” as I like to call it. Between these two, there is the DIY aesthetic. It is a choice to take elements from both approaches, which can align the control and operational capital of a large organisation, with the more important need to let the music thrive in the wild for a bit, and see what happens. For this to happen, we need some “thrivation” – the suits need to shut up and do without control and money, and the music/artist needs to make the most of this time when they are unknown and so malleable in public consciousness. They have to buzz so that there is buzz. Which brings us to the next point.

You cannot really have both. One rarely can, with anything. The problem with thriving (via a DIY aesthetic, videos on YouTube, social media swarming) is that this activity is authentic. People will rip the sound from a YouTube video, pop it on their music player, listen to it all day, and say to a friend “hey, you gotta hear this”. In sociological terms, this is addressed via the Diffusion of Innovation. This person, downloading before a song has gotten officially released, is technically not doing anything illegal. It is non-legal. Their activity (“borrowing”) is that of cultural innovators. Then the music biz side of things kicks in, books the artist on various shows, and the inevitable album release date is announced. Of course, most songs are ready to go, and a copy of the album is “leaked” online. The buzz is still ongoing. This downloading is undertaken by early adopters. The problem for post-thrivation music business people is that this buzz-creating downloading takes place after they have decided it no longer fit for their purposes. But they are so many thousands of Canutes in suits, screaming at the sea to go out. (Hey, I know the king told the tide to go out to illustrate his limitations to his people, but I liked the analogy).

Neil Young is on the button when he says that downloading is the radio of our time. It is how music gets around, and the bad faith of the music business is that some parts of the industry (who see it as primarily a money-making enterprise – *gasp* not all do) is to be biting the hand that RSS-feeds them. They are working with a cogs and coal model of how the world works, instead of realising that they could be at the forefront of a new way of allowing information and media to be communicated and moved around. Most of these people are not stupid, and people have been saying these things for years. Their unwillingness to address the infelicity of the present way of doing things has to be put down to the following: those managers, executives, copyright-lawyers, copyright-hoarders are some 5-star lazy assholes. If you are unable to create buzz, but live by it, then give something back. Those to whom you have outsourced the fundamental conditions of your existence hold the future of music and media in their hands.


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