The free content culture of the internet is democratising art and music, and is leading us to a digital playground where everyone can make some money out of their creations, right? Well, that’s not how it worked out in Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect…
Not many people mark the anniversary, but the release of 16Volt’s back catalog to free download on May 28, 2009, is the date I quietly acknowledge being vindicated for the unpopular position I took against the ringmasters of what I perceived as a download-entitlement circus: a gluttonous, Roman digital feast hosted by self-righteous web-celeb bloggers sufficiently arrogant to believe they were somehow better able to decide what was best for a musician’s career. The same smug know-it-alls who Lawrence Lessig effectively left hanging when he seemed to shift his position from the more confrontational “massive civil disobedience” position preached by people like EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow – and as suggested in Lessig’s own “The People Own Ideas!” essay – to something quite different: a belief that creators should actually have the right to decide for themselves how their efforts should be distributed.
Lessig’s apparent shift is something I first noticed when, during a virtual world talk, he stated, “I don’t think that [free] works always, but it does work for some. And all I argue for is the right of creators to make that choice.” In those words was a tacit acknowledgment that Epstein, in his elegant counter-response to Lessig’s earlier assertions, was essentially correct in arguing “The Creators Own Ideas“.
It’s a date I recognize because unlike the highly publicized marketing experiments of popular and financially secure bands such as Nine Inch Nails (“Year Zero” viral campaign) and Radiohead (“pay-what-you-want” CD sales promotion), or the often painful-to-hear but freely available sonic explorations “shared” by nothing-to-lose garage bands, 16Volt was one of the better-known examples of how the established recording industry could screw with a musician’s career. If anyone had a right to take up arms against the old guard or deserved an opportunity to decide how and when his music was distributed, it was Eric Powell, the force behind 16Volt.
It was, from my outsider position, the date on which Powell – of his own accord – apparently decided it was time to try to use the technology threatening his musical livelihood to distribute his work for his own advantage instead of allowing some venture capitalist to make that decision for him by, among other things, embedding mp3 widgets distributing unauthorized music on his heavily trafficked blog; a VC unable to recognize both the marketing and ethical failings of not also providing a direct link to a struggling band’s website, and who – in a series of email exchanges we had – seemed to me little better than a grade school kid making a grab for some dimestore candy.
Forget legalities and self-serving interpretations of “Fair Use“; to my mind it was about being personally selfish over the long-term. I’ve always been in it for myself, as I assume everyone else is. The difference was one of perspective.
Mine was the simple logic that if we didn’t find some way to fairly compensate musicians for the time and effort they put into creating the intangible music we audibly consume, we could eventually expect less of it. To make matters worse, I believed we could expect an even greater percentage of what was produced to be some corporate strategist’s idea of what the masses wanted; either that or an epidemic of Executives’ Cuts not too different from the butchering Sid Sheinberg gave to Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Either way, I expected the music I enjoyed was going to take a hit. And it did – even if the impact wasn’t apparent at the time.
Barlow’s good news/bad news/good news tale in which he explains to record executives, “you’re mean sons of bitches and you’ll figure out a way to win anyway, eventually” applied to not just an oppressive entertainment industry, but to an entitlement-minded “free culture” griefers. It wasn’t really the studios versus the downloaders; it was the labels, the entitlement-happy downloaders, and the parasites versus the musicians caught in the middle. Whether the labels retained control or everyone else usurped control, it was clear the musicians were the odd man out; everyone seemed to forget who it was that actually created the music.
Consequently, it was truly unfortunate Epstein’s essay wasn’t more widely read; more universally understood. Not because good music was forever lost – it wasn’t – but because we’re so terrible at learning from our mistakes and so often seem to find ways to repeat them in one form or another.
Throughout this period, few people realized the potential impact our collective actions would have beyond the world of mp3 files. The same people watching their jobs head to Third World countries excused their own career-damning behavior, wrapping it in some “fuck the Man” justification when what they really needed to do was learn the lyrics to Tool’s “Hooker With A Penis” – and to understand that in some way they too were adversely affected by their seemingly innocuous actions.
Not that any of this mattered. When 16Volt released their back catalog, it should have mattered more. It didn’t. The masses expected it.
I thought of all these things just a short time after Powell released his back catalog because included with the mp3’s was a PDF file which read like a desperate call for help from an individual being bludgeoned by circumstances beyond his control – a person who just wanted to spend time in his workshop creating those things which entertain us; things which make our lives a little more enjoyable.
It was a subdued plea ignored by loud, popular websites which could have called attention to the predicament faced by musicians; sites sometimes too busy pretending to be something they weren’t for the sake of advertising revenue and whoofie.
Meanwhile, the clueless masses didn’t stop to consider the 3D point cloud files they were generating from hacked game controller-scanners and “sharing” with the world were accelerating changes already underway in manufacturing; changes which would have an impact on their own livelihoods.
It never fully registered with them during the Music Wars that for every band beaten into submission by profit-minded executives and lulz-seeking hackers and apathetic consumers, some other job was lost: recording engineer, stage hand, professional driver, graphic designer, whatever. So, of course, it never occurred to them that for every manufacturer whose business was somehow adversely impacted by the “sharing” and/or “liberation” of direct digital manufacturing data in a world increasingly filled with rapid manufacturing devices, that their own livelihood was potentially affected. They didn’t grok it.
Someone had told them they were the future’s creatives, yet no one explained to them how they’d transition from blue collar assembly jobs to engineering researchers. And they didn’t even know enough to ask.
Instead, like a Black Friday crowd storming the entrance, they once again took a short-term perspective and trampled over each other, the newly democratized creative class. Like privileged kids cut loose in a toy store, they took advantage of the toymakers until they grew bored, ignored the toys altogether and went all Lord of the Flies. Instead of playing fair with the amazing toys provided them, they bludgeoned Geppetto while the Foxes, the Cats and the Innkeepers plotted anew.
Sven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the US military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.
[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]