WHY YOU SHOULDN'T UPLOAD INDEPENDENTLY PRODUCED CDs
by Chris Cutler (Sept 2002)A polemic about MP3, Napster, alternative music and independent label, written in 2001 for a symposium in Budapest organized by The Big Ear Festival.
I am aware of the exposure argument: that downloads are a great way for outside artists to find new ears and for listeners to hear before they buy. I don't disagree - though I would want to suggest it should be left to the artists to decide what of their commercially released material goes out and what doesn't. I make little comment about concert bootlegs, out of print music and other collector material, where I think in general that the interests of listeners and collectors carry the greater weight. Most of this essay, then, confines itself to a discussion of in-print, independently produced music - and by extension, suggests possible forms of direct remuneration have retained 'Napster' throughout, but you can substitute Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus, Gneucleus and so on as time goes on; the general remuneration for other downloads of bootlegs or unreleased material. I argument remains the same.
cc aug 02
MP3 is just a format, a way to encode data. What makes it important is that the files are so much smaller than standard AIF sound files, making it practical for the first time to download them electronically from a website (A CD as an .AIFF sound file would take about 27 hours to download through a standard 56K modem, as an MP3 file it would take 3.5 hours)
Because it can be done, of course, it will be done - and is done, endlessly. Anyone can convert CD's or other recordings into MP3 files and send them around the world in emails or post them onto websites. Right now, you can upload - for anyone in the world to download - pretty much anything: a new CD, a bootleg of yesterdays concert or your entire record collection. And where's the harm? Surely it's just an extension of sharing with friends: an effective and commercially subversive way to promulgate the music you like? But friends have long since metamorphosed into strangers; a friend is someone with a modem now. Search sites like Napster have turned the entire wired world into friends, putting hearers in touch with sharers everywhere. That changes things. You want the latest hit without paying, a bootleg of that Singapore show, some album that went missing in 1960 and was never re-pressed? No problem, a couple of clicks should do it; someone somewhere will have put it on a website and Napster will track it down for you. That's great, surely? After all, what kind of argument can you have with free?
How about the second law of thermodynamics? Free always comes at a price. I don't mean inconvenience to major record companies - though they've been doing all the shouting so far - but the likely and predictable repercussions for the music itself. What does free really mean, outside the purely personal effect of, 'I get it without paying' (a claim any mugger could make without scoring a lot of argument points); what are the social, cultural and moral costs; the consequences? En masse, it seems to me sometimes that it's not only our attention span that has evaporated down to bug durations, but our future directed thinking altogether. Certainly, as access to things has expanded, empathetic horizons have narrowed - until it's me, me, me, right now, today; forget about tomorrow. Apparently we all want better health, better education, better pension and social security provision, better transport networks, more police and safer streets. And we want lower taxes too. In other words, we want more and better, and we don't want to pay for it. There is an assumption endemic in the First World that the rest of creation owes it a living. And though individuals may struggle, it is from within a political culture that deifies desire to the oblivion of consequences. Let's eat all the potatoes now and leave next year's harvest to look after itself. Napster and the rhetoric around it is just an infinitesimal fleck of foam caught in the onward progress of this idiot wave.
Making a record is not a cost free or work free affair; it's expensive. And those costs can only be recovered through sales. No sales, or sales so low that costs are not recouped, mean artists are forced either to cut the costs next time (with inevitable negative consequences for quality) or not to record so much - or at all. Along with a lot of dross, good music is lost this way, especially at the margins where the most innovative work is already barely paying its way. In my own field, I know how many musical projects never leave the notebook because of problems with the pocket book. Why else do you think there are so many solos and duos and small, low rehearsal-density groups around? Economy: it's the only way to come home with the rent. With regret those dreamed of, impractical, too large, too ambitious and too time- or personnel -intensive pieces disappear untried. There are still lifelines: youth and enthusiasm, long rehearsals, appalling conditions, a small circle of enthusiasts. There is occasional money - from art funding and the lottery . And are a few funded festivals and art establishments that have the power to support, and even commission, projects without having to match them to till receipts. Finally, there is a scattering of independent record labels.
Set money aside. Perhaps a climate of official indifference and deprivation makes for healthy art? As Sun Ra said, 'Resist me, make me strong' Certainly some - the most driven - will produce one way or another: Ives, Partch and Nancarrow wrote and rewrote against the future; Ra recorded and released the Arkestra's work on his own label; numerous marginal groups, like Thinking Plague, do day jobs and produce what music they can, when they can. And since they will all do it anyway, why pay them? The same argument lies behind the cynical underpayment of nurses and teachers. No one is saying they would care any less if they were better paid, but let's face it, money spent on virtue is money wasted. The more socially useless labour is, the more it should be rewarded - hence the phone number salaries of multinational CEO's, whose only achievement is profits and the vast incomes of investors whose virtue is to be already rich.
OK, so we have a rotten system, boo hoo, and how is Napster and its like going to make it any worse? Let's get back to the ways non-commercial music can pay its way. In the world of funding there are foundations, arts councils, lotteries and the advertising departments of multinational corporations; arts funded this way may survive and even prosper while operating at a commercial loss (like opera). But their situation remains precarious since they are effectively slaves to the political, commercial or personal agendas of bureaucrats, charities and corporate sponsors. This kind of art support may work for some of the people some of the time, but it's capricious and unreliable and often (although not always) prey to cliques, faddishness and ignorance. I would never want to make a hard case against funding (though I would back the Medicis2 over the lottery any day; at least it was their money and they knew something about art), but for a healthy and plural environment, independent funding for independent artists is still the main guarantee of innovative work. And that means the ability, somehow, for musicians to earn a living from the work they do. This is why festivals, performance spaces and independent record companies are so essential: they hold the line. Without concerts or records, no income = day job = less art + more compromise. It is also why the fate of independent labels matters and why Napster and all similar technologies matter - in spite of the fact that the level of the debate so far has consisted essentially in defiant manifestos legitimating the beleaguered Davids of free posting and the whining of misunderstood Goliaths of the music industry. Both polemics, I think, radically miss the point.
The issue is not, excuse me, are you for or against major record company profits (a question that merely muddies the water), but how can we reconcile what's possible with what's equitable? Asking simplistic questions raised on the false polarity of won't pay/must pay just fuels a circular rhetoric that tediously reiterates a false pair of knee-jerk decoy positions. I suspect this rather suits the record industry, since energy is expended, participants feel morally vindicated, tribal loyalties are repetitiously aired and useless, or specious, answers squeeze all other considerations out of the debate - allowing the real war to proceed on other fronts. Perhaps, rather than what would be better for the record industry, or the (not) paying consumer, it would be more generous to ask what would be better for the health of the music and the conditions that bring the music into being? That's the approach I wish to advocate.
DATA 1- THE BAND
There are Henry Cow fans who would like the band to reform and to record again. They would also, presumably, expect us to take the time - and spend the money - to do the job properly. Today, properly means in the region of $110003 to record, and 6-8 months to compose and rehearse. There are no shortcuts, especially for a band that still uses technically demanding instruments, plays in real time and wants to use the recording studio as a compositional - not just a mnemonic - tool. That means time - and money. To recover $11000, we would have to be confident of selling 3500 copies - and this is before the musicians or the composers are paid anything at all.
DATA 2- THE LABEL
If ReR4 lost 15% of its sales to free downloaders, that would pretty much wipe us out. In the short term the 15% of listeners who didn't pay us would benefit (the music would be free, though the service provider, telephone company and all the other intermediaries who had contributed nothing to it would still get paid, of course). In the longer term, insolvency would force the label to fold or change its release policy. Perhaps no one would be that bothered. Perhaps they'd assume that someone would carry on releasing sidestream music, and some unknown friend or other would carry on uploading it and the free concert could go on, one way or another, forever. But it won't. ReR is already one of a very few survivors in a shrinking field and if we go down, there's no guarantee that anyone else will want to step into our shoes. My point is basic: 15% of free downloads = non-viability of marginal labels = less diversity. And that's what I want to urge friends of this music to consider before they upload records that are new or in print (other uploads are a different question). It is an argument I make only in respect of small labels and struggling musicians. The majors will take care of themselves. They don't depend on 15% and they release only what pays and not what minorities want. They take significant income from advertising copyrights, film tie-ins, MTV, radioplay and performing rights, which independents generally don't. And they are rich enough to buy and rig the entire system to their own advantage, employing attorneys, lobbyists, political donations and friends at court. It's precisely their transparent and cynical abuse of power that fatally compromised their complaints against Napster (A case they won legally but lost morally).
You may not care for ReR or the music it has nurtured, but you can substitute for it any number of other independent labels that support any number of other marginal musics - we are all equally damaged by the strange and thoughtless culture of indiscriminate uploading. Think of it as an ecological issue, a question of diversity for the sake of diversity. Forget the good guys/ bad guys story, it's just a question of whether we want a static, monocultural, factory farmed environment, or a diverse, plural, interconnected and evolving one. If the latter, we have to start taking positive action now. Otherwise evolution will take its course and all the endangered species' will become effectively extinct
For a start, we should ignore the phony war and take the setting of the terms of the debate out of the hands of a venal industry, a compliant mass media and commercial predators like Napster. What we need is some serious consideration of two urgent problems: 1) how to achieve a fair reward for the work that artists and producers do and, 2) how to achieve maximum flexibility for the users of a new and very powerful technology. Since the technology doesn't care, those who use it will have to make the choices.
You pay the plumber and the electrician, the service provider and the phone company, so why not the musician or the struggling label? Are they supposed to work for free? If you planted a garden and brought it's fruits to term, and then a bunch of friends dug it all up in the night and waited for you to feed them again next year, would you? Do vegetables really just want to be free? Perhaps you want, but don't know how to see that the money goes to the workers and not their exploiters? Well, it is hard - because the system isn't set up that way. But that's no reason not to try - or mutely to accept the status quo.
First accept that file exchange media are highly useful and they are out there and they are driving - as technologies always do. There is no conceivable way to call them back, nor any reason to. So the choice is not to declare extra-commercial sound-file exchange a free zone or to shut it down, but to make it work to everyone's best advantage. For artists and labels there should be some agreed remuneration. And the technology to make this painless and simple will be with us very soon: electronic transfers from e-accounts to artist and agent accounts of fractions of a penny will be commonplace. If, that is, anyone can find the will and mechanism to make fair agreements. Official sites will work this way. For fringe and interpersonal files of copyright material or other people's concerts (bootlegs of one sort or another), we will probably have to rely on some kind of protocol of considerate behaviour: pay where you think the artist and label should be paid and where you can trace them. In the age of websites this might be easier than you think (see later). The uploading of in-print material (except for listening-booth purposes) should generally be avoided. Or when kept, paid for at least. If no sensible terms can be agreed (in other words if the industry pursues it's habitual course of bullying, overcharging, flagging, throwing it's weight around and generally being greedy and obnoxious), it's likely that music and copyrights will remain a war zone. In which case perhaps, for clarity's sake, independents, sidestream artists, independent labels and anyone willing and able to opt out of the corporate system should make independent agreements. This would require some new independent and voluntary entity that would constitute itself as an accredited artist-user body. It would have to coalesce out of artists and users themselves. And it would have to enable participants to negotiate, formulate and agree reasonable rules and rates and then oversee compliance and adjudicate where applicable. Horribly utopian, I know, but surely very much in tune with Internet technology. And if this peace zone did break out, the Majors would be obliged either to accept it's terms or to carry on with their bad-PR, fiscally ruinous war. A war in the end they can't win.
On my left, fragmentation and self sustaining, self selecting communities; on my right, centralisation, globalisation and conglomerates. The first lacks structure, the second legitimation. Time to think again.
1. In the UK, government has tried to shift support for the arts onto the backs of corporate sponsorship and the state controlled (but not owned) lottery. Getting money from them is a question simply of knowing how to talk application speak and tick the approved boxes: best projects should involve the local community, children, ethnic minorities and a list of other politically correct and artistically irrelevant criteria; you will not be judged on the quality of your work.
2. Or any of the great private patrons who bankrolled all of what we now call great art and music prior to the late C19. I don't see any committee overseen by 100 other committees with the nerve, knowledge and judgment shown by great dynasts like the Medecis, who during their long rule over Florence helped midwife the Renaissance, built libraries, founded schools and shelled out for Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Buenevento Cellini, Brunelleschi and countless others.
3. 30 days in a 24 track studio, That's what we took to do our other records. 6000 would be possible perhaps.
4. Editors note: see www.rermegacorp.com
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