Monday Musings: Information Wants To Be Free, or How Do You Own A Sound?

The critic wants breakfast.

There’s a lot of thought being given, in all quarters, to how to turn music into money in the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves. What is music worth? What is it about music that is tradeable? What parts of the traditional commercial landscape are worth defending? To what extent do people and organisations need to throw up their hands and just go with the new situation? What, ultimately, is the best way to derive revenue from making music? What, ethically and legally, is it that creators, licensors and licensees can be said to ‘own’?

In many cases these questions are engaged with, not through legal debate, business plans, philosophical discourse, or the market: they are engaged with through the appearance of new technologies, for the production and distribution of music.

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Stewart Brand, 1984

Stewart Brand is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, a project designed to promote the positive, empowering, accessible, local and DIY potential of technology; he was speaking at the first Hackers’ Conference, a gathering of computer industry tech-heads which (by its name) is predicated on the value of stretching a system’s intended use, or using it in unintended ways. While he was talking about data at a time when that meant very little other than computer code, he might easily have been talking about music right now, when similar conditions have come to apply.

Music is certainly valuable: to me, and many others, it is one of the most valued things in our lives. It can, has, and continues to change my life in unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable, but always rewarding ways. The ease and low cost of its distribution doesn’t need to be re-hashed here. So in my opinion, the dialectic that Brand identified, in an era of newly affordable removeable media, and a new awareness of the personal and commercial value of code and data, is equally applicable to music today.

I would argue that the new media, and the digital music revolution, do not simply represent a new way of handling recordings, but expose a long-standing misapprehension about what recorded music is, and how it should be thought about. Music became a reproducible, tradeable commodity with the advent of sheet music printing, which really took off in the early nineteenth century, and with it certain ideas, such as copyright, and territorial licensing. When sound recordings began to be commercially exploited a context already existed where music was conceived as a physical thing: ‘the music’ had come to mean a piece of paper with notation printed on it, and in many quarters it still does.

Now most people will agree that if someone makes an object, and someone else wants it, they have to accept the terms the maker sets on giving it to them: conventionally this involves some money changing hands. After all, it costs money to have a CD pressed and packaged, and no one would expect that to be done as an act of charity. For roughly 80 years, until the widespread adoption of the cassette, the only way to get access to a sound recording for your own use was to buy a record. For obvious enough reasons, the cost of producing the recording was summed with the manufacturing cost of the final package: as businesses, record companies, had their costs, and largely realised their revenue through retail sales (although licensing was important as well). A consequence of this was that ultimately no distinction was made between a record and the sound that was on it.

I can understand how recording artists and labels must have felt when the cassette appeared: why should it have looked any different to them than if someone had simply taken a copy of their record to a pressing plant, or stolen a copy of it from a shop? They lived in a world in which a song was a thing, and could be traded as such: you knew whether you owned it or not, because you could see it and feel it. Nowadays there are a good number of people who would stand to make a lot of money if they could only persuade the world that a musical recording is a physical object, or should be treated as such. So let’s just go back to Stewart Brand for a moment.

What exactly is it about music that’s valuable? Is it the physical package? Well to many people, myself included, that’s a part of it. I pay for a lot of music on CD, because I like having a thing to go with the sound, and enhance my experience of it: but I’m aware that what I’m buying is actually merchandise, like a tee shirt or a keyring. It’s the same as a souvenir concert program. Let me repeat myself: merchandise enhances my experience of the sound.

The valuable thing is the experience: what people pay for is access to the experience. Serious music fans will always pay out for all sorts of things, but the vast majority of people who have paid out for music historically, have done so for the right to control their experience, rather than hoping the song they like will happen to come up on the radio. If you give them the choice, they are never going to pay: and right now, from now on, they have the choice. And there’s Brand’s competing force: it costs nothing to get music, and nothing to share it, not even the expense of buying a cassette.

Owners of large music catalogues are quick to point out, quite reasonably, that just because it’s easy to steal something, doesn’t make it right. So let’s get to the point here (because I’ve gone on long enough, and there’s at least one book in this topic): what they own is the copyright. The right to copy. The right to make and sell a physical package that encodes the recording. The important, valuable thing, the experience, the sound, is something they never owned, never could and never will. You can’t own a sound. It’s absolutely ludicrous to suggest than you can.

From now on, every time anyone looks at my nose I’m going to charge them a fiver. And if they should take a photo of it, I’m going to prosecute them. And I’m going to apply these principles most of all to those that bear me the greatest goodwill. Or perhaps, just maybe, I’ll let everyone look at it, and if the experience is wonderful enough somebody might make a donation to assist with its upkeep.

Morally, if you have devoted your valuable time to making a beautiful work of art, that other people are going to benefit from, you have the right to be the one that gets remunerated (whether you are a person or an organisation). Nobody else should make any money off your work without your permission. But once you publish something, it’s out there: you can’t control it. You can’t decide what (non-commercial) use people will make of it, or who they will share it with; and why would you want to? Surely you want the word to get out. The creation of stars to generate scarcity value used to be the important commercial mechanism: there is still financial value in star making, but there will never be scarcity again.

There’s a spurious similarity between copying a data file and reproducing a wax cylinder, which has confused some parties. To the listener, it’s completely irrelevant: it doesn’t matter to me whether the data from which my audio device constructs a sound resides on a CD, my HD, or someone else’s HD. When there’s no physical package, who cares where it isn’t? Remember that the next time a record company executive accuses you of stealing an imaginary LP.

Of course I want musicians to be well remunerated for their work. But it’s obvious that restricting access to their recordings is not how that’s going to happen. There are a million ways to capitalise on a fanbase: there are a myriad of physical objects a fan will buy, and there are many points at which they might be persuaded to make a donation to an artist, including, but not limited to, the moment at which they download a recording. It is a donation though, not a purchase price: for centuries professional musicians, who unlike painters did not make anything physical, were supported by the patronage of wealthy individuals. Now it’s all about the cloud and the crowd, but the patronage principle remains a sound one: if people love something, they will often be happy to pay just for the knowledge that they have helped to support it, that their contribution helped to make it happen. The mechanical reproduction age is over, and with it a whole raft of ideology. You can’t own a sound: if you disagree, or don’t believe me, that’s fine. Just go ahead and try.

I haven’t paid much attention to the news this week, but there have been some great blog posts full of sound advice for DIY musicians:

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