Bulk giveaways of music online make it impossible for listeners to make any sense of an artist’s work, argues James Kirby

For avid readers of this column, there can be no doubt that musical consumption has become a complex and bewildering issue. I began giving away music online in the late 1990s via brainwashed.com, thanks to a conversation I had with webmaster Jon Whitney during a visit to Boston. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he suggested, “to make an online archive of all you do, which is free for everybody to download?”

Back then, the idea seemed exciting, as the prevailing mood of the times was fear: fear of giving away music, fear of the internet and a bleak future. Alongside my compact disc and vinyl releases, I began in earnest to give away masses of audio. My contemporaries back then constantly told me I was being crazy and irrational to have such an attitude. I embraced it and took it to extremes.

This act of giving away my music culminated in a project I ran throughout 2006, where I distributed all the work I made during that year for free online. By the time the project was completed, my output was too vast to digest, even for those longtime supporters of my work. I myself have only listened to a small fragment of that material, as even I had no idea where to start.

Fast forward to 2008, when I found myself going online to my then website. The difference was, I was now visiting it through the eyes of somebody coming to my work for the first time. What I found horrified me; the idea seeded by Jon had run out of control. Content-wise, it had grown so vast it had reached the point where nothing could be seen, and I had no idea where to plunge in. Two months later I pulled down the whole site: it took a mere two minutes to delete something that had taken more than ten years to build. I felt reborn, as if I had escaped from the digital quicksand that had been swallowing me up without me even being aware of it happening.

Many artists have yet to reach this point, as they have only just begun to embrace the upload/download culture. Online tools make it easy to distribute a body of work very quickly without really thinking about the long-term consequences of making everything available, never to be erased.

There is an invisible pressure on artists to behave in this way. We are being led to believe that we need to be constantly visible to connect, and if we drop out of view then people will forget about us. To maintain interest, we’re told, we have to give people more and more. The paradox here is that, although interest in music has never been as high, finding an audience and connecting with it has never been harder.

Other questions arise. Most net-savvy people out there will have downloaded entire careers in an hour or two. Do we listen to all we download? Is it about having everything? Does too much availability of an artist’s work leave us confused about where to start listening? Is easy access to an artist’s work slowly blunting our desire or ability to connect with it?

Right now, in order to restore focus, I give less music away. I still release physical editions but I don’t make all my audio available digitally. Most of my past works are unavailable at present. Judging by the messages I am sent, this refusal to upload previously released music polarises people. Those who experienced the old model of music distribution/consumption are happy for the artist to control his or her output. Others can’t understand why I don’t make all my old work freely available.

The internet should be about the fluid circulation of possibilities. But once something is uploaded it is seldom removed, in effect turning the internet into a vast online mausoleum for every recording ever released. Everything might be permanently available in theory, but in practice it is increasingly difficult to engage with music shared freely. It becomes value-free in the more damaging sense that its always-available status suspends it in a permanent present tense, cut off from the time and place of its origin. Factor in the prevailing attitude that would deny artists any control over their own body of work, either by withdrawing stuff they’re unhappy with, or by deleting titles to generate interest through scarcity. Taking control of my own work is the biggest thing for me right now. I’m trying now to sculpt it into a manageable and dynamic body of work which can change fast, given the current/future climate. This, then, will leave anyone coming to it for the first time no longer overwhelmed by the vast amount of music that used to face new visitors to the website.

We are all aware of the massive change in how listeners now consume music. If somebody purchases something of mine digitally or physically, I see it more than ever as them connecting with me directly. I am aware that anyone could find the same tracks which I’m selling somewhere else online for free. Those who go that route still connect with it, and may in the future feel moved enough to support my work financially. As long as people listen, either legally or illegally, as creative people we are winning.

The bottom line is, we’re living in a fantastic time with no rules. Invest wisely in musicians you believe need your support and hope they don’t let you down. Artists who believe in what they’re doing will always push themselves to create the most uncompromising work they’re capable of. Realise the value of your investments in musicians and music: right now, your support, both emotional and financial, is invaluable. Let’s enjoy this state of digital and musical flux, but at the same time support and demand more of artists, thereby sealing strong emotional connections.

James Kirby makes music as The Caretaker, Leyland Kirby and The Stranger. Patience (After Sebald) is out this month on History Always Favours The Winners. brainwashed.com/vvm

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