In the early 2000s, increased bandwidth allowed recombinant artists to enter the gift economy. It’s a freedom we should defend at all costs, argues Vicki Bennett aka People Like Us
In 1999 I bought my first fast computer – and although it was dying to do speedy things, I was on dial-up, reduced to a crawl when it came to information retrieval. Logged into file sharing communities, I’d sit in the chat and watch people posting files that would take me a day to download, so I’d just read about them. Then I’d go to the WFMU website and try to stream the station and just get blurts and gaping silences. Then I’d visit archive.org and look at all the wonderful synopses for Rick Prelinger’s films, which were too large to access. It wasn’t long, however, before affordable broadband reached my area of London. Then everything changed. Forever.
The biggest improvement that broadband has brought me is access to previously inaccessible content, which I can then work with as raw material. In 2000, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle asked Prelinger to share his films online, for free. Although Prelinger was initially wary of this suggestion, he did so. By making these films available in good quality and continuing to sell the same footage in high quality, not only did he advertise his commercial archive, but also this generous act had a revolutionary effect on artists like myself who utilise already existing footage to make new works. Before this, I’d approached regional and national archives and either found a total lack of interest in collaboration, or a bigger interest but lack of manpower to liaise in realising the project. The advent of broadband made it possible to share on a massive scale. It changed my life.
With more people producing and distributing for themselves, the dynamic has changed and the focus shifted away from the middleman towards the producer. Since 2000, albums I’ve made with Ergo Phizmiz and Wobbly were created remotely, as a result of being in different parts of the world, through ftping multitracks. Many are surprised to hear that such methods could be successful, but working alone on site, and in collaboration online, can be a winning combination. Once completed, it can be shared online. If you work with the right people you’ll reach thousands of listeners. In turn, some of those listeners will be working in areas where they can offer concerts, commissions, or play you on their radio show. This is called the Gift Economy.
Audio content both for People Like Us and my radio show has mainly been sourced online. This heightened access increased my musical knowledge massively, feeding into my creative process, the palette increasing in size and colour. Access to and hosting by curated servers like UbuWeb has given a wider context to my work, where I’ve found aesthetic similarities to genres that in turn inform my practice. As well as curated music servers, there are now thousands of dedicated, knowledgeable music blogs. A web search for an obscure artist heard on the radio will take you to a blog telling you all about them, sharing out-of-print material, with tags linking to related areas. An adjacent column will have links to 25 other websites and radio stations with similar interests. There then follows a wonderful odyssey into hidden and often forgotten sonic worlds. This is very different from looking in an Oxfam record bin.
As well as being able to access specialist audio and moving images, broadband also made it possible to hear radio on a worldwide scale. Although analogue radio has long served the world over certain wavelengths for larger radio networks, it was an amazing experience to hear smaller radio stations like WFMU, where, as a result, I have been a DJ since 2003. WFMU archives its past shows forever, making them available for free listening. When Googling a little-known artist, the chances are the results will include a WFMU playlist. This helped make the local New Jersey radio station a global concern – and now, more people listen online than through radio receivers.
With this enhanced access in the past decade, one is far more likely to hear more less often than less more often. This shifts the way one listens, as the process becomes more like a ‘one-off’ experience of something that is ‘live’ or ‘unrepeatable’, almost like it was before the age of recording. Cassette sharing has been replaced with links and playlists. The physical experience of holding something as a treasured possession is lost, or it would be if you’d put your laptop or iPhone down. The loss of the artefact in favour of info.txt and jpegs is unfortunate; however, I recall many hours spent in record stores only looking at the covers.
In Klaus Maeck’s 1983 film Decoder, Genesis P-Orridge states, "Information is like a bank. Our job is to rob that bank." These were prophetic words. Freedom of the internet is under threat – over access to and ownership of information. Although I don’t see sharing and creatively transforming information and content as plundering, I do believe the ‘banks’ have the potential to lock up a lot that should rightfully be ours. When Megaupload was recently shut down for facilitating copyright infringement and money laundering, approximately 150 million users instantly lost access to their files. Carpathia and Cogent, Megaupload’s hosting companies, have been told by the US authorities that they are free to delete the content, but unlike the US government’s approach of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, Carpathia has put together a website (megaretrieval.com) with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) so that affected users can assess the scope of the issue and try to retrieve their data. My focus here is not on the legal aspect of this case, but on how further damage occurs when a heavy-handed approach is taken in dealing with such a situation – millions of users were innocently implicated in this case and the collateral damage is immense.
We may be at the stage where many people don’t even wish to download, and are just happy to listen to Spotify or Last.fm, and much future content will only be on servers, with smaller domestic hard drives. While advocating the sharing ethic, I’m wary of ‘the cloud’ – servers looking after everything for you. Megaupload was a ‘cloud’ – it remains to be seen what happens to users and their data when things go wrong. Intellectual property is a complicated issue with many grey areas, which need to be assessed on an individual basis. If there is the opportunity to throw out the grey with the black, this is often done. My main concern over the cloud is that this ‘automatic and effortless’ experience of access may be improved upon by eventually narrowing down results to only mainstream or sponsored content; in the worst cases, people may find themselves simply shut out.
I can’t over-emphasise how much broadband has improved my life, and although I worry about the control of this ‘free’ space, I remain optimistic of seeing blue sky between the clouds. At present, I am curating and programming Radio Boredcast, a month long online radio station for the AV Festival. All content and submissions reached me by way of that modem sitting next to the telephone socket, which then flew across the living room into my computer. I don’t know how that happens, but I’m glad it does.