The Wire

In Writing

Collateral Damage: Bob Ostertag

July 2011

A regular opinion column on the fallout from music’s shifting economy. This month: After committing ‘professional suicide’ by giving away his back catalogue online, Bob Ostertag wonders how the web is changing our understanding of music for good.

Five years ago I put all of my recordings to which I hold the rights (about 15 CDs’ worth) on my website for free download. I wrote an essay about why I did it, “The Professional Suicide Of A Recording Musician”, which through various reposts and reprints generated a lot of chatter. Now I find myself following the discussion of these same issues in the pages of The Wire with interest.

Readers might be interested to know the consequences of my decision. Before 2006, my music was released by small labels that came and went pretty quickly. The discs were hard to find at best, and became nearly impossible to find when the labels folded. Sales numbers were small: 1000–2000 total sales for a given CD was considered good, and for the most part I never received the royalties I was owed. Once labels went under, the discs would go feral. I still see my CDs in record shops around the world. I have no idea who gets the money when they sell. Someone obviously does, but certainly not me.

The first thing that happened after ‘freeing’ my music was that people began to listen to it in far greater numbers. My last release, w00t, was downloaded about 30,000 times. And the total downloads of all my recordings has topped 100,000.

That makes me happy. I like it when people hear my music. My music’s appeal seems limited to that small group of people who listen with the intense, focused concentration it demands. Outside of that circle it is considered extreme. And that’s all fine. Nevertheless, it is delightful to find that without any compromise – or even any effort – on my part, suddenly my audience is vastly larger than it has ever been.

My website allows people to donate money for the tracks they download but puts no big pressure on them to do so, and I had no idea if anyone would or not. I can now report that very few people do. So for musicians trying to piece together how they are going to make things work, my experience suggests that ‘donations for tracks’ may not be a significant piece of the puzzle. However, I have also found that people still want to purchase CDs at concerts, even knowing that they could download the same music for free.

Many of the comments to my “Professional Suicide” essay argued either that (1) my real problem is that no one likes my music, and (2) that it is easy for me to give away my music now that I have a university teaching gig. I suspect the replies to this piece here will cover the same terrain, so I will answer in advance: (1) my sales numbers are similar to those of many if not most of the musicians covered in The Wire, and thus fairly typical of those participating in this conversation; (2) since I never made money from selling CDs, I always had to make money in other ways.

One big thing that is completely absent from the discussion here is the policing structure required to prevent the free circulation of music. The technology that many people now carry in their pockets makes the free sharing of music so obviously simple that only a major policing operation can prevent it. And not just all these clumsy file protection schemes either, but also high-profile police arrests of ‘criminals’ who are then paraded before the public to make an example of what happens to young fans who share music for free. Universities, under threat from the corporate powers of the music biz (some of the largest corporations in the world), are surveilling their students’ computer use searching for ‘illegal’ music sharing, which can result in expulsion, lawsuits and criminal charges when kids are busted. Those who argue against free downloading should take note that it is impossible to stop without all this surveillance and policing.

More importantly, the changes we are discussing are so vast that in the end the question of whether people will pay for tracks pales in comparison to how information technology is changing what we understand ‘music’ to be.

Raleigh Morgan noted (Letters, The Wire 329) that 106,000 new albums were released in the US in 2008, nearly three times the 36,000 released in 2000. The number of artists with MySpace pages escalated from 600,000 in 2005 to more than ten million in 2010.

For both Morgan and UbuWeb’s Kenneth Goldsmith, this means that “for listeners, the situation is clear: you’ve never had it so good”. But the implications of those numbers go far beyond whether the situation for listeners is ‘good’ or for musicians is ‘bad’. This deluge of more music than anyone can hear will change the very meaning of ‘music’ in a profound way. I don’t pretend to be able to predict where this will lead, and I suggest that you take with a grain of salt the predictions of those who think they do know what the future holds. I put more stock in the words of some of the most thoughtful voices of the recent past.

35 years ago, Susan Sontag wrote: “Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”

Just substitute music for photography.

A decade before Sontag, piano virtuoso Glenn Gould anticipated the entirety of DJ culture in an essay titled “The Prospects Of Recording”, whose importance has yet to be properly acknowledged: “The role of the forger... is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honour for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization... At the centre of the technological debate, then, is a new kind of listener... a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the music establishment.”

And decades before that, Walter Benjamin wrote that the ability to mass-produce copies of image and sound would make music and art more like architecture, which he called the prototype of art which is appreciated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.

Not good news for someone like me who makes music that requires intense, sustained listening concentration. But that’s the breaks.

I still remember when I first heard a DJ use the term ‘my music’ in a way that had formerly been reserved for use by ‘musicians’ who ‘made’ music but was now referring to the music the DJ had purchased (or downloaded for free). And while I have written elsewhere of my deep respect for the virtuosity of the best DJs, I also see more and more people stand on a stage and make a ‘performance’ of nothing more than choosing which song to play next from a digital playlist, revealing a new understanding of the machine-body-performance nexus that I would have found unimaginable just a short time ago.

The anti-‘piracy’ position, articulated in these pages by Chris Cutler (issue 328), is quintessentially ‘Luddite’, but I don’t use that word in a pejorative sense. To the contrary, Luddites are one of my favourite resistance movements ever. At a time when technological change was destroying the entire way of life for those at the lower end of the economic food chain, Luddites resisted. Militantly. It got to where the only way the industrial revolution could move forward in England was for the state to make the destruction of machines a capital offence. How timid we have become! And though Luddites are now remembered as icons of failed social protest, I see them as successful in that they did slow down the pace of technological change, which bought crucial time for people with limited economic options to hold their lives together and find a way forward.

So all respect to the anti-‘piracy’ folks. And hey, if you can get millions of people to start smashing their computers, I would suddenly be a whole lot more interested. But just like the Luddites of old, the future does not belong to you. And if it did, I don’t think what you would get would much resemble the future you were hoping for.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think the future we are facing is one almost any of us would wish for. But it is coming faster than we can take in. And there will be an ever quicker succession of generations who take the world they come of age into as the norm and work from there. The future will belong to them.

As for me, my aim is not to judge whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but always to look for the new cracks in the system, cracks which could enable a politics of fighting for those with the least to get a little more.

Motormouth: Bob Ostertag Plays The Buchla 200E is available to download now.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.