The Wire

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In Writing

Collateral Damage: Marcus Boon

November 2011

The culture of copying is intrinsic to all music, argues Marcus Boon. So get over it – copyright buccaneers are roadtesting creative alternatives to obsolete capitalist models.

Copies are everywhere in music: in turntablists’ use of old vinyl and hauntological pop’s attempts to revive and play with forgotten musical styles, but also in the way any musical genre involves an agreement that some stylistic elements, whether it be instruments, haircuts, rhythms or song structures, will be repeated, and the creative act will happen only within an agreed structure. In this way, folk music, string quartets, psychedelic rock, or new Country are all cultures of the copy. Even improvisors often end up copying their own spontaneous gestures in order to develop their style. More fundamentally, to rely on a particular tuning system, such as the equal tempered scale that dominated Western classical music from Bach until minimalism, also condemns or commits those involved to acts of creative imitation.

The music business was built around the monopoly that entrepreneurs had over the technologies of reproduction, whether recording devices, or factories that pressed records, tapes and CDs. As much as copyright law gave rights to certain people, it also took them away from others, as we know from the history of hiphop, whose major innovations happened without anyone being accorded legal ownership of anything. With the advent of the personal computer and the internet, suddenly that monopoly on the making of copies has fallen apart.

Many of the arguments made against filesharing are basically economic: filesharing may be tasteless, anonymous, morally reprehensible or simply illegal, but the real objection is that it makes music entrepreneurship unviable. Of course we all have to make a living, and thanks to the gradual erosion of unofficial support for the production of music, such as musicians collectives, or even the dole cheques that once secretly funded many young musicians, we have been left with few alternatives to the supposedly free market. But now there is one.

One of the first records I bought when I was a teenager in London during post-punk was the vinyl 7" of Scritti Politti’s 2nd Peel Session EP. I was fascinated by the black and white sleeve, housed in a clear plastic jacket, which detailed the production costs and the different suppliers used to put together and manufacture the record. The group were debunking the mysteries of commodity production, telling everyone they could do it themselves. They aimed to break the monopoly of the record companies, but out from the shadows of punk emerged the DIY businessman. Dreams of freedom, the most violent acts of sonic negation, would find their place within the structure of the marketplace.

Musicians, journalists and record company people are all reliant on an economic system that seems to be failing them, but this is no less true for other workers today, who are seeing their prospects evaporate due to outsourcing, automation and digitisation. That’s the paradox of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’: we’re told there is no other choice than to accept the existing political and economic structure as the only guarantor of our existence – at the very same moment that the system has ceased to fulfil its promise. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek rightly calls this the fantasy of the liberal utopia – it’s a fantasy because the dream of a folky, highly local and ultimately stable capitalism (independent labels, small record stores, DIY groups) goes against the deeper reality of capitalism in which, as Marx and Engels wrote, “all that is solid melts into air”. Today this means digitisation, faceless uploading, global telecommunication.

The irony is that the history of musical subcultures is actually rich with attempts to think beyond capitalist realism and the dream of a liberal utopia. Outlaw raves, backyard concerts, alternative distribution models from mail art to cassettes to filesharing, pirate radio… all of this happens in a grey market that is mostly indifferent to the law. What if all this activity is actually an experimental laboratory for the construction of a post-capitalist society? Yes, the free digital download can be a first step to official fame and fortune (Odd Future got famous giving away free mixtapes, but you have to pay for the new Tyler, The Creator record), as recent books like Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future Of A Radical Price explain. Yes, black markets proliferate around such subcultures just as surely as Red Bull sponsorship deals. But if music can be shared for free, digitally and otherwise between anyone around the globe… what else can be shared in the same way? It might sound strange to propose reorganising an entire society in order to allow the free distribution of music and other cultural forms, but according to Jacques Attali, in his remarkable 1977 book Noise, sound is prophetic; it’s what comes first.

Despite the endless disavowals of the ‘faceless uploader’, ‘trolls’ and wholesale ‘theft’ of artistic property by folks sharing music with each other, there’s obviously something progressive and utopian about the idea of anyone being able to access any piece of recorded music anywhere, any time. Or for anyone to be able to upload something they have just made to Soundcloud for others to hear within minutes of its completion. Now we have to figure out how to expand that freedom to other economic and political domains. For example, the rights of musicians and non-musicians to travel as freely as MP3s do. And beyond that, the big question is: what kind of political or economic system can support not only musicians, but all human beings? Music has always had a vexed existence as private property. It’s hard to own sound, to lock it down. A minimum global living wage is one idea… but how to get there is one of many challenges that we face.

One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.

Marcus Boon’s In Praise Of Copying is published by Harvard University Press.

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