More filesharing thoughts…

Documentary filmmaker Sister Novena writes today to share some personal thoughts about filesharing, the future of the recording industry, and the relevance of music sharing to film. And while Sister Novena’s posts frequently move me to comment, I knew that this latest entry would require my full bloggy attention.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the recording industry lately. I, like you, have been watching the decline of the major labels and pondering what it means for me. Their situation perplexes me because, at least in the case of music, it all seems so clear-cut and obvious, and I can’t quite figure out why the corporations are having so much trouble coping. I mean, I can — old men with vested interests in the way things have always been are notoriously resistant to change — but it all seems so futile. I can’t understand why they continue to struggle against the inevitable.”

My impression here is that the music biz is just too big of a ship to make the turn! Seriously, being a major label head these days has to be like driving the Titanic– all you can do is watch as your enormous contraption rips itself a new one. Think about it, and it makes sense. The industry has thrived for so long on a system of having everything tied together in innumerable ways. Read about Colonel Parker’s abuse of the music industry’s legalities to bind himself to Elvis sometime, or check out the history behind Jimi Hendrix’s contractual hell if you don’t believe me. I mean, this is the business that sued John Fogerty for copyright infringement against himself (alright, technically Fantasy) and WON. Everyone is tied together, and while it’s not as ridiculous as the well-known tale about DJ Alan Freed being given a “co-composer” credit for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” I can’t imagine too much has changed.

“Okay, so nobody’s buying CDs anymore. So what? A CD is worthless — it costs at most a few cents, extra for the packaging, but I don’t pay any more attention to the physical object than I do to any of the other plastic packaging in my day-to-day life. It’s the data on the disc, the music it carries, that has value. If I can buy the data without the disc, then that’s simpler for everyone involved. Personally, I still prefer to have a hard copy, if only because the data-only version is still so often restricted, and that annoys me. But even when I buy a CD, the first thing I do is rip the disc and put the original product away. I have CDs I have never actually listened to directly; they were only the conduit that carried the data onto my hard drive. My computer is the center of my musical universe now; I expect that’s how it is for a lot of people.”

I guess it depends on your relationship to music. Look at the incredible proliferation of CDR labels– every single one of these could easily transition to a netlabel format– but it’s the fetish aspect of having a concrete disc sent all the way from Finland or New Zealand that’s part of the excitement. It’s also a kind of gut reaction against the disappearance of artists from our lives. When the artists we hear are only perceived as disembodied voices emanating from the Wal-Mart ceiling, or as part of a promotional stunt at some distant nightclub with other celebrities, their work ceases to become relevant in many ways. Listeners seek the personal connection between the artist and themselves– so it’s not surprising that people are willing to buy handmade CDRs; often featuring equally handmade artwork, liner notes, photos, or even equipment used in the recording itself.

“The first response whenever I ask that question is always, “well, if it works for music, it’ll work for film.” And maybe in some permutation, it will. But film and music are different species, and the consumer’s relationship to them is radically different. You buy an album because you want to listen to it over and over again, or at least want the option to be able to do so. You listen to it while you drive to work, sitting in your cubicle, while you do dishes, while you jog in circles around the park. You can focus on it, but it can also become a secondary activity. It’s flexible, and it can fill in the empty spaces in your life. Film isn’t like that. Film requires attention; it’s the thing you’re doing, not something to do while you do something else. And apart from seven-year-olds, few people watch a film repeatedly — even the films I’ve seen most often I’ve seen maybe half a dozen times. The vast majority of the time, you watch a film, and then you’re done with it. That’s the end of your relationship.”

Ack! As I’ve said many times, there’s a lot more to music than just moving your ass. On my radio show, I always push listeners towards “active listening,” which is pretty much the opposite of allowing music to become a “secondary activity.” Ideally, I’d prefer listeners have it to be primary to pretty much everything except basic bodily functions, and I’m not including bathroom breaks. Yes, I’m a tyrant.

But seriously, there is a considerable body of music that is worthy of increased consideration, and approaching this music from the same vantage point as simple dance tunes will only result in frustration on the part of the listener. It’s the equivalent of being upset that a well-made documentary isn’t a great popcorn summer flick. If everyone who saw “The Fog of War,” came out grumbling that it wasn’t “Armageddon,” its easy to see that they missed the point– these films are to be used in radically different ways.

I think the worlds of film and music CAN be compared though, provided we use intent as a guideline. Simply put, I see no reason why movies like Armageddon, or albums like Akon’s “Konvicted” should ever be subject to filesharing– they are more of a service than an art, and should be treated as such.

Think about it: who buys a pop album for deep thinking? Who attends a Fantastic Four sequel and is upset at the lack of great film moments? Nobody but the brain-dead, that’s who. Pop music and film survive in the same way that fast food, plumbers, and the car wash survive– they perform a reliable, homogeneous, unsurprising service time and time again. It is their strength to be the same each time we need them– can you imagine the folly of McDonald’s changing their menu each day? The trouble isn’t with the labels and film companies who provide us these options, but with us; we have somehow forgotten that these companies, directors, and entertainers are artists.

If we consider them for a moment as tradesmen, the conundrum of filesharing solves itself. I wouldn’t share Britney Spears any more than I would force a handyman to fix my neighbor’s rooftop along with the price of doing mine. For all her crotch shot stupidity, Spears provides a reliable service– catchy pop dance tunes, tailor-made for pre-teens to bop around to. She’s a freakin’ yeoman, seriously. But an artist? No way.

Art wants to be seen and heard. It needs to be free in ways that are totally opposite than the needs of the tradesman. Tangling it up in the business world was a mistake, but an understandable one in the old world where only the big boys had the ways and means to disseminate your work. Now all that’s changed, and we see the music biz for what it always was– a stop-gap measure for real artists, and an answering service for the entertainers.

Now is the time for us to part ways. Don’t think of it as the death of the music industry, though– just a rebirth, sans the mask of artistry.

5 Responses to “More filesharing thoughts…”

  1. Jonathan Bailey Says:

    It is an interesting point about the difference between art and commercial. The distinction, at least on a gut level, seems valid. It seems strange though to reward commercial musicians by discouraging file sharing of their works while punishing actual artists by encouraging sharing of theirs.

    Still, I think that the problems with the music industry are pretty simple. Yes, file sharing is a problem, but selling an $18 CD in the same store as a $12 DVD is at least as big of one. There are fewer compelling artists and more entertainment options. It seems only logical the music industry would suffer.

    There are still at least some fundamental differences between the music and movie industries. A big one is the cost involved. A new major movie will costs millions upon millions more than a new major album. Every movie has to be at least a somewhat commercial success where, in the record industry, only a small percentage of artists ever make any money.

    New technology might make it possible for a future in label-less music, but a future without studios looks a lot more bleak.

    Anyway, just some random thoughts on the topic. Great article and comments!

  2. startlingmoniker Says:

    I don’t see it as “rewarding” commercial musicians as much as recognizing that what they do is not really worth sharing.

    I’m not terribly worried about the future of big-budget albums and movies. The technology has easily reached a point where we can now hear and see high-quality output coming from the grassroots. As far as recording technology, a bedroom musician has far more options at his fingertips than Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles did in their peak years– near unlimited multi-tracking, DSP effects, non-destructive editing, massive amounts of space for archiving takes, virtual instruments– so while you may worry about a “future without studios,” I feel otherwise. It’s clear that stand-out art will be made regardless of recording conditions, it’s only up to the artists involved.

  3. Thomas Says:

    Really very interesting! And I totally agree about the fetish value of cdrs. Another thing is– computers crash, cdrs tend to survive– well, until they wear out.

    It’s hard for me to comment on commercial music because it has not been relevent to me for about 15 years. Sometimes I go to YouTube and watch free synth-pop and rock videos from the ’80’s, but at some point I just turned a blind eye to it all.

    It is nice that bedroom studios have so much potential– and I hope artists recognize the possiblities they present, and the freedom they truly have from constraint and expectation.

  4. startlingmoniker Says:

    Free synth-pop? Try Strawberry Switchblade’s 1985 single “Since Yesterday”… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7QPBzAJ_io

  5. Thomas Says:

    I watched it! Very cool, thanks.

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