Tools of the Trade – Beneath the Surface (A discussion on audio formats)


On Saturday June 8th I attended a panel discussion at the Suoni per il Popolo festival called TOOLS OF THE TRADE – BENEATH THE SURFACES (DISCUSSION SUR LES FORMATS AUDIOS) withJonathan Sterne (McGill University), Don Wilkie (Constellation Records), Brian Shimkovitz (Awesome Tapes from Africa) and Justin Evans (MixGenius software) and Jake Moore (Director of the FOFA gallery) as moderator.
It was co-presented by McGill University`s ICASP.

I found this was an interesting discussion so I thought I would post some of the major ideas and questions that came out of it. I feel that the question of compensation for artists that emerged as a major theme of this discussion is still missing from many of the dialogues around networked culture, and would like to hear any ideas or responses on that front.

How can artists make a living from music? Education and consumerism

One of the points that Don raised was that in all the discussions that happen around changes to the music industry the perspective of artists is seriously under-represented. It also tends to present the industry in a monolithic fashion, when it is really a diverse scene of people operating on different models and scales, and with different intentions.

He emphasized the need for education of music ‘consumers’. Why are people willing to pay money for certain things but not for music?

It could be in some part because, as Jonathan Sterne argued, they think that by downloading major label music for free they are somehow ‘sticking it to the man’, without realizing that in fact they are now paying their ISP (Bell, Videotron, etc) for that music; companies whose interests are not in supporting artists.

And when people download independent label music for free, they often will make an effort to support those artists by going to see their live shows, or buying other merch. But as Don pointed out, in keeping with the early DIY aesthetic of accessibility embraced by many independent labels and artists, ticket prices for shows have essentially remained the same for the last twenty years, leaving artists with dwindling sources for income.

From Brian’s perspective with his Awesome Tapes from Africa project, the ‘unauthorized distribution’ (Jonathan’s preferred term for illegal downloading) of music can function as a tool for building new audiences and providing distribution channels to artists who did not really have access to those channels. The audiences that he has built in this way have allowed him to start re-releasing some of the music he collects commercially and splitting the profits 50/50 with the artists.

Don wonders what will happen to the kinds of artists he likes, artists who need time to develop their vocation. At present, we are lucky in Canada in that there is some level of state funding available, although it is limited. However, when a consumerist attitude to music is normalized to such an extent, when people are used to getting ‘content’ (more on that below) whenever and however they want it, there is little space left in the equation for compensating artists.

“Contentization” of music – from cat pictures to digital music files

Jonathan talked about what he calls the ‘contentization’ of music. The internet relies on many infrastructures – technical, political, and economic – which are manipulated by corporations at the expense of people who create content.

‘Content’ has become a generic catch-all term to describe all the stuff that is distributed by this infrastructure. A flattening effect ensues – all of this digital content distributed via networks becomes homologous – a digital music file and a digital photo of a cat are, in the network, just individual pieces of content and are often distributed and shared via the same networks and practices.

The corporations that manage these infrastructures take it for granted that people will continue to produce and make available their content, yet they put nothing in place to support or compensate these cultural content producers. So our new cultural intermediaries have become the companies who host and provide access to content, Google being the obvious example, but also ISPs and other companies whose business models revolve around distribution of content online. Unfortunately their interests are not the same as those of previous cultural intermediaries.

Justin Evans talked optimistically about possibilities for new forms of music making that may emerge from the big data landscape. His company, mixgenius, is looking at ways to provide extensive metadata for audio file formats, metadata that may include historical information about where and when a piece of music was recorded, the instrumentation and musicians, as well as information about EQ and other production techniques and practices.

He was very excited about the endless forms of descriptive metadata that may become available to enrich digital music files. An interesting response to this came from Jake Moore who wondered how much metadata we really need, citing the Borges story “On Exactitude in Science” which describes the development of a map with a 1:1 ratio of representation, in other words, a map which reflects reality in parallel.

Nature of musical production – physical and digital media experiences

There was a lot of talk about physical media and their particular characteristics in comparison to the distribution of digital formats. Brian talked lovingly about tapes, and the fact that they are physical yet fragile at the same time. You cannot really avoid their physical nature, with the work involved to cue them, their unspooling and warping. They are also tough, you can toss a cassette in the back of your car and leave it there for ages and it will survive, although the quality and sound of the recording also evolves and degrades over time. On his blog he set out to present cassettes in their entirety and with their original sound quality.

Don talked about the album as a format and the now endangered activity of sitting and listening to an album in its entirety as something that is important to him and to many of the artists he works with. He lamented the dematerialization of music that happens when an album is distributed digitally track by track. With the loss of overall context for a collection of songs as an album, he wondered if the album as an art form is dead.

PS. Giving it away

On a different but related note, check out this recent article by Bob Ostertag on the difficulties of giving his music away for free on the internet which speaks to some of the issues related to corporate control of cultural distribution raised in the Suoni panel:

“I see that giving away music for free is not as easy as I had imagined. In some ways, it turns out to be impossible. The reasons why this is so say a lot about creativity, property, and power in a networked world of corporately owned digital commons policed by netbots and stochastic algorithms.”


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