19 December, 2009

Amen, Part 2

Watched that video in Part 1? Good. So, moving on.

As a composer, the idea of intellectual property is a complex one. I am all for giving stuff away for free, but ultimately, I have to survive. Survival takes money, money takes work, and my work is writing music. But I also see the very real harm that can be done to culture when numbers start being crunched inside of office buildings, and when the people crunching these numbers—most of whom have no business dictating culture at all—start deciding what is culturally allowable. This is one of the things that I like about Creative Commons; it allows the artist to decide upfront how their work is to be used, and the number crunchers, theoretically, stay out of it. Controlling the means of (re)production, you might say.

Well, as you know from watching the video in the previous post, The Winstons would have benefited greatly from Creative Commons licensing. When “electronica” went mainstream and started making money, everyone wanted a cut of it. In the end, the artists got nothing, but some random music companies--who seem to have just stolen the samples (but had good lawyers I guess)--ended up making a bundle. Keep it classy, music industry. Ultimately, the question is: what was the cultural value of the Amen break (or any other samples) remaining free of charge, and, in the end did the good outweigh the damage?

I don't have a specific answer to this question, but it does bring us to our discussion of UbuWeb. Do you know about this amazing thing? UbuWeb is anti-corporate utopian Internet hub full of amazing avant-garde treats. It’s like the best college radio station you’ve ever heard, and it never goes off the air. On-demand pirate radio for the “aughties.” It was founded in 1996 by a bunch of crazies—(and who doesn’t love crazies?!)—and all materials up there are entirely free for your listening/reading/viewing pleasure. Also, they haven’t asked permission to post any of it.

As they say on the site: “Nothing is for sale on UbuWeb. It's all free. We know it's a hard idea to get used to, but there's no lush gift shop waiting for you at the end of this museum.” (Having visited many of the amazing museums in London when I was there for the DCR concert, I definitely appreciate this analogy.) But wait. Hold up. Say what? So—they upload this stuff, without asking permission, then give it away for free? How is that possible? Well I guess in a utopian sense, the question would be: why would it not be possible? But really, here’s the deal:

“If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it. But if it's in print and available to all, we won't touch it. The last thing we'd want to do is to take the meager amount of money out of the pockets of those releasing generally poorly-selling materials of the avant-garde. UbuWeb functions as a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web. Our scanning, say, an historical concrete poem in no way detracts from the physical value of that object in the real world; in fact, it probably enhances it. Either way, we don't care: EBay is full of wonderful physical artifacts, most of them worth a lot of money.”

Legal speaking, they can say that they are for educational purposes, which is true. (I actually downloaded the copy of Cardew’s out-of-print Stockhausen Serves Imperialism for my dissertation research form Ubu…speaking of crazies.) But really, the bottom line is, as they say, if they had to "get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb.” And how terrible would that be?! (I’ll tell you. It would be awful. Life would be exponentially more boring.)

As UbuWeb co-founder Kenny Goldsmith says “As long as we stay within the margins of culture, we're pretty much safe. When we occasionally dip our toe into the more profitable or mainstream side of the avant-garde, do we get slapped around.” (Sound familiar? No one cared about the use of samples, until people realized they could get rich off of it!)

He continues: “Are we crazy? Yes. Are we exposing ourselves to great risk? Yes. Could we get screwed? Yes. What we're doing is clearly wrong, and we wouldn't have a foot to stand on in the court of law. But we think the good greatly outweighs any damage. ... UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to the other, we feel that in the end, we're giving to all.”

The good outweighs any damage, indeed. I respect that they are taking a stand like this and saying: "you know what people? The world will be a better place if we upload this totally insane sound art piece, so we’re just going to do it.” If we need anything right now, it’s for the world to be a little bit better!