Sunday, November 06, 2011

Digital Artists

On Monday 31st October 2011, Pete Townshend gave the inaugural John Peel Lecture, named in honour of the great DJ, who was possessed of the kind of obsessive musical mind and sarcastic humour so badly missed on Radio One today. Surprisingly, the ageing rocker used the lecture as an opportunity to talk about the complicated way in which the internet is changing notions of propriety, ownership and the digital rights of creative artists. Even more surprisingly, Townshend made apposite observations about a medium people half his age are still struggling to understand, and no shortage of proposals for rebalancing the asymmetrical relationship between artists and online aggregators.

He argued that 'content aggregators' like Apple were like 'digital vampires', taking a 30 percent cut of the profits while doing none of the work. 'Music publishing has always been a form of banking in many ways, but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking' he said, before suggesting that Apple could and maybe should be doing more to develop and promote new artists. Apple has taken over the 'distribution' and 'banking' roles previously occupied by music labels, but does not yet provide the creative support or nurturing environment aspiring artists need. 'Why not?' asked Townshend.

Townshend also expressed his concerns about digital piracy:

Whether the public listen or not, creative writers and musicians should get paid if their work generates money by virtue of its mere existence on radio, television, YouTube, Facebook or SoundCloud. It's tricky to argue for the innate value of copyright from a position of good fortune (as I do). I once suggested on a forum that people who download my music without paying for it may as well come and steal my son's bike while they're at it. One woman was so incensed that she tried to argue that she was still supporting me as an artist by 'sharing' (my parentheses) music with others who would eventually filter down some cash in some form or other to me, that would pay for my son's bike – and she was not, in any sense, a thief or a criminal. I think she was in a kind of denial. Cutting the body to fit the cloth rather than the correct way around.

Some of the less kind commentators online described Tonwshend as a 'dinosaur' for expressing such an antiquated view (in place of antiquated read: 'unfashionable'). Of course, it is very easy to attack a millionaire rock star for complaining about theft, but that is to ignore the fact that there was actually some substance in what he was saying. This was not a preening, rock star winge, Townshend was expressing legitimate concerns about the uncertain future for artists who want to make a living out of recorded music in a digital world in which copying is not only ubiquitous but socially de rigueur.

This put me in mind of Cory Doctorow and Jaron Lanier, both of which have interesting things to say about creativity online, offering alternative prescriptions for how creative people might try to take control of their own destinies once again.

The Doctorow doctrine

Cory Doctorow is right when he says that 'there is no future in which hard drives get smaller smaller, less capacious, more expensive, harder to use, harder to find. There is no future in which networks are going to be harder to log into, slower, more expensive'. He is also correct about the intrusive and ineffective anti-piracy schemes developed by corporations, which take skilled software developers years to develop and are broken by teenagers in minutes. DRM or Digital Rights Management is the euphemistic term given to a proprietary standards that limit the 'terms of use' for any song, game, music or book purchased in a digital form. When you buy a printed book from Borders, Waterstones or your local independent or second-hand book store, you are free to loan the book to whomever you want and can even sell it on when you are done reading. An e-book purchased from the Apple iBooks store, on the other hand, can only be read using Apple's proprietary software ajustify certainly do not have the right to sell it or loan it to someone else. What you buy is license, nothing more, and you, lowly consumer, would do well to remember that. Also, just in case you are thinking about reading your iBooks copy of Neuromancer on your new Amazon Kindle – its all digital, right? – forget about it; you are locked into whatever 'ecosystem' you use to make your purchases.

Effectively, you no longer own the book or indeed the device that you use to read it, which, because it is 'tethered' to the manufacturer or the software maker (inevitably a very big company), will only grant a 'licence' to read, watch or play whatever you 'buy' from their online store, and even then, only provided that you agree to comply with an arbitrary set criteria that the company reserves the right to change on a whim. It is a lot like being told that you are only permitted to read your newly purchased hardback by Neal Stephenson under a certain type of lamp, while sitting on a certain type of chair. Indeed, two years ago, thousands of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to find their e-book copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four replaced by a voucher for the Amazon Kindle Store. The company that had sold the e-book did not have the rights to do so and so Amazon had taken remote control of all of the devices that had purchased the book (whose devices are these again?) and deleted the digital file. Oh, the irony!

As such, Cory Doctorow's 'no-DRM' stance is laudable. DRM is intrusive and annoying, not to mention doomed to failure. His contention therefore is that because bits are only going to get easier to copy and DRM utimately abstracts people's understanding and control over their own devices, artists should adopt a freemium model, giving their work away online in order to promote their work in other media, which can then make money. He tells us that his experience of giving stories away online (DRM free of course) has been entirely positive – quoting Tim O' Reilly he says, 'The big problem for any artist isn't piracy, it is obscurity' – and I can see the logic in that. But what are the prospects for someone trying to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder, given that digital content is already freely available online and that digital may soon be the primary means of distribution? Giving away a free e-book in order to promote the physical artifact assumes that there will always be a market for ink on paper – books, journals and magazines. This is far from certain – last year, e-book sales in the UK surpassed paperback sales for the first time. What happens to the artist who has been giving their work away online when print is no longer a viable source of revenue?

The second implicit assumption is that, provided the work is good, people who read the first few chapters of the e-book will still want to rush out and buy a printed copy. This might be true if your name is Cory Doctorow. But what if you are an aspiring writer or artist looking to make a name for yourself? I worry that potential readers will be less likely to support someone they have never heard of before, to whom they have no loyalty or alligence. I understand that Cory Doctorow's first novel was released simultaneously in print and online under a Creative Commons License, but were his first published stories given away free online? Or did he make a name for himself in traditional print media and by doing so acquire a publishing deal? I think that form of propriety might be important and worry that without it the possibilities for people who wish to earn a living as creative artists will be diminished. I would be quite happy to be proved wrong, but I am sceptical.

Lanier's lament

Indeed, what Cory Doctorow proposes may be practical in the short term, but it is hardly the digital revolution people had hoped for; overturning outdated, outmoded structures and replacing them with something vibrant and new. The music charts are still dominated by artists signed to major labels, independent filmmakers still rely on major distributors for financial support, and the publishing industry is hardly awash with talented individuals making a name for themselves by giving their work away on the internet. With a few high profile exceptions – Radiohead's 'pay what you want' gimmick for the initial release of their album In Rainbows – the internet has so far proved almost wholly ineffective as a medium for nurturing new talent. I am sure that there are people out there doing interesting things, but they are not breaking into the mainstream in anything like the numbers one might expect. The 'advertising-supported' and 'freemium' models that have emerged online only replaced one set of guardians with another and do not point the way towards a credible future in which millions of independent artists are free to create.

The internet seems to have become an advertising vehicle for corporations and artists working in other media. For the time being, artists who find an audience online can still earn money for the work they do on the printed page, on films and on TV. But what happens when the internet becomes the primary delivery system for all of those different media? It is a question that needs an answer. It is wholly conceivable to imagine world in which those potential revenue streams no longer exist and, if people cannot agree to pay for digital content, artists will be either impoverished or reliant upon the patronage of rich bakers – most likely corporations. In other words, it will be very much like the world in which we live today, only with less freedom and power for creators, instead of more.

Some of those who believe in the internet as a force for positive change are concerned by this apparent trend. Jaron Lanier, the' father of virtual reality' and an early internet pioneer, has been very vocal about the unforeseen consequences wrought by the 'open and free' culture movement. By making web 'content' (an awful Web 2.0 coinage that in itself seems to diminish the hard work of creators) free, you deprive it of value and thereby create the odd circumstances in which people who profess to love music/film/TV/books feel entitled to 'share' what they do not own on BitTorrent sites. As Pete Tonwnshend said in his talk: 'We now live in a digital world in which the only absolute is work by the hour. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, plumbers, painters, truck drivers, farmers, pilots, cleaners, actors, musicians – they all get paid for work done as a clock ticks. Creative work is not like that. Any one of the people listed above could create a method that would help other people to do their job in their place... However, if someone pretends to be me, or pretends that something I have created should be available to them free (because creativity has less value than an hour's work by me as a musician in a pub) I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.'

*CLARIFICATION* The entertainment or 'copyright industries' that bleat about the need for more censorious laws to limit internet piracy are barking up the wrong tree and should be opposed. Their plight is really a side issue in a much wider debate which I am attempting to address. Large movie studios and record labels are perfectly capable of defending themselves. As far as I am concerned, what happens to the copyright or 'cultural industries' is less of a concern than what happens to Culture and Creativity per se. What we should be aiming towards is a system in which people who are motivated by passion and the desire to innovate have the freedom to do so and it is my contention that the most effective way of granting people that freedom is to devise a way for them to make money from their efforts. We need to make a distinction between the big guy and the little guy because whereas big business can stand the losses, when people pirate the little guy, they are reaching into his pocket and robbing him of his ability to support himself through his art.

Pete Townshend was himself guilty of perpetuating an unhelpful myth about artists in his talk when he said that his 'inner artist' 'don't give a shit about making money'. The only artists who 'don't give a shit about making money' are those who already have enough to live comfortable lives. We should all be so lucky. Money is never the primary motivation for the creative artist, but that does not meant it is not important. An artist who cannot make money from their art has no choice but to do something else to earn their keep, which inevitably distracts from their creative endeavours. Creative freedom and the time to create – that is what I am about. It just so happens that money enough to live on makes those things a hell of a lot easier. *CLARIFICATION ENDS*

The tricky part is, of course, working out how to utilise the communicative power of the internet to enable artists to earn enough money to be free to create, while also reaching an appreciative audience. As Pete Townshend correctly identified in his talk:

What creative people want is to know their music has been heard. They would prefer a response that was constructive than a positive or negative review. They would prefer expertise to opinion. They would like to know the public if they had a chance to hear the music, also had a chance to make up their own minds. They would prefer that in the long term the public were willing to pay for their music. But looking at the John Peel model what is clear is that just knowing there was a chance the great man would listen, react and offer the music on air, for whatever reason, was enough for budding musicians and bands.

That is where we must be going. Musicians need to be heard, to be judged, if possible to be paid, but also allowed to believe they had more than a single chance to get a hit. Software systems that offer this model will survive and prevail – loved and embraced by musicians of every sort – whatever happens financially.

Ted Nelson's network

As I have already said, I am sceptical about the idea of giving digital copies away away for free; there probably is a place for a certain among of that, but it is not a long term solution. Jaron Lanier's proposes that we look back to the work of early internet pioneers as a means of inspiration. He say that we need to rediscover the idea of the internet as a globally distributed peer-to-peer network connecting people directly to other people. In the globally networked system envisioned by Ted Nelson in the 1950s, there was substantially less machine intermediation and just one logical copy of every digital file – much the same way as there is on iTunes today (there are back-ups and the file is cached on local exchanges, but as far as the user is concerned there is only one logical copy), and instead of being free (as in gratis) users had to pay to access content, sending micro-payments zipping back and forth between the various participants. This proposal probably seems even more radical today than it did at the time because now people know what the internet is and it is nothing like what Ted Nelson envisaged.

Certainly Ted Nelson' ideas raise as many questions as they answer, but that to me is their great strength. The Ted Nelson scheme might not be ideal, but neither is the current status quo. Parts of the internet need to be protected: namely, its openness – anyone who can pay the nominal fee to own a domain name can post online. Wereas other parts should be being questioned: the medium's apparent inability to make money for all but a chosen few – the companies that Jaron Lanier refers to as 'The Lords of the Clouds' (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.). Above all else, the Ted Nelson model reminds us that we options; there is nothing inevitable or natural about the internet and its inherent biases. By imagining an internet different to the one that we have now, we can look again with fresh eyes and imagine how it might be made better.

The debate about the future of the internet and content online needs to move beyond polarising debates that insist people make a choice between one extreme (open, free and, as Jaron Lanier fears, an impoverished middle class) or another (closed, controlled by corporations, with spying everywhere, all the time). The current debate seems to needlessly reflect the binary nature of computer systems, whereas what we should be striving towards is a network that protects the freedoms of citizens and places people at its centre, enabling them to profit from the contents of their hearts and minds.

My prescription is very simple. The internet is surely an ideal medium for various forms of direct distribution, so, the people who read, watch and listen to the articles, books, films and music that other people create and post online should pay them for it? Ta dah! What is wrong with that?


Pete Townshend's John Peel lecture

Cory Doctorow's talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007

Jaron Lanier, You are Not a Gadget (2010) - Digital Artists - Keyword description


Post a Comment

<< Home