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Despite the Downturn: Now with Flavor(wire)

Three new and substantial articles covering Despite the Downturn: An Answer Album have been published this week. Despite the Downturn is the various-artists collection (housed at archive.org) that I put together in response to an article written by Megan McArdle in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic (“The Freeloaders,” at theatlantic.com) about the current challenges facing the music industry. Each of the album’s tracks interprets the illustration that accompanied McArdle’s article as if it were a musical score. (A detail of the image, by the talented artist Jeremy Traum, appears at left as the “cover” of the album.)

Over at flavorwire.com, Max Willens wrote a well-crafted overview of the project. His story carries the splendid title “What ‘The Death of the Music Industry’ Really Sounds Like.” It includes this careful listen to, and appraisal of, how the album functions:

Despite the Downturn’s composers used a fascinating range of materials to create their pieces: public domain recordings of Beethoven’s “Adieu au piano,”field recordings of children playing outside in the summer, sampled bits of NES games, Risset tones, and more. They were scrambled, reconfigured, and manipulated in ways most people have never heard before. Depending on one’s mood, they can sound either stranded or intrepid, defiant or lonely, incomprehensible or exciting. They are also pieces of music that would have been impossible to produce just a few years ago. They may be part of McArdle’s vision, labors of love produced in spare moments. But they also embody the new creative possibilities that enable musical dialog as well as collaboration, and Weidenbaum relishes the opportunity to spur those conversations forward.

That flavorwire.com article draws on a two-part interview Willens conducted with me over the weekend on the the album’s development, as well as on the music-culture issues that lend the project context. Here is a key section from the first part of the interview (published yesterday, at weallmakemusic.com), about whether the musicians involved in the project “confront the massive uncertainties facing both their art and, possibly, their livelihoods,” as Willens put it. I responded, in part:

[W]hile the decline of the record industry has made a lot of people who aren’t musicians think about the livelihoods of musicians, I think musicians are, generally speaking, all too familiar with the fragile relationship between producing art and eating a full meal, and have been for a long time, long before the arrival of MP3 players and Rapidshare. All the musicians I contacted initially for Despite the Downturn were ones who are already very much at home with music being something that one might give away for free — that is, give away the opportunity to listen to it, and to have it in a form, a DRM-free audio file, that allows the audience to listen to it when and where they choose.

Here’s a key section from the second part of the interview (published today, at weallmakemusic.com), in which I respond to a question about the false divide between creator and consumer that is inherent in the perspective represented in McArdle article:

Music territorializes our minds. All art, all communication, territorializes our minds. That’s what riffs and hooks and melodies and lyrics do. I am going to see the musical based on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, and I re-listened to the album for the first time in, easily, five years, maybe 10, and I still knew every single word by heart. And I could sing or hum along with every little lick that Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd played on their guitars, even these tiny filigrees that are little more than minor flashes of feedback. The current legislation of copyright in regard to fixed recordings simply doesn’t allow people to access their own memories, literal and figurative. Rob Zombie tells a great story, a sad one really, about not being able to use Super 8 footage of himself and his brother as kids at McDonald’s in a music video because, well, it’s McDonald’s — and well, you know, it may be McDonald’s, but it’s also a kid’s memories, an adult’s memories of when he was a kid, and the laws as they’re currently enforced protect the interests of companies who actively territorialize our memories and then charge us to access them. Lawrence Lessig has done tremendous work in pushing to revise these laws, but we have a long way to go. Can you imagine how a John Coltrane or Charlie Parker would feel hemmed in today? “Oh, man, I felt myself wanting to drop in a little bit of ‘Tea for Two’ when I was soloing, but I was too worried some ASCAP or RIAA spy in the audience was gonna tap my wages. Glad I caught myself.”

Over at twitter.com/flavorpill, the announcement of the flavorwire.com article read:

flavorpill: Our “sounds of the death of the music biz” article features “despite the downturn”, composed by @disquiet http://su.pr/5nfgBg

To be clear, I didn’t compose the Despite the Downturn album — though allowing for a meta-definition, the word “compose” works well, and intentionally or not the use gets to the heart of the copyright and collaborative-creativity issues ignored by McArdle’s article.

Speaking of copyright, I woke to find an email from Richard Stallman in my inbox this morning, and it led me to alter one particular thing at the archive.org page where Despite the Downturn compilation is housed. I swapped in “copyright” in one place where I had initially written “intellectual property,” which I had employed as a loose synonym for copyright, entirely in error. They are two related but different terms.

PS: Update (as of May 12): Stallman said later via correspondence that it’s fine to reprint his email:

I found your article TheDownturnAnAnswerAlbum a clever response to The Atlantic. However, in one point it undermines itself by incorporating the adversary’s propaganda term: the pseudo-concept “intellectual property”. That term lumps together a dozen different laws which have nothing important in common. Those laws work differently and have different practical results. Thus, generalizing about them can only mislead. Your article’s real topic is clear and coherent: one law, copyright. It doesn’t include patents, trade secrets, trademarks, publicity rights, controlled geographical designations, or any of the other dozen laws that some call “intellectual property”. With this clear and coherent topic, the article can be clear too, and mosty it is. However, where it uses the term “intellectual property” instead of “copyright”, it trades the clear topic for a confused one. When I noted how this term tends to confuse every discussion it appears in, I decided to avoid it. In the several years since then, I have never had an occasion to use the term. I mention whichever law is really the issue. These laws are so different that it is never useful to generalize about them. When others do so, the best thing for me to do is to respond by explaining how that is confused. So I’d like to suggest that you change the article, replacing “intellectual property” with “copyright”, which will make it sharp and clear all through. Thanks for listening. See gnu.org for a full explanation of the bias and confusion in “intellectual property” and why, we should firmly refuse to use it.

In closing, original Atlantic article is at theatlantic.com, the “answer album” (downloaded almost 1400 times in just over a week) at archive.org.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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