1000 Words about Free Music
I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones. -- John Cage
In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. --Aristotle, Physics, VI: 9, 239b15
Warning: This text contains uncredited samples. The smart reader is advised to search for terms in various sentences to find out the context. Simply copy and paste them into a decent search engine, and see what else pops up in the browser.
These days in the beginnings of the 21st century, we’re faced with a kind of social entropy. Whenever one is exposed to the financial world there’s a kind of surrealism to the situation. Credit default swaps, futures markets, financial instruments: these are terms based on complex, expensive loans that most people don’t understand. But what makes all of this converge on the topic I’m writing about – “economics” as it relates to cultural production -- is a kind of pro-forma switch between artististic practice, and how the world is represented. Think of it this way: economics, the “dismal science” is for most people the “real” of the real, the financial underpinnings of modern life in an information based economy. Let’s take a look at the root word of economics:
“Eco” is derived from the Greek term “oikonomia” (oikos – “house” and nomos – “custom”). It’s resonant with the later Latin derived term “credit” derived from creder which simply means simply “to believe.”
This is exactly what the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, meant when he said “all money is a matter of belief.” Or even more when he said “on the road from the City of Skepticism, I had to pass through the Valley of Ambiguity.” What kind of music comes out of these statements? Here’s the basic scenario: when you face the idea that digital reproduction equals infinite abundance, the result is basically that you have so many options available, that the normal business model of scarcity simply no longer applies: and so music should be free. It’s that simple. Infinite amount of copies equals zero value. The abundance of music, its low cost, wide spread availability, contributes to the sense that all musics from every part of recorded history are equally available, and can be mixed together into new forms. In the simplest of terms, anything that can be digital, will be. And that scenario, in turn, fosters the end of normal economics in the “culture industry.” Basic vibe: if you’re a musician, you need to update your business model, and think about many, many, many different ways to earn an income.
In the 21st century we face so many variables about what it means to “believe” in a system: a computer operating system? A church? A “lifestyle?” I love to play with these kinds of conjunctions, because, put simply, that’s about all that makes any of this make sense: it’s all a kind of theater, a place where we create roles, and read from a script made of numbers that many of us don’t understand. Ask your average person on the street – we in the U.S. face a scenario from Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s film “Wall Street” where he sneers at the belief of the audience in morality; he simply says “90 percent of Americans have no net worth.” Almost true…
If we go back a little ways, and think this idea through, we come up with some different issues. What some economists are calling “social capital” comes into play, it gives a sense of dynamism to the way we think about “intangible goods” and comes into direct collision with the norms of a capitalist society based on scarcity. Got it? It’s been a while since 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. If we turn things upside down and think about the “values system” of American capitalism versus, say, what’s going on in post-Mao China, we can see things looking like this: in 1989 the claim was made that what had been defeated was not an enemy -- the Soviet Union -- but rather the entire opposition to capitalism. Neoliberal author Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached "the end of history," because from that point on there would only be capitalism and continuous growth, unrestrained by annoying things like Federal regulation, etc. You can see where that got us. Ask Goldman Sachs, Bernie Maddoff, or anyone else involved with the financial fictions of the Bush era.
Recall and rewind: the script of our era is what theorist Arjun Appadurai likes to call the “social life of things” or what philosopher Alain Badiou simply called “theory of the subject.” We reflect, we generate intangible links and connections between tastes, styles, and above all, the way we combine those tastes and styles. That’s the catch with digital media and music; there is no “there” -- everything is routed between connections, and end points are material for the scrapheap of post-modernity.
Post-everything music asks this: why pay for anything? Why not just create the gift economy that we all live in and call it quits. The way the law is written, and the way we live, simply part ways. The old world production model – scarcity always seemed annoying and physical. I want to see people’s imaginations take flight, create their own values, and a soundtrack to go with it, to inspire new forms for new ways of living. To get rid of the 20th century’s old physical forms, and to become an emotive, free space. That’s the basic idea for 21st century aesthetics – here and now, is always. Dig?
Finance of fictions. Fictions of finance. How does music factor into this entertainment industry? What’s the matter with finance? Start with the fact that the modern financial industry generates huge profits and paychecks, yet delivers few tangible benefits. Remember the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” in which Gordon Gekko declared: Greed is good? By today’s standards, Gekko was a piker. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the financial industry accounted for a third of total domestic profits -- about twice its share two decades earlier.
These profits were justified, we were told, because the industry was doing great things for the economy. It was channeling capital to productive uses; it was spreading risk; it was enhancing financial stability. None of those were true. Capital was channeled not to job-creating innovators, but into an unsustainable housing bubble; risk was concentrated, not spread; and when the housing bubble burst, the supposedly stable financial system imploded, with the worst global slump since the Great Depression as collateral damage.
For most of us these days, the fact is that much of the financial industry has become synonymous with the term “racket” -- a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit consumers and investors -- but which also comes from a humorously resonant term that simply means “to make a lot of noise.” I love to think about credit, finance, and noise as terms that lend themselves to systems of belief – tuning systems, harmony of markets, and utopian derivatives. Stuff like that. And if we don’t lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on. That is what I mean when I say free music. Bring the noise. NOW.
The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. --John Cage
If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience. --John Cage
Image by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³, courtesy of Creative Commons license.