• Decommodifying Music

last modified August 17, 2012 by strypey

by Danyl Strype

In today's society music, like milk, is farmed, processed and sold. Rather than being a spontaneous transformation of the milk of everyday life into sonic yoghurt by a free cultural process, the music industry treats musicians as cash cows. Their product is pumped out of them by the machinery of the record contract and pastuerized by the censorship of mass-produced pop culture and compressed by the corporate marketing machine into hard cheese for everyone except for the blue vein of the corporate elite.

Who benefits from this industrial treatment of music? Not the artists, who must sell the rights to their work in order to gain access to the means of distribution which the six major media corporations monopolize. Not the audiences who must pay for over-inflated CDs and concert tickets and can access only those forms of music which are considered marketable by the gatekeepers of popular culture.

The only class which seems to benefit from the dominant form of musical manufacture are the shareholders of the major labels and their pseudo-independent subsidiaries. The commericalization of music, like so many other aspects of modern society, is a tool for the concentration of wealth and the majority of musicians are as exploited as any other industrial worker.

So what forms of resistance exist to this rampant commodification? Firstly there is the immediatist response - to make music only for the pleasure of the players and never perform it publicly or record it. Then there is the DIY movement championed by punk bands like Crass, where bands are encouraged to manage themselves, organise their own shows in whatever venue is available - ideally all-age, non-commercial ones - make their own records and run 'distros' to trade them with other bands. The DIY philosophy has been remarkably successful within the various punk subgenres with warehouse venues, garage rehearsal rooms, home studios and small scale labels and distros springing in and out of existence all over the world. To some degree the same DIY ethos can be seen at work within other musical subcultures such as the underground dance party movement or the lo-fi and indie pop genres. But although DIY has kept an independent musical muse alive it has yet to become a publicly-accepted alternative to the corporate world and thousands of young music writers and performers are still trapped into exploitation by the promise of fame, fortune and album sales.

As well as DIY there are also the independent labels often run by cult celebrities. Examples include Alternative Tentacles run by Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys' fame and Epitaph run by Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion. The major problem with the 'indies' being that they are still businesses, bound by the structural injustices of the state-corporate system. Each indie could potentially become a major of the future, be bought up by one of the majors or turn out to be a sub-label created by a major to niche market more edgy musical commodities to more skeptical alternative music consumers.

If the hands of the corporate ogre are to be removed from the neck of the music world, there needs to be a way for all of the people involved in these anti-corporate organisations to pool their resources and form a transnational co-operation that I have dubbed Indymusic. I envision a global network of open content websites that showcase independent music along the lines of the way Indymedia currently provides alternative news.

Each site would include:

  • Features on non-corporate bands, venues, labels etc.
  • An open-publishing 'music-wire' down the right-hand side of the page which artists could use to announce the release of a single, tour dates or any other news about their musical activities
  • A database of music encoded using .ogg (the open source Ogg Vorbis format (http://www.vorbis.com/) with info on the artist and how to donate to them (a la www.adoptaband.com) or buy their recordings. Artists could put the song and their artist info in the database for music fans and even radio stations to download for their playlists. Ideally that archive would also be linked to some of the popular file-sharing networks, especially the open source Gnutella network (http://www.gnutella.com/).

Another part of the concept is for each local Indymusic group to also be affiliated to a community recording facility - an Independent Sound Centre - where the music can be produced, converted to .ogg and audio CDs made, recycled cardboard cases and slicks made, etc. This facility could also involve video artists making music videos and burning them to DVD. The Independent Sound Centres could fund themselves by burning and selling compilations and albums of each other's local artists. The concept would be communicated in a 'copyleft' open content license (http://www.creativecommons.org/) that would mirror the way open source software licenses guarantee the freedom of anyone to distribute the content free or for a fee negotiated with the buyer.

The Indymusic network could also help bands tour, providing accomodation and help with finding venues, support bands etc. If the costs and stress of touring can be reduced to the point that playing live becomes a viable and enjoyable living for artists, they can stop stressing about shifting units and celebrate the fact that fans anywhere in the world can download their music free or buy it cheap from their local Indymusic centre.

How can you help? It depends on what skills and resources you can offer. The first thing you can do is help to circulate and develop this proposal. If you have access to computer equipment, especially internet servers and bandwidth we are going to need that to run the indymusic sites. We will need graphical designers and web language programmers to build and maintain the sites. We will need sound-proof spaces or space in no-noise-control areas for the Independent Sound Centres. We will need instruments, amps, microphones, mixers, cables, computers and other equipment as well as the engineering and teaching time of capable sound recordists for the recording, digitizing and CD-making aspects of the ISCs. We will need people to help raise funds and promote the concept to the community.

At the moment I'm looking for input from artists about the proposal and to see how they would feel about using such a system. I would really appreciate it if you could talk to any musos you know and pass my email address strypey@riseup.net around for feedback. If the level of freedom in a supposedly democratic society can be guaged by looking at the independence of its artists, journalists and historians then we have a lot of work to do before we should presume to call ourselves a free people.

Anti-Copyright July 2003 by Danyl Strype. May be reproduced freely for non-profit purposes provided that the author is credited, with either his e-mail address or website (http://strypey.orcon.net.nz/indymusic.html) link included.

  (note: this Anti-Copyright statement was made before I became aware of CreativeCommons, and about three years before I started kickstarted the Aotearoa port of the CC licenses. Although I used the phrase "Anti-Copyright", popular among leftist anarchists, the conditions I attached then equate to the CC-Attribution-Non-Commercial. As the copyright holder, I am invoking my right to reissue my work under a new license - see below)

Originally published in Boheme Magazine (September, 2003)


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