Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Music Industry, Capital, The Means Of Production And Reproduction

The Music Industry, Capital, The Means Of Production And Reproduction

Vinyl Inner Sleeve circa 1981
March 4, 2007 at 8:01 pm 
I was watching a recent interview with Blixa Bargeld from German rock band Einstuerzende Neubauten last night, and he mentioned the late capitalist vagaries regarding copyright and the technology of reproduction. He stated that the music industry is going to hell. How he hadn’t yet quite thought it through, but how he thought copyright should only apply to music that benefits humanity, unlike, according to him, 98% of music does at the moment. That, in any case, current developments in file sharing technology make a joke of copyright. Echoes of Adorno (another Central European wary of silly illusions) there; and of course the question of just which music would constitute the 2% benefiting humanity, kinda goes begging (presumably Blixa’s own would be included in that). That’s because nowadays, if anyone dared raise the spectre of a theory of aesthetics in which the value of art is based on something inherent to it, he would still be shot down in flames by soldiers in the Postmodernism Crusade. Which may not just quite yet be a bad thing, as the old institutions of music haven’t just as yet been totally Spiritualized according to the Postmodern Ideal (after that Hegelian fashion). In any case, lots of people still buy CDs and engage in exchange with the music industry. I even know some people who still respect copyright just because they have an old-fashioned respect for the Law.
But an interesting point is raised notwithstanding, as there’s no doubt that the music industry is indeed on its own particular Highway to Hell, what with the totally unbelievable leaps and bounds in the technology of reproduction that we have witnessed over the last decade. Ten years ago, I was still taping stuff off the radio onto cassette. Not being much of a technological innovator myself, the idea of playing music on my computer, let alone downloading it from the internet didn’t even occur to me in my wildest dreams (after all, back then it would still take a good two minutes just to load a page with some lyrics and photos of your favourite band down into your browser and my hard-drive in 1997 had a capacity of some 36 MB - that's right Mega Bytes not Giga Bytes). Nowadays, we have things like BitTorrent, single file P2P, MP3, CD burning and DVD burning: all stalwarts of computer age reproduction. If I feel like revisiting the Twin Peaks TV series like I did last weekend for instance, I could just go onto a torrent search site like BT Junkie, look it up, wait 18 hours and there’s the whole 32 or so episodes on my computer for me to watch at my leisure or burn as VCD/DVD. Or, indeed, if I feel like downloading all of Einstuerzende Neubauten’s back catalogue I only have to wait about 7 to 8 hours on my ADSL connection. And then there it is, waiting to be transferred to my MP3 player, or burnt to CD. [Update: now that ADSL2+ has become ubiquitous it's possible to get your downloads in 25% of the times just listed.] In terms of quality and availability we have come almost impossibly far within the space of just ten years. Such rapid progress has rocked the foundations of the music industry which has reacted aggresively and has basically gone berserk, suing grandmothers and even dead people for illegal downloading and file sharing. Bad PR move, but surprising? Not really.
That’s because in capitalist terms, as far as the music industry is concerned, the means of production has all but been stolen from the hands of those who held it: the record companies. Or so they would have you believe. Except that it was never really a means of production in the first place, it was always a means of reproduction really. The music industry needs to be split into two distinct categories: those who produce the music (the artists, the musicians, the composers, the performers) and those who mass-reproduce the music for the consumer (the record companies). Before P2P and file sharing and alternative forms of mass reproduction, indeed before digital reproduction in general, the only options for it were the vinyl record and then later the cassette tape. The cassette tape in fact represents reproductive technology in transition – but more on that in a minute.
A brief historical analysis: At advent, there was performance and manuscript (and before even that, just memory and tradition). Composers would write music, that music would be performed “live” and people would go to concerts to see it being produced, in a very original sense of production. People were actually making music when you listened to it, and they would be paid for their work of playing instruments. Music was written down by composers on paper in the format of a music score, who presumably, would be paid a commision if they weren’t actually conducting their own music, which was the preferential thing in the bad old days of authenticity and psychologism. However, in the age of writing, people die before records expire. Written records not having expired, to reproduce it you needed a conductor and players of musical instruments to interpret what was on the score. The reproduction of music was all accomplished in abstract, symbolic forms back then. On the practical level, in order to actually hear music, it still had to be performed though. Conceivably, a really, really smart human being would have been able to read a score and “hear” the music in his head, thus bypassing the means of musical production, but for most of the human race, listening to music being reproduced meant shelling out cash to hear it being peformed.
Then along came the vinyl record. Now there was a way of recording the actual performance in a way such that anyone with a record player could reproduce a performance any time they wanted to hear it, anywhere that a record could be made to spin. Now we have reproduction, not in a symbolic or abstract manner, but in a manner which directly corresponds to or represents the original performance and music could be disseminated to the masses anywhere and everywhere. In other words, there was a massive paradigm shift, from the symbolic to the iconic.
On some level, I could stop right there. Everything we know about reproducing in 2007 is a direct outcome of this massive paradigm shift, the ability to record, reproduce and disseminate the actual event itself as opposed to representing it symbolically on paper. Any MP3 is just a glorified 78RPM single. The difference between the vinyl record and the MP3 is that a vinyl record was neither that cheap or easy to make. To do it you needed quite a bit of expensive, hard-to-get stuff. For this reason, a music “industry” sprang up, which catered to the needs of the masses. Record companies recorded, manufactured and distributed records and the masses bought them and the equipment on which to play them. There was nothing evil about this of course. It was the best cost to ratio solution available. Without it we probably would never have seen rock ‘n’ roll or punk or jazz or blues on the scale that we did. I wonder what Adorno thought of vinyl qua product itself in fact? Regardless of whether, as John Cage showed us, there was anything on it or not?
However now we have a profit making industry, with capital, controlling the means of reproduction of music. Except of course, they never saw it that way. For them, it was literally, a means of production. For them the music could never be primary or paramount – it was the piece of plastic the consumer took home that was paramount. Hence, copyright, for every piece of plastic that is copied in some way is also likely a piece of plastic that is not sold. But I’m digressing.
Next along came the cassette tape. And its associated equipment the cassette player/recorder. By the late 70’s, portable stereo cassette recorders had become fairly cheap and blank cassettes were taking off. I know this because I remember my parents getting one of them in ‘78 or so (when I was 6) and me buying my first ever Philips C90 blank cassette for a rijksdaalder ($2.50) in Holland and quickly proceeding to tape all my favourite songs off the radio. Illegally of course. But here’s the rub – and here’s where the big record companies should have taken notice in the first place.
Suddenly, there was the ability to make stereo, good quality recordings of records or radio in your own home with a little portable machine. Sound familar? That’s because it is. And even though it was theoretically illegal for little seven year old me to copy stuff from the radio or from records, as these recordings had copyright invested in them, who seriously is gonna police such stuff? In any case, cassette copies reproduced an inferior, much reduced quality version of the purchased reproduction and cassettes tended to get chewed up by the cassette player and generally wear out pretty quickly. Also, you could only make one copy at a time for your mates, copied in real-time (or “2x writing speed” if you had a hi-speed dub machine as was common in the 80’s, although the quality would be rather bad). No real threat then. Nonetheless, by the time I was in late high school, it was everyday common practice for me and my friends to be swapping copies of albums with each other all over the place, copyright (which none of us had ever even heard of) notwithstanding, and for every copy that was made, the record company didn’t sell one. Unless we got really taken by what we heard and had to have the actual album itself, which was quite often the case.
Record companies should never have gotten into the cassette market. Cassettes were always terrible quality and by selling them as legitimate formats, terrible sounding things that they were, they just formally legitimated a bourgeoining culture of copying. Notwithstanding its limited scope, by 1980 a culture of copying was firmly entrenched. Of course, to get the real thing, you still had to buy that piece of plastic, vinyl (preferably) or pre-recorded cassette. Although the quality of cassettes could be dubious at best compared to their copied counterparts, and the covers were total crap, there was still vinyl. No one could reproduce vinyl on vinyl and the fact that a vinyl record album was 12 inches in diameter, which meant its cover and cover art was also 12 square inches big made it something worth buying. Because what you bought couldn’t be reproduced. You couldn’t just go and make a vinyl copy of your vinyl because the equipment to make vinyl records was and still is just too expensive for almost everyone to afford. So, basically, because anyone over the age of 17 realized that vinyl was far superior to cassette in terms of quality, coyright was relatively safe.
Then along came digital music in a big way, circa 1989. CDs of course have been around since 1984, but 1989 is the year I remember them really taking off. CD players dropped to around $160 for the first time and me and lots of my friends converted. No doubt about it, the sound quality of CDs is far superior to either vinyl or cassette and they are much more versatile and long-lasting. But you couldn’t copy them except onto cassette. But we were dreaming of the day when a CD-recorded would be released. Although we didn't actually think one ever would be. We just assumed the record companies would sue the shite out of whoever dared manufacture a CD-dubber before any such machine ever got to market.
To cut a long story short, by 2000 there was MP3 and along came the legendary file-sharing service Napster and P2P technology. As I said, a culture of copying was already long entrenched thanks to the cassette tape and the cassette recorder. Suddenly, you could copy your CDs as MP3s and share them on the internet, and better yet, you could download other people’s copies over a phone line.
Now the record companies were lost. The means, not of production (because that will always ultimately belong to the musicians and composers themselves) but the means of reproduction were really and seriously taken out of the hands of the record companies for the first time. Now it was possible to distribute and share high quality copies of your music with total strangers, with anyone who cared to search for the file you made available on the sharing network. Suddenly the right to copy, copyright, became a real, present, public and serious issue for the first time since the technology to copy and distribute as well, on a mass scale was available, not just to record companies, but to everyone with a computer, a 56.6kbps modem, a phone line and a CD collection. And for all their lawsuits and legal action, the record companies haven’t got anywhere since. Got a BitTorrent client and an ADSL connection? Seven years ago it took on average two hours to download one 5 minute songs as an MP3. Now it takes 2 hours to download 3 or 4 albums on average with BitTorrent and ADSL. [Update Sep 2009: With ADSL2+ now the standard, it now of course takes only about 15 - 20 minutes to download an album when you've got got speeds going in your BitTorrent client.] You can’t take everyone to court. Copyright is a lost cause… That’s because the companies thought their capital was the means to produce a piece of plastic + copyright. But it wasn’t. They only ever had the means to reproduce. And you don’t own that…
What that means is that when you buy an album by Madonna you a buying a reproduction of an idealized original event: a musical performance. That performance concluded, the companies reproduce it and sell it to the public via a particular format. However the only capital really involved on their part is the studios, the recording equipment and the reproducing equipment and the pieces of golden plastic that sit on your shelves. Copyright implies that when you buy such a piece of plastic, you only buy the right to play it back to yourself, not reproduce it yourself even though you can. This was fine in the era of cassettes when reproduction quality was pretty awful. But now that we can make indistiguishable copies of the original on our home computers, and share them with anyone in the world, for free, bypassing the whole established system, and yep, record companies, are, in Blixa Bargeld’s apt words on their way to hell.
So what of the future? Will copyright just become an outmoded fossil of the primitive past? Probably. How can it do anything else? You can’t just ban capital like the technology to reproduce because you don’t like it, which is the irony of the free market, I guess. Although the record companies have tried everything in their power to restrict us from copying and sharing our music collections, the fact is that the capital involved on their part, on which they relied for an industry has now become available to everyone with a personal computer. Bad luck. What remains though is the capital belonging to musicians and composers: the art (or artefact, or ability) of making, composing and performing original music, and that is why perhaps what Blixa said about 2% of musicians retaining copyright is not so silly after all. However, it will be more like musicians selling their music to a small audience of core fans and focussing on live performance, rather than copyright being based on aesthetic theory. Interestingly, Blixa & the Neubauten have set up a supporters' website by which to evade and bypass the record companies. Their goal is to make an album which will be released only to fans who have paid money directly to them to hear the album. This is the way of the future. And it’s a great way really. It means the unhealthy pop cult of the mega-star which peaked in the 80’s with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince is well and truly over. Interestingly, since then Michael Jackson has died, Madonna just keeps going to ever-diminishing returns and Prince has more or less embraced the internet.
This great reproductive levelling will mean that people with real talent will get noticed not because someone in a company boardroom decides they should, but because people actually want to hear them. Even ITunes is a great star in the sky in this respect. I find I pay for music which is unavailable anywhere else, which is not available via other channels, and I am quite happy to pay for what I consider real high quality music – but I believe this is my choice when I am paying, not for a performance, but for a re-production of one. There is a complexed ethics at work here. I feel really good when I pay for an album by a small, independent band directly to their website, because I know my money is going straight to the band and those who helped them make the art, not to to fill the wallets of greedy record company execs. I feel much less sure about where my money's going if I buy through ITunes or BigPond Music. I do know that in that case maybe only 5 to 10% of my money is going to the producers of the content though. You have got to be extremely cynical about record companies when in relation to the internet digital media  market they insist on charging artists for things like "shipping costs" and "product insurance" (in case your shipload of CD sinks, it's insured) even though the downloader pays for "shipping costs" (internet traffic costs to their ISP) and a shipload of MP3s just can't get lost and destroyed. Pretty atrocious behaviour I would suggest.

As for a live performance, that great concert, you can’t ever reproduce that – that’s why musicians will always keep on playing. Long may they live, and live music performance, and let’s get reproduced music back where it belongs: into the Nietzchean realm of the Appolonian.

No comments: