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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Music and Media

by Laurie Spiegel

Telharmonium City, USA
December, 1981

Until recently, the only way to disseminate information (info includes music, art, literature, etc.) has been by making material objects which store encoded versions of it and then moving them around from place to place. Only in the late 20th century has information begun to lead a life more independent of objects manufactured for sale. The developing independence of information from objects has only very recently begun to have noticeable impact on our culture. Examples of information transcending objectness include xeroxing from books, making cassette copies of records, videotaping programs off the air, and the separate distribution of pure storage media (blank tapes, film, etc.) from informational content (broadcasts, etc.).

Though this change may not be fully manifest and integrated into our culture for some time, the increased independence of information - artistic and otherwise - from storage media (objects), due to the development of duplication technologies, has several effects which can already be discussed. One is that, up to now, the important questions about distribution have pertained to who controls the presses, who has the power to make objects and move them around (Marx would say, "who controls the means of production"). Instead, the important questions relate increasingly to a new economy of power based on who controls info sources which can be accessed and copied. Access to the stuff that info can be copied onto - and to the copying devices themselves - is a less critical question, as these media are increasingly plentiful, reusable, and cheap.

If access to (artistic) information is handled library or database style, important questions will also include how to get the stuff which you want other people to be able to copy into such accessable places. A second question concerns who, or what criteria, are to select what goes in, or whether everything should be accepted, as is now true for the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. The amount of available information will soon become astronomical, if no selection criteria are excercised over what individuals can enter into a public access archive.

A most crucial question, with great political, economic, aesthetic, and cultural impact, is that of how to let people know that something new has been entered into the public info facility and what it is. Whether entries are carefully selected or whether absolutely everything is accepted, people who wish to access entries will be completely dependent on how works are categorized, described, and organized. Another question concerns what kind of credit, royalty, or bookkeeping system will ensure that creators get something out of the use of their work.

The economics of traditional painterly art and of the formal concert are based on the value of the unique work or experience. This is itself a corollary of the no longer valid premise that replicated information is inevitably degraded from some pristine original state, and is therefore significantly less valuable. In addition to virtually eliminating informational loss through reproduction, we now also have artist and music works created explicitly for media which were originally designed only for storage or reproduction. These include tape, photocopying, film, and all digital media. (Literature has consisted for centuries of works designed specifically for reproduction.)

The economics of the arts of the future may well be founded on the intrinsic worth of the composed information itself, what Marxists might call "use" value as opposed to "exchange" value. That is, the image the artist creates will not derive its value (or its sales price) from its status as a material object (as an instrument of investment or of economic exchange) nor from the idea that only one instance of a work fully or properly embodies the creator's intent. It will derive its value, from its informational content, from people's wanting to look at it or hear it.

The determination of the value of a work which is made for duplication will be based on how (how many, how often) individuals pull it into their lives from wherever it is available. Such a populist criterion need not limit the availability of less popular works the way today's distribution bottlenecks do. Availability of masters for duplication would be a different kind of economics from the usual record or publishing situation in which a minimum "threshhold" of mass distribution must be practically guaranteed for any distribution to occur at all.

We can establish two extremes of how artistic value is assessed which corollate with distribution methods. One pole of this spectrum consists of unique non-replicable art objects which are inherently valuable as media of exchange. The opposite extreme consists of replicable art which is valuable purely for its informational content (image, sound, ...), any instance of which can be cheaply and easily replaced, and for which cumulative economic value corrolates with number of copies circulated.

Records and photographic prints fall within the nether ground between these extremes. One of the reasons that photography had a hard time establishing itself as a "legitimate" fine art form was that the artworld didn't know how to integrate works which could be identically replicated at will into a traditional art economy based on unique instances. Recording seemed less problematic to the music world at first because recordings were for so long so vastly inferior in audio quality to live performances that they were conceived of solely as documentation or as inferior surrogate experiences. It was the late 1960's before the first music was composed directly for mass reproduction (for phonograph), before the duplicable form of a creation began to be accepted as in some cases the truest purest representation of an artist's intent. (This is the stage at which performers began to be afraid of not being able to play the piece on the record as well live, and groups realized they risked being unable to duplicate multitrack studio effects in live concerts.)

Once scarcity (including uniqueness) no longer functions as a means of keeping the values of aesthetic works high, new methods for keeping values up must be found by the distribution "establishment" lest they find themselves in financial trouble. Most of the replicable (for newer media) music and art (records, posters) produced in our culture are therefore governed by the concept of planned obsolescence. The numbering of editions of prints and records, in which quality need no longer degrade during a press run, is another artificial means of generating equity by an obsolete economic mechanism, by creating an artificial scarcity, or at least a criterion of relative valuation for individual instances of a work. (The genuine rarity of mass produced "art" items due to the passage of time, such as in the audiophile rare record market, is more closely related to the antique economics of scarce antiques themselves than to the creative arts and how they will evolve.)

Though the uniqueness of concert experience still holds aesthetic value, performance's transience and non-objectness have all along prevented music from functioning as a means of exchange or form of equity, a fate which has had profound (devastating?) consequences for sculpture and painting. While producing aestheticly doubious results, this economic situation has at least provided relatively high per-piece incomes for our most successful visual (object-producing) artists versus our most successful classical-tradition (not mass media oriented) composers. (The fact that many musicians began in the 1970s to make saleable visual objects, compatible with currently successful gallery wares, may relate to the inequality of reward between these artistic media.)

What else might result from the increasing independence of info (art/music) from objects? For one thing, the bottleneck of a small number of centralized powerful manufacturers of information objects (records, books, etc.) is threatened. A distributional bottleneck is in itself a form of scarcity (by the old law of "supply and demand"), a scarcity of means of disseminating works, and this is the basis of the producer/distributor's power over both artist and culture. This could/might/will/must change.

The role of the creator and the function of making something publicly available can cease to be categorically separated. One way might be through public archives where masters are available for duplication (for a small royalty to the maker). Increasingly, such archives are likely to be accessible to the public in the form of "databases" bi-directionally accessible from home computers over the telephone lines. While cheap fast high quality digital music players and image displays are not yet commonly available, they will be within the next decade(s). The act (work and cost) of making copies becomes the responsibilities of the "consumer."

Already, creation and distribution, traditionally divided between different specialists, are beginning to be done by the same individuals. On one hand, composers, writers, etc. have begun producing their own works (producing records, publishing books...) out of frustration, despite the added financial and temporal burdens. On the other hand, producers have taken to designing works for release as objects (e.g. disco records) using creative artists - if at all - only as highly skilled technicians. Because it's easier (cheaper) to manufacture new objects well than to design new information well, there has been an increasing trend toward the repackaging of pre-existing info (e.g. videocassettes of old movies, and the nostalgia boom in records and posters), further undermining the traditional creator-producer symbiosis.

If distribution falls more to the taker than to the maker, if replication can be more cheaply done by those who seek out and want to acquire the work (copying onto reusable objects as opposed to buying pre-manufactured new single-use ones) than by companies that inflate prices with budgets to convince others to buy them (advertising), the way aesthetic works are economically valued will change. Works may be measured more referendum-style in the future, by how many people are interested enough to make copies. The cost of archiving accessible copyable data is much mower than the cost of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping thousands of non-reusable object-forms copies. This should allow wirks with very small audiences to become available as easily as works with mass appeal.

Other problems that creative artists have will not be so transformed, though, such as spending time alone making someting that nobody else may ever want or understand, or of the temptation to make something more popular (remunerative or "commercial") instead of something more personally meaningful to oneself, nor will other difficulties inherent in art and creative thought be likely to diminish.

Copyright ©1981,1995 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.