By Marc Weidenbaum
By and large, I don’t merely drink but regularly swim in the brand, flavor, and vintage of Kool-Aid that Lawrence Lessig serves up.
The issues that are central to Remix, and to Lessig’s work in general, are fairly core to my own understanding of cultural consumption and of the roles of artists and consumers, and the institutions and technologies that mediate the relationship between them.
If what he’s getting at is that the 20th century was an anomaly in the way that music (for the sake of our conversation here at ArtsJournal.com), as well as other culture, is produced and enjoyed–that the direct association of a piece of “content” (some music or writing) and its physical manifestation (a CD, a book) was something that didn’t exist during life before piano rolls and vinyl recordings, and won’t exist after the Internet/MP3s/etc. has fully supplanted CDs/DVDs/etc. … well, then, certainly, I agree.
But, of course, agreement isn’t enough. That’s just preaching to the choir, which isn’t exactly what Lessig’s talking about when he gets nostalgic for Sousa’s concern about people gathering in communal song.
Plans for what to do about this transition–how to navigate it–are necessary. And despite the book’s orderly three-part structure (status report, economic context, legal proposal), I didn’t come away feeling newly prepared to negotiate what’s necessary to decriminalize casual/amateur sampling, let alone to convince a corporate entity to change its long-held sense that intellectual property should be protected at all costs.
In regard to the latter, there are fine examples in the book of companies that have woken to the value of their readers/users/constituents’ role as something other than pure consumers–from the experiences at Warner Bros. in regard to fans’ curation of the myth of Harry Potter to (and I would have liked to read more of this) Microsoft’s shepherding of the user-monitored technical-support groups. That kind of learning on the part of a large company arguably could have been the sole subject of the book. The focus may have worked in its favor.
It’s the former area, though, where Remix really didn’t seem to fulfill the promise of its subtitle, because throughout the book, Lessig draws a pretty clear distinction between moms who have posted video of their kids dancing to Prince songs, and large businesses protecting their intellectual property. My issue with that is the distinction itself, which I think is getting foggier and blurrier and more ambiguous, and will get all the more so. People are spending increasing time consuming casually produced content, from the broad realm of home videos to more specific subcultures like machinima–time that traditionally has been spent consuming mass-produced, mass-distributed culture. In effect, this amateur/fan-produced content has become a kind of long tail, to use the de rigueur term that Lessig does to describe the narrowly popular realms of culture that, all combined, in fact account for much of cultural consumption. As that kind of consumption of music (and film, and writing) becomes a bigger slice of the media-consumption pie, then even if the individual examples are casual the overall phenomenon no longer is.
Anyhow, for starters, that’s the key issue that I came away from Remix wondering how to reconcile. I look forward to reading everyone else’s take, and discussing further.