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Blogger Book Club: So, Who Are You Calling an Amateur?

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.

Comments

  1. I believe that liberal licensing of music, literature and the arts offers a road forward more satisfying than either the agitprop Scylla of pirate bay or the grinding Charybdis of the dinosaur record industry.
    Mass produced corporate music began as a parlor activity, as the printing of sheet music spread the same songs to a set of home practitioners,
    creating a kind of early “virtual water cooler” of shared music. We spent nine decades in an evolution into a more stratified form of music distribution, in which musical talent/imagination were not the primary determinant, but instead the superior ability to control airplay, shelf space and marketing.
    The new technology, from home recording advances to easy internet distribution, changed the equation. The equation shift is not just that producers will be able to market music as effectively as music labels, given modest capital and imagination. It’s also going to break down the barrier between performer and audience.
    Some performers worry that this will encourage a lower-common-denominator experience, in which all artistic contributions are deemed “equal”. I think this fear is misplaced. I think instead that the “move the units to the most people in the audience” failed record label CD strategy is going to be a more likely casualty.
    I think that what we’re going to see eventually is leaner/meaner artist/capital collaborations, with better royalty shares to the artist, and less need for capital infusion on the part of the capital provider.
    What will that mean when the public can and does remix everything? I suspect it will mean we will still have rockstars, and perhaps more of them–but they will be more accessible. I believe that more artists will earn some kind of living, and fewer artists will be mega-demi-gods.
    I am not concerned that a broader set of creators will supplant the ability of folks to make money from music. J.K. Rowling fanfic stars do not threaten Harry Potter sales (and probably enhance them).
    In the niche music to which I (and you) listen, liberally licensed music and netlabel culture have expanded the offerings dramatically.
    I’m very fond of stillstream.com. When it switched to an all-liberally-licensed format,
    nothing was “lost”. It remained vital and a good listen. A world of netlabels produce good music, and the possibilities inherent in the netlabel idea have not even remotely been tapped.
    The distinctions are blurring–and evolution of how we see media are inevitable. I think, though, that we will find a medium between Pirate Bay and the RIAA, to the delight of most, if not all.

  2. 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.

    I gathered that this is why Lessig was obliged to use the term “hybrid economy,” a phrase for which he took some flak in his Colbert Report interview. That doesn’t resolve the problem you’re pointing out, though – it struck me that “hybrid economy” is sort of a band-aid, not-yet-fully-theorized term, and there are probably a lot of fissures and contradictions in the situation it describes that merit more investigation. (Not that I’ve read the book or anything.)

  3. Mike Rhode says:

    Marc, your point about the 20th century is interesting – it’s worth noting that copyright is a 19th century construct largely, and was largely ignored in countries like America, to authors such as Dickens’ consternation. Even in the 20th century it’s been used as a double-edged blade – Disney took a property like Pinocchio to make a movie out of (and it would have been protected by copyright if the current law applied), and then sued Filmation when it planned on making a movie of Pinocchio. Personally, I don’t see the existing structure surviving, and I’m glad as I don’t think it’s a healthy one.

  4. 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
    Not to mention people spending increasing time producing that casual content. You’re right that Lessig’s argument is kind of anti-climactic—one of the big reasons for me was that he never really addressed the question of the economic care and feeding of the casual content at the base of the hybrid-economy pyramid.

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