Recombinant art…

I ran across this article from William Gibson today from the July issue of Wired about the participatory nature of art in the modern world.

Gibson’s right. Anyone still clinging to the notion of intellectual property (a pretty offensive notion actually, if you really stop to think about it – what it amounts to is “I thought to apply for a patent, a copyright or a trademark, therefore I own this idea and if you want to use it at all you have to pay me”) in this era of the easy mashup, cut-and-past edit and massive digital manipulation of everything is really clinging to the past.

My musician friends, and I mean all of them, disagree with me on the verge of violence on this topic. I’ve been screamed at and called some pretty appalling names by punk rockers who wouldn’t give two seconds of thought to smashing someone’s physical property if it made enough of a statement (or at least enough of a mess) because I suggested that copyright law was outdated and that if you put your music out for people to hear it then it’s basically public property, open for use by fans in whatever way they see fit, including mp3 file-sharing. When I point out to these angry pointy-haired punks that they’ve never actually made any money from guarding their intellectual property so closely most just stare at me as if I just told them that their Doctor Marten’s were made of fudge.

The music business, as we’ve known it for the past 50 or so years, is over. Tangible containers for music, be they LPs, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, MiniDisks or whatnot are so 20th Century. It’s only a matter of time before an artist with enough pull in the music biz realizes that interacting with the mob-run, morally bankrupt recording industry on any level any longer is utterly unnecessary. If there are no records or CDs to distribute then why deal with a business whose entire model of operation is based around moving physical music containers around? Who knows, it may have already happened. Some mega-artist may have already picked up the phone and called Steve Jobs to say, “Steve, let’s torpedo these motherfuckers. I want to release all my music from now on directly to iTunes. Let’s cut out the middle-man.” And if Steve Jobs is half as smart as he seems he’s already planned for this eventuality – the one that will, incidentally, make Apple the major player in the entertainment business that Bill Gates has been trying to make Microsoft into for years already (Ultimately the reason Apple will pull this off where MS and Gates have failed will be simply because Steve Jobs is hipper than Bill Gates. Always was, always will be.) – and he’s ready for it.

But this is only really the first step. Getting rid of the labels (and just in case you’re wondering, I mean all of them – major and indie alike – I could write for weeks about how indie labels are actually often more evil than the majors they claim to disdain) is like that old joke about lawyers – Q: what do you call it if a cruise ship full of lawyers sinks in the oceans with all-hands? A: A good start. But the next step is the elimination of the notion that the world is divided into two camps – creators of art and consumers of art. That’s what Gibson’s really on about in his Wired article.

Let’s stick with music. Because of easy-to-use technology that’s relatively cheap (and getting less expensive every day) and widely available every consumer of music is potentially a creator of music. Anyone with a Mac and GarageBand installed on it can take their CD collection (or mp3 collection) and tweak their favorite songs (or not so favorite songs) any which way they want to. Remixes, as they used to be called, are a piece of cake to create. Now granted I’ve heard a lot of very sloppily put together, ill-conceived amateur mixes of songs, but the thing is the ratio is about equal to the amount of sloppily put together, ill-conceived music being produced at any level.

The point is not, however, about the quality of the end-product. It’s about the process. We could be about to witness a fundamental shift in our culture in which the line between spectator and participant nearly vanishes. That’s dead cool.

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