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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, January 22, 2007

counter consumption culture

a recent Ars post got me thinking about some DRM and file-sharing stuff. at a recent conference in Cannes called Midem about how the music industry is approaching digital formats. what caught my eye was the following, partially a quote from Fritz Attaway, exec VP of the MPAA.

Attaway said, "When one consumes a movie by viewing it, there is some obligation to compensate those involved in making it."

This sounds fair, but immediately we must ask: just who does he expect to pay and how often? When I "consume" a Coke, I pay for it. When I consume another, I pay for it, too. Is this what Attaway means? What if I share my Coke with my wife? Do we both pay? What if what we're sharing isn't a traditional consumable good? 10 people can watch a movie at the same time, but 10 people can't really share a Coke at once.

this reminds me very strongly of a talk I saw by Mark Poster about p2p in all sorts of forms. he made a number of really great points about the nature of music/movie content and how it just doesn’t jive with our current perceptions and practices. for example, consider the above. if I buy a Coke from you, you no longer have it; there is only one instance of each individual Coke. however, if I buy a recording of a song from you, essentially a copy, you still have the song and can just as easily sell it to someone else as you can sell it to me. this really pokes a hole in the way that content associations (RIAA/MPAA) and current business models approach music. music’s nature as a commodity is very different from that of other products in a producer/consumer society, and as such it merits different business models.

beyond this, Poster argues, music is not just a commodity, but a cultural object. before certain modern technologies, music only existed in its performance. the only way to experience a piece of music was through a live concert, a cultural exchange between performer and audience. with the advent of the printing press, it became possible for the same piece of music to be widely distributed and have multiple instantiations, but each was unique.

this shift to the digital, however, brings a new sort of cultural object. with a CD, if I sell you my copy of the CD, I don’t have it anymore. however, with digitizing, I can create an exact or nearly exact copy of the CD and thus no longer need the original. furthermore, I don’t even need to give you the CD, I can just make you a copy of the CD, the digital version, or any number of other things. in a pseudo-Marxist twist, the progression of technology challenges and nearly overturns the commodification of music, taking it from something that must be produced and consumed to something that can be used and shared. Poster draws further implications about how, in cultures where music only passes via performance, each performer but his own variations on the music, and the ways in which this practice is mirrored in remixes, “mash-ups,” etc.

there are two side points of note here. first, with the advent of the printing press came the Scriptoria, an association of professional scribes who got permission to destroy printing presses and burn printed manuscripts. Poster claims that this is analogous to the way that the content industry associations go after grandmothers and little kids for music piracy. I’m not totally convinced that this is an exact parallel, but the is a comparison in that both are cases of professional organizations rejecting technological change because it drastically changes their way of business. second, one wonders if there isn’t a parallel here with Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, which catalogues many of the cognitive and cultural changes that occurred as a result of the transition from primarily oral societies to primarily chirographic ones. an upcoming ACM interactions article by Jonathan Grudin talks about the ways in which digital communication draws partially on written tradition but also partially on oral. however, I don’t think he really talks about the cultural aspects that go along with it. there are certainly cognitive and stylistic changes when moving from a written medium to a digital one. however, due to certain aspects of digital media (e.g. nearly instantaneous transmission of information, nearly effortless exact reproduction, widely available access, etc.), there are bound to also be cultural shifts, not only in the way the digital media are produced, but how they are used (not consumed).

tying this back to music and DRM, we see a new hybrid here. it has flavors of the “literary” age of music: exact reproductions of a performance, the ability to listen at will, etc. but it also has aspects of the “oral” age of music: easy passage between individuals, the ability to adapt and restyle music to one’s own personal preferences, etc. the question becomes, how do artists (not the music/movie industry, but artists) make a living off of this sort of cultural object? Poster suggests things like allowing for free distribution of original music content and earning revenue from things like cell phone ringtones, web advertising, personalization of content, etc. I also know many people don’t buy music, but prefer to invest in bands via concerts and merchandise. these may all be good answers, but they still require large corporations to enact. how does the small, unsigned indie band, film-maker, etc. make a buck to keep making decent, real music/movies while allowing their fans to experience their music/movies in a way that fits this new cultural style? my guess is that it will likely not have to do with advertising, with ringtones, with DRM, or with content distribution in general, but in some way leverages the way that music listening, sharing, and performance are all sites of cultural production.


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