March 16, 2004


OK, here's k-punk's contribution to the mp3 debate initiated by Matt.

First off, I'll confess to being something of a digital conservative. I do occasionally download but - partly cos I've got a Mac and can't access the likes of SoulSeek - not very often. I don't have an iPod, nor do I particularly want one. The thought of all my tracks swimming promisculously in some undifferentiated digital gloop.... it just doesn't appeal to me. Nor does the thought of my whole music collection becoming de-objectified. ('Dematerialized' isn't an accurate description: mp3's still have a form of materiality. Or perhaps, as I'll argue below, mp3's involve a dematerialization in the Marxist sense.)

There's no question that downloading mp3's without paying for them is stealing. The issue is: is it an acceptable form of stealing?

The comparison with dubbing albums onto C90's or recording tracks off the radio is bogus, for two reasons. Firstly, there's the the quality of the 'copy'. A digital replica far exceeds the reproductive capabilities of magnetic tape. Strictly speaking, a digital replica is not a copy or a reproduction at all: it is better to think of it as a reinstantiation, since it is exactly the same sequence of zeroes and ones as the 'original'. (Nothing could be a clearer exemplar of Baudrillard's point that, in simulation, there is neither a copy nor an original.) No more reproduction; only replication.

And that leads onto the second point: the virulence of the replica, or rather of the replication process. Cassettes of albums are inert; they can't be copied without incurring further degradation. Digital replicas, meanwhile, especially replicas housed on a computer connected to a peer-to-peer website, have a capacity to exponentially propagate. Viracy.

For both these reasons, mp3's constitute a threshold leap in repliculture.

Now the 'liberationist' arguments seem to me utterly spurious, redolent of the facile claims of so-called'dot communists' . It's the contingent fact that music can be appropriated in digital form that has led to the practice becoming widespread; people are not, by and large, making any political gesture by downloading. The idea that it's legitimate, that, in some sense, it's an obligation to download is predicated on the - surely unsustainable - assumption that record companies are Singular Examples of Evil, unlike any other capitalist corporation. If not, why aren't people advocating stealing from high street stores or burger franchises? In fact, as Matt points out, record companies are involved in a high-risk venture, in which the few successes fund the many 'failures'. It is the mp3 users, not the record companies, who want something for nothing.

The ultimate question from our POV, I suppose, is: will it lead to a more exciting, productive music culture? My answer would be, no. A system of 'trade' which locks producers out of the circuit altogether can hardly be positive. Apologists for this seem to be advocating what is in effect a kind of infantile consumer chauvinism. It is infantile in that it makes an unrealistic demand for unlimited satiation, and in that it seems to imagine that culture is produced without labour (as if it is witheld from free distribution simply from a sense of spite or greed). It is in this sense that mp3's dematerialize music: they 'idealize' it into being a product without a producer, removing all references to labour costs.

Rather than being a development to be celebrated, then, mp3 culture highlights and exacerbates one of the most pressing problem with web culture. It is positive for consumers but negative for cultural producers. The one big gain for producers is that, in facilitating an unprecedented level of cost-free distribution, it allows them to bypass what Mark Sinker calls the 'gatekeepers' of culture - publishers, record company executives. Yet this very ease of distribution is also quite obviously also a problem for producers in that it is decoupled from any possible finanical reward.

The means of production are ours, as are the means of distribution - but the means of remuneration remain out of reach.

Posted by mark at March 16, 2004 10:14 PM | TrackBack
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