SOULNESSLESS & SAGA ♫
STRATEGIES OF NON-PARTICIPATION & REMAKING IN DIGITAL MUSIC CULTURE
bout two years ago I started making monthly mixes to share on the internet. I considered posting them on Soundcloud, but when I tried to write up the track listing for each song on the mix Soundcloud alerted me that I couldn’t post the track, as it included copyright material. This seemed ironic, I could post the mix as long as I didn’t cite the tracks, but if I explicitly cited the tracks it automatically wasn’t allowed to be posted. I opted with just posting them on my own website, where I could clearly give credit to the artists I had included, although I knew it meant it would receive less traffic and I wouldn’t be able to embed it in other sites. Recently, Soundcloud has been on a deleting rampage, ruthlessly taking down any tracks that include copyrighted material. In addition to many individual artists that have found their Soundcloud pages to be completely depleted, magazine and radio stations that have been a casualty of this include Fact magazine, NTS radio, Radar radio, Dummy mag and DIY magazine. In some cases, Soundcloud has even mistakenly taken down tracks that are rightfully copyrighted! In response to Soundcloud deleting one of his tracks, dj Plastician tweeted that it was “Produced by me, released on my label and published by my own publishing company!!”
So, much to the dismay of loyal and/or delusional Soundcloud users, Soundcloud has steadily been moving towards becoming commercial. This summer, Soundcloud introduced advertisements, and more recently, Soundcloud partnered with the company Zefr, the same company Youtube uses, to scan audio content for copyrighted material, provide analytics and distinguish between full songs and remixes. Zefr presents itself with the idea that with alerting a label or artist with illegal uploads of content, the artist then has the agency and choice to issue a takedown request or make money from it regardless of its illegal context. What this actually means is that artists and labels can claim their content and use it as a space to host advertisements.
Everyone’s mad at Soundcloud – DJ Paypal posted a vine of setting a Soundcloud shirt on fire – but really, we should be mad at copyright law, and the ways that companies like Universal and Sony are trying to uphold these laws, putting free streaming sites like Soundcloud under extreme amounts of pressure until they give in.
For the record, I use Soundcloud. I record, produce and share a lot of different types of music mostly through the internet. However, I use Soundcloud exclusively for the sample based music I produce – I use Soundcloud for this sample based music over what could be considered more ‘original songs or compositions’ specifically because this is what I think Soundcloud is for! I consider Soundcloud more of a social networking site than music sharing – and I think it’s been a good space for posting music that directly references culture and the surrounding music climate.
If a book publishing company prohibited a nonfiction author to cite other texts, banned their usage of footnotes and edited out and deleted every passage that seemed to reference another text, what’s left? If Soundcloud, and then other free media streaming sites, deletes all of the mixes, remixes, and songs with samples then what’s left? (The answers are a pure type of fiction and a pure type of “original song”, respectively. Why are these categories deemed more valid, and how are they really that different when they take, sample and appropriate, but just change it enough so that it can be claimed as new?)
Of course, authorship is a controversial subject right now with music and the internet. Terre Thaemlitz, in a lecture recently, exclaimed in response to this authorship panic that ‘DJs aren’t artists – artists are DJs!’
Originally, the idea of a dj was a type of decentralized figure, the dj would be hidden from view, removed from the obligations of performance, understood as a conduit, playing other people’s music, thus denying traditional authorship. However, it seems like more and more the idea of a dj is becoming affiliated with the idea of an ‘artist,’ claiming rights and authorship over their work. But, [as any artist understands,] art and creation has a lot to do with composing, arranging, and curating, regardless of the medium, than a type of pure creation out of nothingness. A musician takes and borrows from many different sources, whether it’s explicitly sampled or an adapted melody.
In Indian classical music, there isn’t the notion of a “composer,” one would address and present themselves as a musician, even if they are creating, as they acknowledge that they are fundamentally contributors and players, not authors, in service of a tradition that is much larger and older than their own self.
If Soundcloud isn’t a free or safe space for sharing and posting contemporary electronic music, what are some other options? I think it’s important to acknowledge that although the internet has a great deal of opportunity and potential, (or maybe it had a great deal of opportunity and potential,) it’s also not a flourishing utopia. As different entities gain increasing dominance and control over the internet it becomes more of a nightmare. Somehow there’s a fine line between complete freedom and total oppression on the internet, and everything seems to be teetering on that threshold right now. Music is a good way to demonstrate this although this expands outwards towards everything, and some much more threatening topics, like privacy, freedom of speech, security, etc. But in music – on one hand there’s free streaming everywhere, anyone can be a self publishing musician, all music can be shared, there’s a type of openness and freedom of music media that feels like an opening of a dam after decades of trying to monetize and package music – but on the other hand there’s a rising army of algorithms scanning for copyrighted material, taking down media, an overcompensation for something that is uncontrollable.
There are two strategies that can be taken.
“Soulnessless / Terre Thaemlitz” strategy – withdrawing, non participation
“Saga / Matt Dryhurst strategy” – rethinking, remaking
SOULNESSLESS is an epic piece by Terre Thaemlitz, also known as DJ Sprinkles, (as well as a handful of other monikers, including G.R.R.L., Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion K-S.H.E, Social Material, Teriko, and Terre’s New Wuss Fusion, and probably so many more that I don’t know about). Soulnessless is a 16gb sd card that includes a 32 hour long mp3, an 80 min mp4, and a 150 page pdf translated into ten languages. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture where she did a multi media reading of her piece ‘Secrecy Wave Manifesto,’ or ‘Naisho Wave Manifesto,” where, among other things, she talked about the importance of silence, non participation, secrecy, and closets, and her objectives and intentions for an offline digital culture. For here and now, and perhaps unfairly, I’m not even going to go into the content of Soulnessless, although inextricably connected with its medium, and I’m just going to focus on the medium and some ramifications of an offline digital culture.
In the pdf labeled “about,” in Soulnessless, Thaemlitz writes,
“This project deals with a number of precarious themes and relationships which, if taken out of context, could lead to misinterpretations with potentially harmful — even dangerous — consequences for the parties involved. In order to minimize these risks, I am personally asking for your help in seeing that these files are used responsibly. Because of this project’s completely digital format, I specifically ask that you please do not upload or share these files online — even if you feel a website or forum is sympathetic to the themes in this project.”
Keeping this media offline is self protective on many levels – first and foremost it protects those third parties that may not have opted for publicity, but it also protects the artist, the value of the media itself, and insulates an exclusive following around the whole experience. At best this privacy creates a type of intimacy with the media (I feel my experience of it is special because not everyone has access to it). It also opens a type of social intimacy that wouldn’t exist otherwise – for example, I would really love to share the film with other people, but as I can’t post it on the internet I’m considering hosting a screening of the film. somehow, what would’ve been just an email with a vimeo link instantly turns into inviting people into my house to share the experience of a film together.
At its worst, this type of offline exclusivity can come off as a gimmick, or cheesy. In 2014 Wu tang clan created a single edition album entitled “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin”, encased in a silver and nickel box, stored in a vault at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, and sold at auction in the beginning of 2015 for millions. the RZA said “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian King.”
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was created to demonstrate the inequality between the ways our culture values physical art objects vs. music objects, and though provoking, its existence is still experienced online: I only know about this object through the articles, memes and music news blogs that posted about it. This attempt to craft immense value but expressed through a blurb on a music blog makes it come off as a joke.
This privacy can also be interpreted as elitist. I can’t really say that Soulnessless is not, as it’s expensive given its digital media and it’s not well known. However, somehow its intimacy feels generous. In her lecture Thaemlitz posed the questions: Is it possible to not participate without being anti-elitest? Is it possible to withdraw without being anti populist? Its subtle in its simultaneity, but I think it is possible, in the way that not participating in social media, although might seem like an anti-social gesture, can actually be an intention to create more meaningful social spaces and interactions. One of my favorite things about Thaemlitz is her acknowledgement and embrace of hypocrisy and simultaneity, denying the binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and denying binaries in general.
The notion of a subculture implies a binary; a subculture can only exist in reaction to a mainstream culture and mainstream culture would be nothing without subculture, as it continuously feeds off of subculture, churning it into something large and digestible. In the wake of Soundcloud’s recent move towards being a for profit platform and Thaemlitz’s call to protect a culture through non participation in the “white noise of popular online culture”, this raises a horrifying question for me: is the internet now mainstream?
I belong to an internet generation. Unlike Terre, who moved to New York in the 80s and participated in a queer / dance music / house /club scene, my participation in subcultures has always existed almost entirely in virtual spaces. Especially with music, it’s only very recently that my music world and interests have started to become more of a social, physical, “in real life” type of reality even though it’s still foundationally internet based. Instead of clubs and record stores, my music world has largely been music blogs, online music magazines, torrenting communities, emails, bandcamp, Soundcloud, etc.
But right now it seems evident that posting a track on Soundcloud, no matter what the content, isn’t a part of a subculture. It contextually just can’t be. It’s like goth kids hanging out in a mall; no matter what you’re wearing, you’re still in a mall, and one of your friends is eventually going to buy something, even if it’s just from the food court. Even worse, just by being in the mall you eventually inspire a chain of stores that appropriate your black clothing and piercings, recycling it back to you for 50 dollars a shirt.
The idea of an offline digital culture offers a way to step outside the mall.
Choosing to not participate should always be an option, but it’s unfortunately an option that is increasingly difficult to choose, and it isn’t much of a realistic option for most people. It also errs on the side of a rigidity, of rejecting change and new technology. Realistically, people want to share and sell their music to as many people as possible, fans want to be able to find out about music, some fans want to financially support artists, music blogs want to stay free for users and have advertisements, the world is for profit, the mall is huge…
When first reading Thaemlitz’ plea to keep this digital media offline, I wondered, ‘why make it digital if you don’t want it to be online?’ I’ve come to assume digital media and online media as synonymous. But despite the call for keeping it offline, Soulnessless emphasizes its exploration of the capacities of digital media. The about.pdf boasts two “media landmarks:” “the world’s longest album in history” & “the world’s first full-length mp3 album”. If this was done by anyone else, (not to mention especially a straight man) I would say, ‘congratulations, you just introduced yourself as the largest thing in existence in a category that you made up.’ But this text and enormity of media is clearly more of a demonstration, and an epic experiment, raising some very provoking questions about our total deficiency in pushing the boundaries of our new digital medium. Why are we still sticking to a 3-5 minute mp3 song format when it’s a format symptom of an outdated technology? Why aren’t we actually exploring digital media for what it is, what it’s capable of?
In a lot of ways an offline digital culture is an unfortunate and obvious misuse of digital media. The power of the mp3 is not in how many gigabytes you can pack into it, creating the thickest single mp3, the power of the mp3 is in its capacity to exists in millions, its capacity to be relentlessly shared and copied without change or erosion, how an mp3 is not singular, it’s inherently plural, how each mp3 really just represents one particle of dust in a massive dust storm that can reach every part of the globe. The largest mp3 is a measure of how thinly it can be spread over the internet and the world, not in how thickly it can be packed.
So what are some legal alternatives to Soundcloud if you’re trying to share digital music online?
Right now there’s free streaming which eventually runs into issues of copyright agreements (this includes soundcloud, bandcamp, hearths, mixcloud, etc), subscription streaming with different tiers and advertising, (this includes spotify, pandora, etc), and then online marketplaces like iTunes & Amazon.
The concerns with all of these come down to the relationship between advertising and music. Having your song play right after a Spotify advertisement, your song introduced by a youtube advertisement, or alongside advertisement banners on a website. It’s not any different from listening to an assault of advertisements on the radio before listening to music. But changes in context influence the content, and songs on commercial radio can become advertisements, locked into a falsely dependent relationship with the commercials. The commercials need the content to exist, and the content gets perverted into incentive or reward for enduring the commercials. In this model, supposedly the advertisements financially bring support to the artists, however, obviously that isn’t the case, as anyone with music on Spotify knows when they get a twelve dollar check at the end of the year that this model doesn’t work for artists.
In an article in Bard’s online curatorial journal ‘Accessions,’ Matt Dryhurst writes: “Remember: our work still exists happily without these platforms, but these platforms would not exist without our work.”
There generally aren’t any models that allow for an artist to have any agency or control over how their work is presented and distributed online. Thaemlitz writes, “Unfortunately, an uploaded file’s online lifespan and distribution path quickly become uncontrollable through “spider” and “robot” applications, as well as the actions of certain end users, that indiscriminately seek to copy and archive any and all materials found online without regard for context.”
Producing art in any media, visual or aural, physical or digital, raises questions about what to choose or attempt to control. As in physical art, a digital context has as much significance as the digital content.
Saga, the beginnings of a new music platform created and recently introduced by Matt Dryhurst, a multi media artist, seeks to give artists some control over the contexts in which their content is shared and distributed online. Dryhurst writes; “Currently, Saga provides you with a basic framework to self-host media, track where it lands online through a back-end interface, and make discrete, time-based alterations to the work.” Saga allows the artist to use the media as a space to host an expression in response to its context. You can use saga to see where your music is posted and then make changes to the different locations, respectively. For example, if you find that your music is posted on a website where it’s sandwiched in between advertisements, you can just choose to obscure your content, cover it with a message, take it down, etc. or alternatively, let’s say you find your music on a website that you support, you can offer some sort of graphic expression of approval.
This idea, unless I’m mistaken, is without precedent and allows a totally new way of thinking about online digital media. The content isn’t held hostage and victimized by whoever chooses to take hold of it, the media itself has the ability to speak up and offer a critique, expression, rejection or support of its environment.
What if the saga model was applied to physical art objects? The calculation of value of the life of an art object (and then the future value of art objects from that same artist) is dependent on the environmental context in which these art objects live out their lives. For example, if a painting is purchased by a collector who then sells it off on auction immediately or if it ends up preserved in an established museum. Imagine if the paintings themselves, upon realizing that they are in the hands of a villainous collector, could immediately wash into a blank canvas, or if landed in an established museum could communicate some sort of contentedness, security and well being?
Some of the questions that Dryhurst asks in introducing this model include –
“Can third-party publishers sell ads next to a work that may choose to disavow them? Should a piece respond to a critique of itself? Can you purchase a moment in the lifecycle of a work? Should a work communicate different things in different locations? Is it possible to appropriate a work that is constantly changing? Can we do this by ourselves?”
Both the Thaemlitz and Dryhurst alternatives pose different strategies of control:
Soulnessless demonstrates the power of non participation, silence and non engagement.
Saga poses the potential power of the opposite, of a type of micro managerial hyper control, that goes beyond content and into the context of the artwork, the power of artist controlled publishing.