To Free or Not to Free?

Cross post with Records on Ribs (the creative commons label I co-founded and run with Alex)…

The issue of distributing music for free rarely goes away, and it’s all kicked off in Wire magazine following UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith’s Epiphany in last month’s issue in which he stated that as a result of filesharing  ‘just like you I stopped buying music’. This month’s edition contains a strongly worded response by ReR boss Chris Cutler, which argues that the ‘all music should be free’ movement is an ‘idiot wave’. As a record label that gives away its music for free these are issues we’re naturally interested in. We’d like to think we’re not part of an idiot wave, but are aware of the complex ethical position we’re in. Hopefully this post will clarify our position a little more.

A New World in the Shell of the Old

Despite our manifesto claim that we are ‘not against anything’, Records on Ribs exists at least partly to protest capitalist modes of production and the monetary theories of value and the system of copyright that accompany  and support capitalism. But negative critique  contains- at least implicitly- a positive vision of how the world should be otherwise, and for us that positive vision is writ large in everything we do. We see Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopia: a space of commonly owned property which points to how the world might otherwise be. It is ‘a new world in the shell of the old‘, as Aaron Peters puts it. It is communism, decentralised: here and now.

Pop Will Eat Itself

Kenneth Goldsmith’s file-sharing inspired Epiphany is something quite different. I don’t know much about what his politics are, but the views he expresses are not in any sense anti-capitalist. Rather, they embody the eternally disatisfied greed of capitalism’s dream consumer. ‘The minute I get something’, he writes ‘I just crave more’. This is what capitalism demands of us: each purchase promising something it can’t possibly deliver and setting in chain a feeling of dispondancy and failure, which drives us on to consume more and more, even as we boast about what we do have (‘It’s all about quantity…I’m drowning in my riches. I’ve got more music on my drives than I’ll ever be able to listen to in the next ten lifetimes’). Goldsmith argues that this ‘is an inversion of consumption…in which we’ve come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring’, but there’s not really much inverting going on-for many decades capitalism has been about the thrill of the chase rather than the catch itself. After all, if we’re satisfied with the objects of our consumption we’ll cease to consume. Goldsmith sitting in his study feverishly downloading rarities from across the globe is experiencing the same thrill as Carrie, Samantha and co as they trawl the malls of Dubai for dresses they’ll probably forget they own. t’s an alienating existence marked by addiction to the chase rather than any enjoyment.

What’s interesting about Goldsmith’s column (and I should make it clear that I have no interest in passing judgement on him) is that his views represent the point at which the logics of capitalism overtake themselves. Promised the world, consumers suddenly realise that through the internet they can take it for free, and help themselves to whatever they can. Having for so long been told that greed is good, the subject of consumerism seizes that greed and uses it to bring down the system that helped to create them.

Where’s the free plumbers?

Except it doesn’t really threaten to bring down the system. The immediate result of thousands of people downloading music, films and television is that the people who make it suffer. We couldn’t give a flying fuck about Lily Allen or Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox, but we do care about our many friends who make brilliant music and struggle to make ends meet from day to day because hardly anyone pays them for their music, whilst capitalism carries on as usual in other spheres.

There are two answers to this. The first is to encourage people to pay for the music they listen to-  by calmly stating the damage that downloading music can do (as Cutler does) and by making the physical object worth spending money on, restoring the fetish for the object which Goldsmith says he has lost. The second is more long-term (although as a prefigurative movement it is also immediatist) and calls for a system of exchange beyond capitalism: gift economies, common ownership and mutual aid (and to be fair to Goldsmith, he touches on these issues here). Free music here works as a prefigurative movement heralding a complete shift in our relations. As Cutler notes, plumbers do not work for free. But capitalism is not the end of history and perhaps one day plumbers will work for free. Perhaps, perhaps by giving away our music for free we can play our part (a tiny part) in showing what can be done when we abandon capitalism’s modes of exchange.

A Cautious Revolution

It’s clear that these two strategies are almost mutually exclusive- and this clash between short term survival and long term radical change is a problem that those trying to go beyond capitalism often encounter. Discussing the plight of workers at car manufacturing plants in Oxford in the 90s, David Harvey noted that the short term aims of securing their jobs hampered many longer-term goals- better working conditions, higher pay and a cleaner local environment. And many sympathetic to the plight of workers would probably also crave a world without so many cars and their destructive impact on our health and our environment, which clearly wouldn’t do their job prospects much good.

There is, then, clearly a tricky balance to strike and in my own musical consumption I try and navigate both paths. On one hand I offer music for free through Records on Ribs, recognising that doing so is not just a way of ‘getting the music out there, man’, but a political act; a utopian act. And I download music for free too. On the other hand I spend as much as I can on music released by labels who care about their artists and support a whole microindustry of professionals and creatives- designers, lathe cutters, etc. These are all skills/trades we’d want to survive beyond the revolution so we must be cautious not to trample them in our greedy haste for a new world. And hey, Records On Ribs isn’t above accepting donations too.

It’s a tricky debate, and I think we should welcome both the honesty of Goldsmith and the clairty of Cutler. But as we think through what it means to acquire music, we should also think how we might be able to live beyond this shitty system that causes so much suffering and unhappiness.

All music should be free, but so should all plumbing.

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2 thoughts on “To Free or Not to Free?

  1. “a system of exchange beyond capitalism: gift economies, common ownership and mutual aid”

    Sorry but I think that’s a terrible idea. Plumbers, like the rest of us, are entitled to a lot more than what they would receive under such a system. Under this system, how would plumbers get two weeks in the sun, a nice car, or the means to pay for their daughter’s wedding? Who would give them these things in exchange for unblocking a sink?

    • The limits of such a system cannot be predetermined, though I would question the sustainability of a world that values ‘nice cars’ and ‘two weeks in the sun’: things which I would also note are beyond the reach of the vast majority of the world’s population.

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