I’ve been in the music business for about two years now, nearly two and a quarter. So long as I’ve been in this business, there has been discussion about the issues of piracy, value and monetary exchange in a world rapidly converting to digital distribution.
These discussions have been rooted primarily in the protection of a cluster of data here known as an “album” and the mechanism by which one can assure that the value proposition of an album as it existed in the physical realm translates to the digital.
Various ways were attempted to ensure this, such as imposing an analog to physical limitations (proximal, temporal) using rights management (in various forms, both physical and digital). ie: restricting movement of a file was analogous to geographic distance limitations of a physical product. It could only exist in one place at once. These mechanisms attempted to translate the physical and linear into the non-linear and metaphysical. It did not work.
The focus though has always been on a very small situation: how to ascribe value to music, and how to prevent that value from being diminished by the notion of Free.
I think this is the wrong focus. I want to broaden out a bit and go back to a fundamental problem of representation and art:
How do you value art?
How do you ensure that the value of art can translate into the notion of making a living on art?
What role does a government body play in the propagation of the meme of art creation? Support? Education? Distribution?
Art is a complicated notion in the sense that it is the translation of the internal dialog within the creators core being into something that can be consumed in either representational or non-representational form by others. It can be music, manifestos, films or pictures. It can be photography, painting or sculpture. It can be the raw physical being in the act of being a person.
The concept of art is fundamental to our identity as humans, and our place in the world at large. The hegemony of our role on the planet is maintained both by the means at which we can destroy it, as well as the ways in which we can express what makes us unique and hence beautiful. Its a complicated dichotomy, a species granted with the simultaneous tendencies to create and destroy in equal measure.
Art typically has value reflective of various dimensions encompassing influence, effort, perceived impact and the the recombining of all these dimensions back on each other. Its a recursive system in which the implication of value translates to the extraction of value in a continual cycle. Its value is deemed based on experience, prestige and impact rather than anything typically quantifiable. Indeed when one tries to quantify the value of art, that act of quantification is seen as art itself.
Music in the end is a form of art. It is polemic, but I stand by the fact that the worst to the best music is art without any regard to its inherent quality. Bad music is art in the way that we deem the music bad. The act of ascribing quality in and of itself is a form of art. Good music is likewise art sometimes more in situ, but also because of the act of imposing the metric of “good” vs. “bad.”
The value exchange of music was rooted on the rights of the writer, the compensation for the mechanical reproducer and the acknowledgment of ownership by others who present the music. These things, 80 years later, still apply, but have had additional complication by digital vs. analog representation.
These mechanisms are in place to ascribe value to all modes of experience for a music product: reception, transmission and physical purchase. And as we know, this modal of monetary value is not necessarily working anymore. With the lack of artifact and the onus of representation moving from the producer to the consumer in consort with hardware/software manufacturers, we find ourselves back to square one: what is the value of the piece of art? Now its a digital artifact, but the same question applies.
The issues around the value and the authenticity of art is not new. Walter Benjamin wrote a nice essay about it, proposing that the work of art was devalued and removed from itself through mechanical reproduction. Through history, art has been in a constant struggle against the very mutability and duplicability of its formal representation.
Andy Warhol made art that poked fun and called attention to the of art, and the role of formal representation in the delineation of duplicability a hierarchy of art/non-art. Rauchenberg, Duchamp, Picabia, etc did likewise.
Art is always in a constant struggle against its own value, and thereby the value of the artist. How does an artist make art a living, and likewise, how does an artist value their own art to the point where it is a mechanism by which they can make a living? To what degree must a government support art and artists? And why the fear around the latter point?
The role of art within societies is likewise a point of question. Within Europe, it is actually pretty easy (relatively) to make a living as an artist, depending on the country. I have friends in certain countries who are Artists by trade, supported through government programs. Canada supports art through liberal granting. In those areas, the value of the artifact of art is less of a concern than the value of the process of creating. And the same does and should apply to music as a form of art.
It’s my opinion that before we start down the path of “how do you value digital artifacts” and “how do you value music,” we also need to evaluate how we as a society value art. How do we as a government, a democratic society support artists to the point where the value of experience is enough to support the act of creation? How do remove the fear-politics and the pro-ignorance in the US society to the point where art gains intrinsic value as a societal force?
In all the debate about the monetary models around digital music and cultural artifacts, we miss the root of the problem: the value of the process of creation and the support of the creator.
I propose, and I hope, that as we go through 2008 into this fundamental shift of digital media, we also step back to the root and evaluate as a society the place of Art within it.
Until we take care of Artists, until we value art as an intrinsic part of humanity and until we remove the pro-ignoramus politics that have invaded the US in the past 20 years, we have no chance of making a viable ecosystem around the commercialization of the artifacts created.
Post script: This applies to painters, photographers, film makers, performance and installation artists. Conceptual artists and more. How does the value of art translate to a new system when the value of the artist has lost is sanctity within certain sections of our society?