Originally published in Ear Magazine East, Vol. VII, #2, Feb-March, 1982, p. 9.
Republished in medialine, June 2000, pp 62-3.
Music and Media
by Laurie Spiegel
Telharmonium City, USA
Until recently, the only way to disseminate information
(info includes music, art, literature, etc.) has been by making material
objects which store encoded versions of it and then moving them around from
place to place. Only in the late 20th century has information begun to lead
a life more independent of objects manufactured for sale. The developing
independence of information from objects has only very recently begun to
have noticeable impact on our culture. Examples of information transcending
objectness include xeroxing from books, making cassette copies of records,
videotaping programs off the air, and the separate distribution of pure
storage media (blank tapes, film, etc.) from informational content (broadcasts,
Though this change may not be fully manifest and integrated into our culture
for some time, the increased independence of information - artistic and
otherwise - from storage media (objects), due to the development of duplication
technologies, has several effects which can already be discussed. One is
that, up to now, the important questions about distribution have pertained
to who controls the presses, who has the power to make objects and move
them around (Marx would say, "who controls the means of production").
Instead, the important questions relate increasingly to a new economy of
power based on who controls info sources which can be accessed and copied.
Access to the stuff that info can be copied onto - and to the copying devices
themselves - is a less critical question, as these media are increasingly
plentiful, reusable, and cheap.
If access to (artistic) information is handled library or database style,
important questions will also include how to get the stuff which you want
other people to be able to copy into such accessible places. A second question
concerns who, or what criteria, are to select what goes in, or whether everything
should be accepted, as is now true for the Copyright Office of the Library
of Congress. The amount of available information will soon become astronomical,
if no selection criteria are exercised over what individuals can enter
into a public access archive.
A most crucial question, with great political, economic, aesthetic, and
cultural impact, is that of how to let people know that something new has
been entered into the public info facility and what it is. Whether entries
are carefully selected or whether absolutely everything is accepted, people
who wish to access entries will be completely dependent on how works are
categorized, described, and organized. Another question concerns what kind
of credit, royalty, or bookkeeping system will ensure that creators get
something out of the use of their work.
The economics of traditional painterly art and of the formal concert are
based on the value of the unique work or experience. This is itself a corollary
of the no longer valid premise that replicated information is inevitably
degraded from some pristine original state, and is therefore significantly
less valuable. In addition to virtually eliminating informational loss through
reproduction, we now also have artist and music works created explicitly
for media which were originally designed only for storage or reproduction.
These include tape, photocopying, film, and all digital media. (Literature
has consisted for centuries of works designed specifically for reproduction.)
The economics of the arts of the future may well be founded on the intrinsic
worth of the composed information itself, what Marxists might call "use"
value as opposed to "exchange" value. That is, the image the artist
creates will not derive its value (or its sales price) from its status as
a material object (as an instrument of investment or of economic exchange)
nor from the idea that only one instance of a work fully or properly embodies
the creator's intent. It will derive its value, from its informational content,
from people's wanting to look at it or hear it.
The determination of the value of a work which is made for duplication will
be based on how (how many, how often) individuals pull it into their lives
from wherever it is available. Such a populist criterion need not limit
the availability of less popular works the way today's distribution bottlenecks
do. Availability of masters for duplication would be a different kind of
economics from the usual record or publishing situation in which a minimum
"threshold" of mass distribution must be practically guaranteed
for any distribution to occur at all.
We can establish two extremes of how artistic value is assessed which corollate
with distribution methods. One pole of this spectrum consists of unique
non-replicable art objects which are inherently valuable as media of exchange.
The opposite extreme consists of replicable art which is valuable purely
for its informational content (image, sound, ...), any instance of which
can be cheaply and easily replaced, and for which cumulative economic value
correlates with number of copies circulated.
Records and photographic prints fall within the nether ground between these
extremes. One of the reasons that photography had a hard time establishing
itself as a "legitimate" fine art form was that the art world didn't
know how to integrate works which could be identically replicated at will
into a traditional art economy based on unique instances. Recording seemed
less problematic to the music world at first because recordings were for
so long so vastly inferior in audio quality to live performances that they
were conceived of solely as documentation or as inferior surrogate experiences.
It was the late 1960's before the first music was composed directly for
mass reproduction (for phonograph), before the duplicable form of a creation
began to be accepted as in some cases the truest purest representation of
an artist's intent. (This is the stage at which performers began to be afraid
of not being able to play the piece on the record as well live, and groups
realized they risked being unable to duplicate multitrack studio effects
in live concerts.)
Once scarcity (including uniqueness) no longer functions as a means of keeping
the values of aesthetic works high, new methods for keeping values up must
be found by the distribution "establishment" lest they find themselves
in financial trouble. Most of the replicable (for newer media) music and
art (records, posters) produced in our culture are therefore governed by
the concept of planned obsolescence. The numbering of editions of prints
and records, in which quality need no longer degrade during a press run,
is another artificial means of generating equity by an obsolete economic
mechanism, by creating an artificial scarcity, or at least a criterion of
relative valuation for individual instances of a work. (The genuine rarity
of mass produced "art" items due to the passage of time, such
as in the audiophile rare record market, is more closely related to the
antique economics of scarce antiques themselves than to the creative arts
and how they will evolve.)
Though the uniqueness of concert experience still holds aesthetic value,
performance's transience and non-objectness have all along prevented music
from functioning as a means of exchange or form of equity, a fate which
has had profound (devastating?) consequences for sculpture and painting.
While producing aesthetically dubious results, this economic situation has
at least provided relatively high per-piece incomes for our most successful
visual (object-producing) artists versus our most successful classical-tradition
(not mass media oriented) composers. (The fact that many musicians began
in the 1970s to make saleable visual objects, compatible with currently
successful gallery wares, may relate to the inequality of reward between
these artistic media.)
What else might result from the increasing independence of info (art/music)
from objects? For one thing, the bottleneck of a small number of centralized
powerful manufacturers of information objects (records, books, etc.) is
threatened. A distributional bottleneck is in itself a form of scarcity
(by the old law of "supply and demand"), a scarcity of means of
disseminating works, and this is the basis of the producer/distributor's
power over both artist and culture. This could/might/will/must change.
The role of the creator and the function of making something publicly available
can cease to be categorically separated. One way might be through public
archives where masters are available for duplication (for a small royalty
to the maker). Increasingly, such archives are likely to be accessible to
the public in the form of "databases" bi-directionally accessible
from home computers over the telephone lines. While cheap fast high quality
digital music players and image displays are not yet commonly available,
they will be within the next decade(s). The act (work and cost) of making
copies becomes the responsibilities of the "consumer."
Already, creation and distribution, traditionally divided between different
specialists, are beginning to be done by the same individuals. On one hand,
composers, writers, etc. have begun producing their own works (producing
records, publishing books...) out of frustration, despite the added financial
and temporal burdens. On the other hand, producers have taken to designing
works for release as objects (e.g. disco records) using creative artists
- if at all - only as highly skilled technicians. Because it's easier (cheaper)
to manufacture new objects well than to design new information well, there
has been an increasing trend toward the repackaging of pre-existing info
(e.g. videocassettes of old movies, and the nostalgia boom in records and
posters), further undermining the traditional creator-producer symbiosis.
If distribution falls more to the taker than to the maker, if replication
can be more cheaply done by those who seek out and want to acquire the work
(copying onto reusable objects as opposed to buying pre-manufactured new
single-use ones) than by companies that inflate prices with budgets to convince
others to buy them (advertising), the way aesthetic works are economically
valued will change. Works may be measured more referendum-style in the future,
by how many people are interested enough to make copies. The cost of archiving
accessible copyable data is much lower than the cost of manufacturing, warehousing,
and shipping thousands of non-reusable object-forms copies. This should
allow works with very small audiences to become available as easily as works
with mass appeal.
Other problems that creative artists have will not be so transformed, though,
such as spending time alone making something that nobody else may ever want
or understand, or of the temptation to make something more popular (remunerative
or "commercial") instead of something more personally meaningful
to oneself, nor will other difficulties inherent in art and creative thought
be likely to diminish.
Copyright ©1981 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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