Why We’re All Fans, And We’re All Artists Now

image from a.onionstatic.com This is part two of my interview segment with Aram Sinnreich, who is assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and author of the book Mashed Up: Music, Technology, And The Rise Of Configurable Culture. In this interview, Sinneich talks about the challenges of democracy in the digital age; why we're all fans and artists, in our own right; and how music provides us with a roadmap for social evolution.

Will the RIAA ever succeed in their mission of disrupting the culture of file-sharing and locking up the web?

Aram Sinnreich: There are pretty much only two choices: either configurability will continue unabated and completely reorder our social and cultural infrastructure, or the powers that be will successfully stifle all cultural innovation and collective production, at the cost of the Internet as we know it, and with a lot of collateral damage in the form of our privacy and civil liberties. There’s not really a workable middle ground that I can see.

The answer to this question really hinges more on policy than on technology. Right now, our government is in the process of figuring out how to balance intellectual property against innovation, security against liberty, and privacy against accountability. It’s doing so in the form of policy debates, on wonky issues like net neutrality and spectrum allocation, and through laws and treaties like COICA (which would allow the DOJ to censor the Internet) and ACTA (which would require ISPs to spy on us and police our communications).

The stakes are much greater than the success or failure of the traditional music industry. Even though the RIAA has played a significant role in lobbying for some of these legal reforms, what we’re really talking about is democracy in the digital age. And, at the moment, the prospects don’t look great.

As we enter the age of an audience with an audience, how does that change our relationship with art and artists? Have fans gained too much power and what technological and cultural shifts have given it to them?

Aram Sinnreich: I would say we’re returning to an age in which we recognize art and creativity as things that emerge from our collective cultural activity, rather than springing from the brains of a few special individuals.

Sarah Palin’s new book is full of hogwash about how “American Idol” promulgates the “liberal” notion that everyone can be special, when in fact, according to her, we’re all a bunch of deluded no-talent losers. I would make the opposite claim: “American Idol” sells us the image of a meritocratic system precisely to reinforce the concept of talent – to demonstrate to us that some are naturally better than others, and therefore that a system in which 1% creates and 99% consume is natural and right. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as fans having “too much power.” We’re all fans, and we’re all artists. The distinction was a necessary artifice of a rapidly vanishing age.

Do you think that the opportunity before us—to rethink and recast the cultural industries with a more sustainable infrastructure—is enormous?

Aram Sinnreich: Well, that’s the trillion-dollar question. And it really can be understood in two ways: (1) Can we reorganize the cultural industries to maintain their profit margins and economic power without eviscerating them completely, and (2) Can we reorganize our laws and economies to maximize the social benefit of our new cultural ideas? I think it’s clear that these are two very different propositions, and I think the answer to both is potentially “Yes.”

We’re already seeing tons of experimentation within the existing labels, studios, and publishers. Traditional artist contracts are being replaced with “360 deals,” and music is being given away for free, bundled into subscriptions, packaged with vinyl, books and jumpdrives, licensed to video games and television, and embedded into plush dolls and key fobs.

Songs are being released under Creative Commons licenses, bands are using remix contests to promote new releases, and dusty, out-of-print vinyl is being digitized, remastered, remixed, and re-released. And, interestingly, a lot of this experimentation is paying off in terms of real revenues, both for musicians and for labels. Yes, there’s still a significant amount of blood flow, but the industry has finally begun transforming itself quickly enough to stanch the worst of it. I’m not sure there’s an end point here; things are changing so quickly that today’s novel solutions might be old hat in 2015 and unworkable in 2020.

So the most important things that the cultural industry can do to stay in the game is to make peace with continual change, and stay flexible. And that’s definitely more easily said than done.

What will take to forge a brighter path into the digital age for the record and music industries, as well as, the likes of journalism and publishing?

Aram Sinnreich: I have little doubt that, in the long run, we will do what’s necessary as a society to survive and even thrive. Just because we’re used to doing things a certain way doesn’t mean we can’t change our perspective and our operating principles. But change on this scale is very difficult and very, very disruptive. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued, change often happens through “creative destruction,” and lives and livelihoods are at stake.

I can understand why the RIAA would push for Internet censorship and surveillance, distribute millions of CDs that break people’s computers, and sue tens of thousands of customers for millions of dollars apiece, even though they must be aware of the massive costs to our society. From the perspective of the entrenched interests, this seems like Armageddon. But our social imperative isn’t to have a thriving record industry; it’s to have a thriving musical culture and a thriving economy. And we don’t necessarily need to have old-fashioned record labels and copyright laws to achieve these ends. Ultimately, I would guess this is a generational issue; once today’s teenagers become tomorrow’s lawmakers and entrepreneurs, they will stake out new principles and positions, based on a new set of operating assumptions.

What role will DJing and sample-based music production play in this new digital ecology and how will it help rebuild music culture online?

Aram Sinnreich: Everyone throughout networked society will have to deal with the destabilizing influence of configurability to some degree or another. The reason I focus on DJs in Mashed Up is because they’ve already been dealing with it for decades. Music has always offered a roadmap for social evolution; as Plato argued, “the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.” That’s why it’s so often understood as the “canary in the coal mine” for changes confronting other industries and other realms of human endeavor.

DJs have been faced with a tough set of questions: What does it mean to have an original voice, when your palette consists of other people’s voices? Who deserves the credit for, control over, and revenues from a sampled work? Does authenticity reside in hiding your influences, or in making them obvious? What is the starting point for a sample-based song, and when is it finished? Who gets to participate in the process, and on what terms? In my research, I’ve found that their solutions, their negotiations and equivocations, and their haphazard workarounds contain volumes of wisdom for society at large as we enter the age of configurability.

Even as they violate our laws, undermine our economies, and hack our technologies, these DJs are conscientiously reinventing ethics and aesthetics, parsing good from bad and wrong from right. And this is very promising, because it means that even as we watch our political system disintegrate, our environment collapse, and our public sphere fracture to the point of incoherence, we can find our own solutions, and forge a new beginning from the shards of the past.

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