By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
As record labels continue to grapple with how to make money from music when there’s an internet, one label called Care Of Editions has devised a weird solution we couldn’t help being curious about.
Its idea: to pay people for downloading music, using money generated from physical sales of that music.
You can get anything it sells for less than free and more than nothing — but only if someone else has paid for the vinyl version recently enough for the downloads not to have been used up yet.
From the site’s description,
Payments for downloads are funded in real time, as records sell, so the downloads become unavailable whenever there’s insufficient money coming in from the vinyl. The amount of money a person would receive is tied to the download number, so it starts with one dollar and increases by one dollar for every download. Each edition contains 118 vinyl and 45 downloads. The last person to download would get 45 dollars.
Huh? We had to find out more. Warning: What follows is a bit more academic than what normally appears on this blog.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: Okay, so you make money when people buy vinyl, and then you give that to the people who download the music for free. Do you give people the downloads when they buy the vinyl?
Gerhard Shultz, Care Of Editions: Nope. If you want a download (through us) it has to be purchased (for negative money).
Evolver.fm: How did this idea come about? It’s hardly the most intuitive thing in the world, to pay people for downloading music using profits from physical music sales.
Schultz: I can’t remember actually. I spend a lot of time post-rationalizing the thinking behind the project, which has turned out to be a much more crucial and enjoyable aspect than I would have guessed. Some of the most basic and direct questions about the label are ones I don’t have answers for, so all I can really offer is a conversation, and I think this discursive performance is as much the piece as anything else. I see it as a project that exists differently for anyone who might come into contact with it, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to talk with someone who’s able to paint me a picture of how she sees it, and I find those moments inspiring.
So in that respect, it’s multiple. It doesn’t really matter what my idea was. It’s still developing and it can surprise me. On top of that, the digital world is an emerging one. So my questions are addressed to a place that’s still partially submerged. I imagine that this pattern of post-rationalizing is somehow imprinted onto the terrain of the project because I find the means of formulating these questions in the aftermath of the old world. It’s situated after the fact: from a perspective of always being too late, trying to take a snapshot of what’s not there and may never be.
Evolver.fm: I know that you are an artist, but the idea of limited-edition downloads, the way you have done them here (i.e. not with DRM but with this connection to limited physical goods, with the pricing tied to inventory) might strike some as having commercial viability. What do you think of that, is it a possibility?
Schultz: Dealing with our relationship to commercial viability is at the heart of Care Of. The traditional critical approach is to be against it, but I think the role of critique is being re-imagined, more along the lines of a curatorial critique, where the relationship to power is less adversarial. MoMA is a good example, in that it set out from the very beginning to be a mediator between both industry and distribution and an emerging consumer society. They absorbed what commerce does well — for example, commercial settings and display techniques — and used it to cultivate an audience that was not only equipped with purchasing power, they were becoming tastemakers that would reshape the landscape of spectatorship.
Today, after a century of integrating artists into society, where they might reasonably dream of becoming commercially viable, we’ve inherited a tradition of quick art and art for the moment, brought on by the pressures of commercialization. This is probably the defining feature of contemporary art: nothing other than art being made now. Many artists saw this coming. They saw the oncoming rat race to be something like a long winter, and so they found compelling ways of preparing their work for hibernation, or of sending it through, like a letter, to the other side. Care Of is certainly indebted to this approach, but rather than survive the winter of commercialization, we’re trying to enlist the tools of commerce to overturn its homogenizing effects. Rather than quick art, we’re building time and building space into the commercial apparatus. This is all the more important when that interface, being digital, has little need for either.
So we’re less concerned with being anti-Capital than with putting Capital in its rightful place, where it can be an asset to creative integrity. Certainly commercial success has always been simultaneously a threat and a form of traction to the development of popular music. Its momentum can outweigh music’s ability to reinvent itself. This plays a less significant role in experimental music, but the question is the same for both: how can we continue to develop these two types of music? I feel that working with these two poles is like a shortcut for dealing with music in general.
By types, I mean something other than genres. Types are perennial, and although they find their articulation in an historical moment, they do not belong to one. There will always be popular music and experimental music, but genres are more historically rooted. So the dominant paradigm, where music and art are primarily defined by their contemporary moment, prohibits the development of types in favor of the production of genres. Although the streaming era is one of endless access, something is lost in the overabundance of genres and moments and experiences. As disinterested as I am in commercial viability, I believe it can be an unlikely ally in navigating towards this something.
Evolver.fm: This project has been running since January 2013, and the website itself might fold up and disappear soon — another level of “limited edition.” What has it revealed about the significance of numbering downloads (if any), and how have people responded to the project?
Schultz: The length of the website is measured by our digital inventory, so as downloads go out of stock, the site rolls up like a scroll and becomes less immediately understandable. What is loses in its explanatory powers and commercial cues, it gains in terms of opacity. I am drawn to this because downloads have the opposite problem of retinal art. We don’t understand downloads with our eyes at all. We understand them through our minds, which strips them of their particularity. To our minds, downloads are all the same and this makes them the perfect vehicle for an industry driven by the cloning of its every success and the lifeless rhythm of calculated novelty.
After a while, the website becomes something more to look at, and the question of using it is brought to the fore. It’s like a score where the main question is not of how to realize it, or which interpretation among the infinite reserve one might choose. Instead of these more automatic relationships to scores, it becomes a question of if the score is meant to be performed. Is it a score at all? I’m very much interested in this ability to travel under the radar and to leave something to decision, and this extends to the radar of experimentation. I’m not sure what pop music would be without relying on some stock gestures, but there’s no reason why experimental music has to sound experimental or why art should have to exhibit its criticality or its research angle.
Of course I’m interested in seeing the website turn into a trail of paper checks. Many people are keeping them, presumably in hopes of their value as art objects outweighing their initial value on paper. So it’s not altogether a gesture away from consumption, but a look at how prices are set. Pricing has little to do with who the artist is or what makes the work intriguing when you know more about its backstory. Prices are set in a much more arbitrary way — from the gut, behind closed doors, opaquely — and the market simply reacts to that. So by gradually stripping the site of its commercial programming, it more closely resembles the place where prices are set.
Then again, rather than produce a sensational flash followed by dwindling interest, this model encourages long term (or long tail) strategic relationships with customers who might want to snipe the last download, since the value of the downloads increases according to their edition number. If someone wants to get paid, it makes sense to wait for the last download worth 45 dollars. I want to see this play out. I could go with a larger distributor, but then the site would be gone overnight. It’s not really a question of how many albums we can sell, but of how slowly this can unfold while still building interest. I want a label that’s a slow burner.
To view this strangeness firsthand, and possibly get paid for downloading music, see Care Of Editions.