Ideals are Free
Last time out I did a fairly limited job of advocating a skill sharing site which, as a lesser function, I believed could help some artists earn some money – a suggestion which led to extensive debate and proved, if it needed proving, that opinions on money in the free music community are divided say the least. A discussion emerged though and, despite disagreements, it remained a matter for those within the wider community to discuss – today I’m asking what happens if an issue like that is taken out of our control; what happens if the sharks close in?
Free music for most of us doesn’t just represent a system of sharing but also a sense of freedom to both artists and listeners, both musical exploration and experimentation are key attractions to the concept and ones which, wherever you go, whatever net label you listen to and whatever site you visit will fairly consistently be recognised as the great strengths of our way of doing things. We do, however, remain a definite minority though and putting aside the question of internal, artist led side avenues to profit for a while there remains a world beyond our borders which would happily take aspects of the free music ideal and subvert them towards more brazenly commercial ends. Beyond artists releasing physical copies of their downloads, or gigging or even licensing their music there’s the possibility here for real, hard commercialism to assert itself.
Already services like Spotify are bending the definitions of ‘commercial’ music, offering free access to work which has clearly been released with profit as the driving factor – which thus far hasn’t been openly labelled free music but it does show that those who dominate the mainstream are opening their eyes to the potential of giving away the music whilst also making vast amounts of money – money which will rarely end up with the artist themselves. Beyond that free downloads have also been used fairly widely as a simple promotional tool, offered up to audiences by the media savvy as some great, symbolic act of generosity but almost always intended to increase profits one way or another. Whatever the motives though such actions suggest a system of free distribution which could ultimately be just as a business led, creatively stifled and artist-unfriendly as the traditional way of doing things. And it may end up being a model dictated by serious business interests which ends up being recognised as the ‘free music’ scene, leaving truly artist led and open creation as the hobbyist hinterland in its shadows – much the same as has happened with individual genres in the past as the innovators find themselves unknown as shallow imitations are asserted as the ‘original’ foundations of the music.
I know that for some this threat is a matter for indifference, after all regardless of what notion of free music the wider world holds we can still hold our corner, net labels will still operate and music will still be made no matter how sidelined from most peoples lives it is. It’s far from a limited viewpoint to say that we’re not in conflict with the mainstream and that our system isn’t and needn’t ever be a direct challenge to theirs, although you needn’t have read much to know that my own views are pretty much the opposite of that for a whole litany of reasons best suited to an article of their own. Either way there remains a valid threat from bloody minded commercialism, not just to the sort of hopes I hold for free music but also to those who hope that the movement can exist in isolation without any major moves being made to expand or promote it. It’s not just the threat of losing the identity of free music in favour of commercial imitations of it; there’s also the ever-present commercial tactic of ram-raiding any movement which shows genuine creativity or originality and stealing from it on a wholesale scale. Which even in the best case scenario involves cherry-picking the artists they believe can make money and in the worst simply ripping off and re-branding their work under a more marketable banner, an approach which has littered the history of commercially motivated music distribution. Even for those who don’t dream of expanding the concept of what we do I can’t imagine that there’s much joy in the prospect of it becoming simply another marketing tool for management companies and major labels or simply a talent pool to be poached from. Five years down the line we could see just that happening, with the openly distributed (not shared) music which most people recognise being just as dictated and controlled as the top 40 is today.
I can’t suggest any real solutions myself, obviously a large chunk of this potentially dark evolutionary path relies on factors beyond anyone’s comprehension; there’s no saying how net labels will change or what artists both inside and outside of the movement will choose to do in an era which increasingly offers them control over their own work and in part simply hoping for the best and continuing to promote, enjoy and advocate our way of doing things is all anyone can do. There are lessons to be learned though. Looking back at the previous acts of cultural theft perpetrated by the mainstream the consistent factor which made it possible is that localised, isolated movements who can’t get their music and ideas heard rarely have any defence when the money men come to steal their identity.