Speaking Free

Hearing voices…

I might be amongst the last to notice, or, in my permanently dazed (and often confused) state, I might be the only one who sees it at all, but of late there seems to be a growing sense of schizophrenia around the free music movement. More and more people seem to be fixing their eyes on the core of what we’re doing and trying to figure out what the hell’s actually there and what we should be doing about it. Far more devoted people than myself have already stepped forward to ask the most basic of defining questions about what we’re doing; ‘Can free music be a major alternative to the commercial model?’, ‘How close are free and open actually meant to be?’, ‘Should we even bother asking, or just enjoy?’ and a dozen other defining issues seem to be emerging, or re-emerging with a new sense of relevence to them and next to no consensus about the answers. A situation which, unfortunately, I’m either far too smart or far too lazy to try and remedy by actually attempting to conjur up solutions and ideas for. In fairness, it’s probably the latter.

Personally I’ve always carried my own rampant contradictions over what I actually think/want free music and netaudio to embody, a confusion which I’ve always quite enjoyed to be honest, if only because it allows me plenty of scope to disagree with myself whenever I feel compelled to, thus rarely if ever being caught out as wrong. Except when I am of course, which almost never happens. Anyway, I’ve indulged all of… this as everything from a cultural revolution to a path to respectability to just another way to hear new music and from day to day I still manage to maintain at least some enthusiasm for one potential path or another through this new cultural landscape – which in the past struck me as my own confused fervour for the whole lot of it but which, I’m slowly coming to realise, might just reflect the inherent confusion of what we’re attempting to do.

Free isn’t free unless I say so…

Creative Commons, netaudio, free music, open culture – all terms which feed into the same disparate community and which hold different levels of value for every individual who comes across them. From the comparatively aspirational and driven types (a rare breed), who see a way to live off of their art in this mess of ideas to the purists, who want everything open and everything free – everyone finds their own model of this little scene to cling too and, without ever seeming to knock heads, everyone manages to live by those models. Comparing one extreme to another there’s an impressive lack of coherency going on under a stubbornly held banner which throws in the self-branding media saviness of actively self-promoting artists together with the determined obscuritanists of the ultra-Experimental sound landscaping cul-de-sacs. And yet everybody and their dog still maintains some symbolic loyalty to those initial key terms, stretched and subjective as they’ve universally become. It’s the sort of gloriously confused mix of aspirations and ideas that could only be suitably represented by a warehouse full of drugged up extremist chimps trying to build a pyramid out of arguments and hallucinatory bricks. Which, when you think about it, actually sounds quite entertaining.

I admire all of those who, amidst the chaos, try to make some sense out of the cultural rules we’re attempting to play by, I try it myself often enough, but sometimes people forget just how abstracted the concepts we’re playing with actually are. Like student philosophers around a pub table we do have a habit of ending up fixating on the minuatae of ideas which no one but ourselves understand and which even we can’t agree on. Or even more impressively we talk coherently about whole movements which only we, having devoted ourselves to their outlining, can actually see. Put two free music ‘activists’ at an open bar and they’ll have emptied it before they’ve even agreed on whether the booze is free or not and why should that be any surprise? Just about the only solid tool which we can all point to is the Creative Commons licensing system and even then you miss out a whole chunk of people who release ‘free’ music whilst retaining copyright, or who don’t equate CC with their concept of ‘free’, or who use CC to release their work for profit.

Whatever it is, I like it…

So we end up with a million different concepts being promoted by a million different people in a million different ways and still we talk about a ‘movement’ or a ‘scene’. Perhaps there is some basic, fundamental understanding between everyone, perhaps the spirit of the thing is universal even if the practical manifestations are as many and varied as their advocats – if that’s true then perhaps there is a role for those who want to make sense of this grand and unlikely alliance. Or perhaps there isn’t any unity around the vast spectrum of ideas and manifestations this little niche contains. Ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter that much either way. At the end of it all the music remains the music and peoples’ love of it remains the same. Better, undoubtedly, if an album or track lives up to whatever you think free is but in the end it’s the music which creates cultural life, not the tools and the music will take whatever form and path it sees fit, or rather whatever form the hordes of people involved in creating, covering, experiencing and promoting it create and that’s an end none of us can guess at, no matter how deeply we want to define the tools and terms we use.

– Dylan @ Beat Lizard.c

Netlabelism Written by:


  1. March 11, 2011

    Interesting read, once again. I think there’s not so much disagreement as regards to the motive behind the music. Of course there might be purists who won’t listen to commercially-released music, but I have yet to meet one. I believe most of the people who know what a netlabel is have music they like in their playlists, the motives behind which range in the full spectrum between pure monetary profit pursuit to pure public domain expression.

    The disagreement starts when people consider things related to but other than the music itself. And here I disagree that we are like philosophers or thinkers, because as you said there’s not much to think about or argue. The different opinions originate from the different experiences, surroundings and predispositions of the people who express them. Personally, I have never put much effort into creating a structure of ideas which I abide by when it comes to music-related issues. I just do, say and support what feels right to me. Making an event happen on a Thursday, right after your “real” work and having a blast out of it without worrying about paying or getting paid by, advertising or getting advertised by anyone feels right to me. Seeing a banner saying “YOUR AD HERE” on a website that promotes netlabels and free music just doesn’t. And if you ask me why, I’ll try to form the correct arguments that may seem like some kind of philosophy (how advertisement itself is a by-product of consumerism and blahzay blah…), but the truth is that it’s just how I feel and nothing else.

    But the music itself has nothing to do with all this. A great manifestation of this fact, in electronic music at least, is what I call the ‘play button effect’. I certainly didn’t invent the concept but I have witnessed it and I advocate it’s existence. I first witnessed it the first time I played live in a small festival (the first time I had a real audience). I was stressing over my set and was feeling nervous and was looking pissed off. So a fellow soundmaker with many years in the live-playing business says to me: “Just wait till you press the play button on your sequencer. The stress goes away after that moment.”. And it really does in that context. But the play button effect is also there whenever you start your audio player. Licensing schemes, scene models, promotion channels – such details don’t matter after the play button has been pressed.

  2. March 11, 2011

    I just want to clarify something. You said “…you miss out a whole chunk of people who release ‘free’ music whilst retaining copyright…” as if CC licensed music is no longer copyrighted. That’s just not so. CC licensing is a supplement to normal Copyright. Not a replacement.

  3. dylan
    March 11, 2011

    @Michael – Poorly phrased on my part, didn’t mean to suggest that CC in any way negates the usual rights granted by Copyright, just trying to highlight the difference between those who’ve adopted CC and those who’re still using basic copyright whilst releasing for free.

  4. March 12, 2011

    Thanks again for a thought provoking essay.

    Culture does not require consensus. If we have ties that bind, we don’t have to agree on what those ties are! 🙂

  5. […] is a response to a recent article titled Speaking Free, written by my friend Dylan Orchard, on the uncertainty of the direction and focus of the netaudio […]

  6. […] is a response to a recent article titled Speaking Free, written by my friend Dylan Orchard, on the uncertainty of the direction and focus of the netaudio […]

  7. March 25, 2011

    “Can free music be a major alternative to the commercial model?” Yes. I do think so.

    I write this with over 10 years experience working the “commercial music model”. As a record label, as a digital distributor, a bands manager, and in a professional recording studio as well. All these years confined to work within traditional copyright’s parameters of the industry. I’ve dealt with major labels and publishers. I’ve pretty much seen the commercial model from the inside out. The commercial model is deeply wounded, not to say dead.

    There is just so much music out there, and the free music / netlabelism movement is very very niche and therefore has very limited reach. If there was more collaboration then the reach would grow exponentially.

    For it to become an alternative, Netlabels have to start working together and free music has to connect with the Regular Joe’s. All you need for that to happen is for a netlabel artists to cross over. Out of the underground and into mainstream.

    The question really is “Is there room for collaboration in the netlabelism model?”


    Great piece Dylan, I really enjoyed reading, Thank you. Cheers from Montreal!

  8. […] is a response to a recent article titled Speaking Free, written by my friend Dylan Orchard, on the uncertainty of the direction and focus of the netaudio […]

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