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<nettime> The Net Is Not the Club
supertxt on 11 Oct 2000 02:27:49 -0000


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<nettime> The Net Is Not the Club


[written for one bit louder www.mi.cz/obl, updated for the reader of the
http://net.congestion.org steaming media festival]

The Net Is Not the Club
Ulrich Gutmaier

MP3s evolution from pirate tech to the newest tool of capitalism gone
cybernetic. Until recently, the Internet was the mythical space where
everyone could store their utopias according to their desires. Anarchists on
the left discovered a space free of control which they had thought was lost
forever, whereas anarchists on the right ("libertarians") described the net
in short as the conception of a 'free' global market, providing flat
hierarchies for producers and brokers of information. Any consequences of
loading this new space with your favourite teleology were not to be feared.
What seemed to be nothing more than a question of faith or an expression of
a fundamental ideological schism has now become a genuine conflict about
control of channels. This conflict paradoxically might shape an economy that
incorporates features which you thought were revolutionary a minute ago.
Since it is not only possible to receive text and images on the Internet,
but also sound of an acceptable quality, global markets have become
accessible. The Big Players in the entertainment industries are confronted
with a fundamental problem of the digital age because of new sound formats
like MP3: every copy of a sound file is as original as the original.

With MP3, audio-pirates have the ultimate tool in their hands whilst
musicians can very easily launch their own independent labels. "A band can
become like a broadcaster" declared Public Enemy rapper Chuck D. and thus
re-formulated the observation that on the internet, in principal, all
senders and recipients are alike. The idea of a Temporary Autonomous
Internet Zone is just as real as its antithesis of a market place of the
future.

With MP3 you can upload and download sound files on the Internet with a
quality almost as good as a CD, whereas a CD-Rom Burner, like the good old
cassette recorder, is only effective on a local basis. Digital sounds are
not only easily copied, but can also be sent from A to B via the Internet
with just a single click.

Until recently, the music industry disregarded the home computer as an
intimate interface between producer and consumer, and used it only as a
place to sell over-priced CDs by the dozen. At the same time, however, pop
music was booming over the Internet in the form of MP3 files. Where the
introduction of the Compact Disk with its low production costs promised fat
profits for the supplier who positioned himself between the musicians and
the consumer, MP3 reduced the business of mediation by large enterprises to
a level where it became virtually obsolete. If sampling was the most
significant cultural technique of the 90s, digital formats are
revolutionizing distribution at this point in time.

Public Enemy, themselves sampling geniuses, are now fighting the power
online with MP3. When Polygram in 1998 constantly postponed the launch of
the remix-album "Bring the Noise 2000", Chuck D. simply put their tracks on
the net by using MP3. By going to www.public.enemy.com you could tune in for
free to exactly what the industry kept away from fans. In legal terms,
Public Enemy thus have become pirates of their own work.

The Polygram tracks have disappeared from the Internet in the meantime,
therefore allowing Public Enemy to live in the knowledge that they are
standing at the foremost in the anti-corporate frontlines. Their single
"Swindler's Lust" which was offered as a free download contains a tirade
against the music industry: "If you don't own the master, the master owns
you." In the end, the legal characteristics of the formats prove to be more
decisive than the technical, and the real exploiters of copyright are all
too often not the artists themselves. For Chuck D. the representatives of
the music industry are nothing more than pimps. But the new format however
is the end of such exploitative behavior: "MP3 is a technology they can't
pimp," he says. (Despite the fact that Public Enemy have resorted to
technology as a medium for and object of political discussion, they still
seem to be the same guys: This is demonstrated by their more than
questionable anti-Semitic undertones they use to establish the criticism of
capitalism in tracks like Swindler's Lust.)

The 'pimps', however, do not stay passive despite the threats and are
fighting back. In 1999, the German music industry had shut down hundreds of
Internet sites, on which stolen copies in MP3 format had been offered. But
it seems this was not about actual damage, but more a PR strategy. In the
current struggle for the power of definition on the new phenomenon, the
industry is using the discursive killer application of "piracy". If this
concept does not work in dominating public debate and attacking MP3, a
studio and a cool website should be enough to reach millions of consumers in
the future - if you have the means to get access to people's attention, of
course.

With the creation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the
powerful Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) set up their own
security organisation to protect the copyrights on "intellectual property"
of the multinationals. Where text, picture, video and sound converge in
binary code, this category of property which carries the ornament of the
"intellectual" finds a warm place to grow. "Intellectual property" (and this
is not only reported by stock exchange rates) is a form of ownership which
in the digital nutrient solution is apparently undergoing an explosive
expansion. If the idea of "intellectual property" in view of cultural
products may still appear to be illuminating, categorical doubts should be
raised at the latest when a human gene is patented as an invention. Or at
least when the whole gene pool equivalent to a few hundred square miles of
the Amazon forest can be privatized under the banner of "intellectual
property".

When the subject is copyright, you could ask yourself about which or whose
legal rights we are talking. Does culture by definition not belong to all?
For Richard Stallman, a free software pioneer, the music industry has long
ago lost its status as a socially necessary structure. Whilst it used to be
needed in order to make as many people as possible enjoy music, it has
meanwhile become an organisation to which musicians and consumers are
equally unimportant. Musicians, who struggle in vain for copyright
protection, do not normally receive a penny until their products really
start raking in the cash. The huge amounts spent on marketing and the
creation of publicity are usually labeled as an 'advance' to the artists.
They are the ones that bear the risk whilst the record companies stand on
the safe side of the actual copyright owner.

According to Stallman, the free distribution of music on the Internet gains
enough publicity for bands so that they can become less dependent on record
companies. Similar to the question of collective heritage which is raised by
the privatization of the genetic code of the rainforests, the debate on
ownership and copyright should not focus on legal terms, but on an idea of
social relevance. But the monopolists of the cultural industry are only
interested in society in so far as it is a conglomerate of target groups.
SDMI attempts to create a new protected, 'safe' format, in order to
re-monopolize ways of doing business. This lead to heavy criticism of the
SDMI from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobby organisation of
Internet companies with a libertarian hippie tradition. They believe that
safe software in conjunction with new hardware aims at closed circulation,
so that free copies of sound files would no longer be available. At the end
of development we would see the concept that *every* copy of a sound file
(which might not even be copyright protected, because you recorded it
yourself) would be violating copyright. Reacting against such plans for
closed circulation, the EFF formed the opinion that audio is a primary way
of expression: 'Speech' is audio and without free audio there would be no
freedom of speech, declared EFF-spokesperson John Perry Barlow.

Barlow should know. The guy who believes that music belongs to all of us is
an ex-associate of the Californian hippie band and commune Grateful Dead,
who always encouraged their fans to distribute bootlegs of their music. It
never harmed the Grateful Dead, but eventually led Deadheads to form the
community of the WELL, which was technically based on a Bulletin Board
System and allowed mutual exchange of all kinds of information, thus
establishing a gift economy which was influential for the shaping of early
net culture. An economy which now seems to inspire new ways of making
business by creating virtual communities. These communities serve as data
pools, test beds of consumer behavior and market places for 'customised'
commodities, such as Cycosmos for example.

In the middle of 1999, the RIAA had its first setback. They lost a trial in
which they had attempted to prohibit the use of an MP3 Walkman. The product,
sold under the name Rio, enabled the direct downloading of MP3s in a
portable device. The RIAA had claimed to no avail that Rio was a "digital
audio recording device". This kind of fight against new technologies is as
old as the cultural industries themselves. If it was the printing of scores
or gramophones or tape recorders - the music industry always claimed that
new technologies would threaten their existence. But in the end every
technical progress was successfully incorporated into the structures of Big
Business. If closed circulation can not be implemented on the level of
technology, it surely will serve as a model for creating closed environments
of consumer communities.

After the introduction of the cassette recorder, the music industry pointed
the moral finger at the widespread use of such dangerous reproduction
devices. In the early 1980s they printed the warning 'Home taping is killing
music' on the inner sleeves of their records. Then, Punk replied.
Independent labels were founded, own slogans printed: "Home taping is
killing the music industry, keep up the good work!" At the beginning of
2000, you can replace 'home taping' by 'MP3'. The option could be real,
again. But more likely is the outcome of MP3 as the industry's own new
killer app, because it is forcing the industry to upgrade their marketing
techniques.

As it was the case with independent production being neutralized by
semi-autonomous sub-labels created and owned by the multinationals in the
1980s (the economic undercurrent of the shift from Punk to New Wave on the
surface), the industry now tries to use independent production and the
users' needs for community to create new forms of digital distribution.
These new models deliberately operate under the superstar level and focus on
unknown bands and producers by giving them platforms to publish their
material on the net. As a byproduct the A&R people of big companies have
easy access to consumers' wishes, new trends and promising producers.

The idea of such a platform for young unknown artists was successfully
implemented by peoplesound.com last year, at least in terms of user rates.
The company was founded by former record company executives who raised 75
million dollars of venture capital. Peoplesound.com even pays an advance of
160 Euros to artists who manage to be accepted by the company's experts. If
concepts like peoplesound.com turn out to be successful in actually creating
revenue, this might bring about some change in the structure of the music
industry. Smart start-ups will exploit the inability of the Big Players to
react and adapt quickly to the new network environment, but business as a
proliferation of now more or less 'customised' entertainment products is far
from being threatened.

In upgrading to smarter forms of marketing we might see the rise of a
cybernetic capitalism, where the techniques of tracking users' desires and
the distribution of customised products will merge to an almost organic
process of endless feedback. Digital pop culture will then be defined within
the relationship between you and your net terminal only, as an infinite loop
of interlinked suggestions, desires and info-objects. Thus MP3 is neither a
problem for the cultural industries nor a vehicle of artistic freedom as
such. The possibilities of MP3 for distributing your own, independent
expressions are only technical. Real impact emerges from a social practice
which is relatively immune to the more and more personalized marketing
techniques developed by the industries of style. A practice which therefore
is able to disappear beyond the horizon of attention.

The debate on the cultural and social implications of new technologies and
formats like MP3 should not forget that there is an outside of the network
system as well, which might be much more important for the creation of
autonomous spaces. Thus the people of Berlin's independent techno label
Elektro (www.elektro.fm) have made a good point in declaring that the net is
an interesting space, but will never achieve the same social significance as
the club: "It's the game again. It's about accumulation and isolation. It's
the opposite of a club. And we wished you rather did the opposite of the
internet, but if you don't, enjoy it anyway."

(parts of this text were translated from german by sheindal cohen)


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