Alessandro Ludovico on Fri, 18 Apr 2003 21:26:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Peer-to-Peer: the collective, collaborative and liberated memory of sound.

Peer-to-Peer: the collective, collaborative and liberated memory of sound.
Alessandro Ludovico

[This text is part of the 'adonnaM.mp3 - Filesharing, the Hidden 
Revolution in the Internet' exhibition curated by Franziska Nori and 
the team into the Museum of Applied Arts in 
Frankfurt, opened to the public from the 19th of March to the 20th of 
April 2003 ].

"Consumers have very little interest in technology per se. What they 
value is what it can actually enable them to do."
Michael Robertson, founder of

The key to accessing one's own memory of sound.

The unstoppable popularity of peer-to-peer networks and of millions 
of mp3 files exchanged every day cannot simply be reduced to the 
usual equation 'free=everyone wants it'. There is something more 
complex and wider-ranging that makes neophyte users constantly rack 
their brains over how to make hardware and software mechanisms work 
to access the 'celestial jukebox'. This is the instinctive search for 
one's own experience of sound, everyone's memory of music which has 
found somewhere to begin afresh and re-establish those neural 
connections which produce indelible associations between events and 
tracks and tunes. Unlike any form of 'revival', decided from above by 
publishers, the peer and non-profit network offers large amounts of 
original, unmanipulated material which awakens familiar sensations 
and brings back memories. Downloading files compulsively, driven by 
the mania to take advantage of an 'open safe' thus means something 
more than accumulating cds full of files without actually having time 
to listen to them. This stereotype which is put about by the old 
media leads nowhere, because it forgets that everyone lives their 
lives intimately surrounded by sounds.

The free exchange of tracks, not for gain or small-scale business, 
seems as necessary to existence as looking again at certain photos or 
re- watching certain films at one's leisure. Fragments that were lost 
over time, records lent and never returned and that, thanks to 
digital swapping, turn up again. Music is in fact contained not only 
in the safes of industry or the dusty ledgers of copyright 
associations but in everyone's home, via the myriad cds, vinyl discs 
and cassettes which together represent an enormous heritage of music. 
Digitizing this heritage, although sometimes available only in 
snatches with technical limits, means it can take shape so that it 
can reach and satisfy anyone. The very notion of ownership of a music 
product is radically redefined by its changing into something which 
is not material. Apart from reassessing the contents one owns insofar 
as they are merely activators of other exchanges, peer-to-peer 
networks are perhaps the first model of contents 'on-demand' which 
has truly worked because it is negotiated between peers. The notion 
of a network has worked splendidly here since it is others who keep 
one's own memory of music.

The reward is not only 'obtaining' music but also taking part in an 
enormous collective process, as happens with a chat room, newsgroup 
or blog. Sharing one's files is thus no mere act of generosity or a 
gesture that it is hoped will encourage others to do the same, but an 
act of participation, proving one is part of a game, a process or a 
collective performance intended to liberate sounds and share them. As 
John Perry Barlow says, 'the more connected we become, the more 
obvious it is that we're all in this together'(1): this is the 
culture of the net which is expanding rapidly, rewarding collective 
consciousness, expressed via the artistic heritage of musicians and 
which lives again in our memory. Basically, as stated by 'Lord of the 
Borrowers', a highly active user making available his 54 Gigabytes of 
data: 'There are loads of people out there who have no idea of the 
use they could make of their computers ... I think I'm doing a public 
service.'(2) This is a similar concept to Michael Robertson's, who 
had conceived as a 'service bureau', based on the assumption 
that 'data changes the balance of power'(3) .

Thus a public service, but self-organized and self-generated with 
ramifications which, whenever pruned by court action, regrow and 
thrive more than ever, like creatures of myth. Once started, the 
sense of community knows no bounds. That was seen in the spring of 
2001 when the RIAA drew up a list of 135.000 tracks to be eliminated 
from the servers of Napster. Immediately there were groups and single 
users who came up with stratagems that were imaginative, to say the 
least, such as using the figure '2' instead of 'to' or writing the 
names of the tracks backwards or in pig latin, or even creating sites 
automatically converting the names into forms which could not be 
recognized by the automatic control mechanisms.(4) However, access to 
the files is subject to intrinsic limits such as the text search for 
the name of the artist or track, without taking account of other 
interrelations of data, such as dates of production, sound structures 
used and so on. Yet these limits do not discourage searching and 
sharing in a peer-to-peer social and socializing practice. Indeed, 
one of the most fascinating sides of MP3 compression technology is 
that its diffusion and direct consequences were not planned at the 
outset but, as in the best tradition of informal networks, have 
expanded incredibly thanks to ordinary word of mouth. Viewed in the 
abstract, the structure of a pc network with a large number of music 
files resembles that of a sort of huge sound machine able to satisfy 
most needs. This is the so-called 'Celestial Jukebox', an ideal 
machine able to reproduce almost any track recorded in the history of 

The main innovation of the MP3 compression system is that it has 
started new processes, both in composition and in the use of music, 
in line with the participatory structure of the net. The work of 
artists active on the net hinges on two concepts: the ramified 
spatial structure of sound information and the analogies between 
music files. 'Tetrasomia', for example, is a project by Stephen 
Vitiello: starting from four 'cardinal points' of sound Ð very short 
compositions of about a minute and a half each related to earth, 
water, air and fire Ð the surfer is guided to other sounds on the 
net, such as the frequencies from orbiting satellites or the 
twittering of certain birds that live in remote corners of the globe. 
The tracks do not cancel each other out during listening but can be 
layered and activated together form a small cross-section of sounds 
from the world put into a personal form. This sound panorama is 
possible thanks to a number of contributions outside the creation of 
the artist, who becomes a new point in a network concentrating the 
experiences of others. A similar concept lies behind the sound 
sculptures of Atau Tanaka, who in 'mp3q' shows a file of addresses 
processed into a three-dimensional textual structure where the user 
constructs a form of polyphony by making the files sound in a certain 

The artist intends the user to contribute to the work by pointing to 
new addresses and this request for cooperation breaks down the 
traditional barriers between artist and audience. This direct 
interaction mingles the roles of 'creator' and 'user', thus enabling 
real development of ideas which draw their strength from the fact 
that they are created and approved by the public. And the notion of 
collective contribution is also behind 'Collective Jukebox', an 
experiment inaugurated in 1996 by Frenchman Jerome Joy, whose 
intention was to combine the spontaneous donation of tracks with 
public use independently of the limits of space and time of the 
artists involved. Joy's work in fact combines the infrastructures of 
the net with those of traditional art, inviting anyone wanting to 
take part to make their tracks available at a publicly accessible 
internet address. Periodically, he then organizes and exhibits them 
via a real jukebox with thousands of files which are used in some 
kind of public space, such as a museum or café. Furthermore, the 
opportunity for reciprocal interaction opens further chances of 
processing carried out together with others, introducing a new social 
side into the production of sound. A musical artifact may indeed be 
the result of something done by more people than those normally in a 
band and so open up to an indefinite number of active participants 
who make a significant contribution to the final product. This 
concept is applied to particular advantage in 'Sound Injury', a 
mailing list for electronic musicians which ends interaction between 
members every month with a piece composed collectively. The list 
follows a simple procedure: a sound is distributed to all members who 
modify it and then resubmit it to the other participants. The process 
lasts thirty days with all the chaotic intermediate stages until the 
definitive version.

A more playful sort of exchange recasts Peer-to-Peer networks as an 
easy hiding place for suitably disguised data. In 'Siren's Voice' by 
the media company 'plinq', the user is invited to take part in the 
plot of a story by locating its missing parts hidden in exchange 
networks. The story is structured so that some parts are located in 
tracks with apparently ordinary titles distributed on Peer-to-Peer 
networks and which can be recognized by working together, which 
enables the story to be completed. These search mechanisms have a 
structure of data flows which only materialize in the minds of those 
involved in the interaction. The antipodes of this approach is the 
art of constructing software showing real images inside the 
abstractions that are files and producing a sort of microscope 
showing the normally invisible processes of the formation of blocks 
of digital numbers. 'Minitasking', by German duo Schoenerwissen, 
follows this principle, working on a particularly large data flow 
generated by the Gnutella network. Coloured 'balls', as the artists 
call them, represent the content of the file in size and colour, 
bringing out their intrinsic instability by dynamically mapping the 
data involved. MP3 is now a medium in itself, as shown by a number of 
media operations which can easily be defined as performances. 
Currently on Peer-to-Peer networks, intentionally wrong names and 
titles are given to shared tracks, which disorients exchange and 
makes the user realize the fallible nature of 'packages' of 
non-material goods.

This approach is sometimes taken by small labels in search of glory, 
such as Evolution Controlled Creations (EEC), who distributed their 
tracks by saying they were unpublished items by Nirvana. The American 
record industry lobby, evidently in trouble, uses the same detour 
approach to discourage the spread in advance of new, long-awaited 
albums. This has produced companies like MediaDefender, one of whose 
services is the sale of the activation of many simultaneous downloads 
of a track on Peer-to-Peer networks to make it inaccessible. This 
form of conservative opposition is an attempt to make comprehensible 
a phenomenon far too complex and diversified to be so and which 
spreads with no technical obstacles in its path. The quickest net 
language is worm viruses and they have clear effects on the user's 
emotional vulnerability and hardware. Trusting that some music 
swappers might feel guilty, in July 2001 a hoax group sent out a 
communiqué saying that on 4 July, (American Independence Day), all 
computers on earth would crash due to a virus called MusicPanel and 
all MP3 files contained in them with the five hundred best-known 
tracks would become unusable. Posted on some newsgroups (including, it clearly shows how media panic can be 
instigated and is also a slap in the face of censors who have used 
similar tones when launching their crusades.(5) This technique has 
been used on other occasions, such as 1998 when a similar hoax 
described a new worm called 'Bloat' which would supposedly make the 
MP3 files on a hard disk five times as big.(6) The useless guilt 
feeling instilled by commercial marketing concerning the free 
exchange of sound goods which have been legitimately purchased brings 
with it new forms of cultural rebellion which come out in unsuspected 

Plagiarism: MP3 is the message.

Liberalization of music tracks via MP3 files in Peer-to-Peer networks 
is a fundamental of a whole artistic scene called plagiarist, which 
is another way of saying the free use of sound content in digital 
format. The opposition and enthusiastic support aroused by these 
artists over the years concerns exclusive copyright, which is 
beginning to waver. It will inevitably soon dissolve in the face of 
the new media and their technical possibilities of manipulation and 
reproduction. Various artists have shown the paradox of a system 
which has gone against its noble origins as an artistic defence, 
turning into merely a crutch for the record industry. As irreverent 
jesters of a commercial system blindly hanging on to its own 
privileges, the members of the band Negativland have always been 
passionate about sampling 'spoken' material, from TV jingles to radio 
talk shows with almost maniacal accuracy in editing and often manage 
to show just how obsessive something commercial can be, thus 
short-circuiting our over stimulated attention system. They became 
famous because of a legal challenge which dragged them into a bizarre 
sentence of which they tell the story in their book ''Fair Use: The 
story of the letter U and the numeral 2', where they also explain the 
techniques applied here. In 1991, the band issued on the SST label a 
single which had 'U2' over almost all of the cover with a U2 spy 
plane in the background and the name 'Negativland' in small print, 
while the vinyl contained two parodies with 35 seconds of a sample of 
'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. Sales figures were not 
above the average for the group's other products, i.e. 15.000 copies 
against the millions sold soon afterwards of 'Zooropa', the next 
album by U2 themselves. 'Island', U2's label at the time, demanded 
all available copies be destroyed and $90.000 in damages, which 
Negativland agreed to pay because they could not afford the costs of 
a trial.

The serious economic repercussions of an episode of this kind became 
the symbol of a battle in which the only weapons available are irony 
and sarcasm applied to the production of culture and transmitted via 
a dense network of exchanges. Negativland became a sort of icon for 
the free use of sound samples and continued their valuable artistic 
and political work which is half-way between art and propaganda. They 
also supported other campaigns, such as 'Toywar Lullabies', an album 
issued in 2000 by the Etoy group of artists in an attempt to get back 
the domain which had been taken away by a large toy company. 
Their core idea is that 'copyright came from the idea that people who 
create have to be properly paid for what they do, not that they have 
to get every possible payment that derives from it' and as Don Joyce, 
one of the members of the band says, 'any fragmentary use of someone 
else's work should be absolutely free' (8). This is one reason why 
net artists 0100101110101101.ORG asked Negativland to compose a piece 
for their project 'Glasnost', intended to put out as much public data 
as possible on themselves. The track entitled 'What's this noise?' 
uses samples of a month of private phone calls between the artists 
and others who were unaware of what was happening and brings to the 
fore all the uncertainties everyone has concerning the invasion of 
privacy. Other artists are also aware of the experimental potential 
of sampling and use it to compose, such as Canadian John Oswald, who 
has received the attention of lawyers representing a major record 
company. His sound collages are full of rapidly changing sequences of 
such famous sacred figures as James Brown and especially Michael 
Jackson, and the artistic quality of his editing is never in doubt. 
His own definition of this style is 'plunderphonics', i.e. 'audio 
piracy as a compositional prerogative'. And it was these particular 
samples which in 1989 led CBS Records and the Canadian Record 
Industry Association to take action, despite the phrase 'Not For 
Sale' appearing on the cds and the fact that they were distributed 
free of charge. Nor have the minutely detailed 'credits' on each 
album been enough to get the composer out of trouble. In a subsequent 
work called 'Plexure', Oswald attempted to assemble five thousand 
fragments by five thousand famous pop stars, changing their names but 
leaving them recognizable, e.g. 'Sinead O'Connick' or 'Bing 
Stingspreen' and working on the progressive speed of the entire 

'It's a work on the recognizability of information, seeing that in 
the end there are so many familiar starting points that the memory 
quite literally gets lost in its own meanderings,' as Oswald himself 
says, although he regrets that in music 'there is no convention about 
putting in quotation marks as is done when quoting a text'. 
Over-zealous bureaucracy aside, it really would be twisted thinking 
to consider these sound works as a theft of intellectual property, 
because purchasing the support on which the original works are 
recorded also means purchasing the right to listen. David Toop, an 
English journalist and author of 'Ocean of Sounds', stresses that the 
purchaser of an album also pays for the right to ignore the artist's 
intentions completely, to massacre the product as much as they like 
and to listen in a variety of creative ways, thus changing it 
utterly.(10) The latter is markedly different from what is commonly 
called plagiarism, since it is a new reprocessing of the material 
used, treating the digital samples as a violinist uses the notes 
written on a stave. This is also the attitude of the label 'Illegal 
Art', supported by media activists RTMark, which issued the famous 
'Deconstructing Beck', an album obtained by sampling and 
restructuring tracks by the musician Beck and obviously alerting the 
lawyers of Geffen/BMG. Notice of the decision to sue was sent by 
email, since the only way of contacting the mysterious label was an 
email address. Even more incredibly, BMG did not yet have a copy of 
the cd, (1.000 copies had been pressed and quickly sold), and so 
based their demands and threats on the 'word of mouth' echoing around 
the internet.

The next work by Illegal Art was 'Extracted Celluloid', a brilliant 
collage of samples of film music used 'in direct opposition to the 
sound clichés they were taken from'. It is an exemplary work in the 
deconstruction of tunes remembered by most people living in Western 
countries, with samples from such soundtracks as 'Titanic', 'Saturday 
Night Fever', 'The Wizard Of Oz' and 'Dr. Strangelove'. Yet again, 
this shows that digital files are not only a medium for carrying 
sound but also political and social content. An even more outstanding 
case in this respect was the censure of the DeCSS source code, 
(Descrambling Content Scrambling System), the industry code 
protecting the DVD standard. After a sentence forbidding its 
'publication', one of the many alternative channels became an MP3 
file (decss.mp3) in which a voice synthesizer 'sings' the code. 
Initially the piece was available as an unpublished track in a free 
space on and then removed by the company since, according to 
an official communiqué, it contained 'a title or lyrics deemed 
offensive or inappropriate'.

The effectiveness of these operations lies in finding technical 
mechanisms which are perfectly legal and which, although they cannot 
be attacked, show how backward the procedures of institutional 
protection are. Another conceptual hacking is 'Dictionaraoke', a real 
stroke of genius, consisting of a collection of over one hundred pop 
classics from the past thirty years, sung in perfect artificial 
English. The 'Snuggles', a group of fans of Negativland, hosted these 
tracks in which the original lyrics are sung by the pronunciation 
tools of the widely used English dictionaries and encyclopaedias 
found online. In 'Don't go breaking my heart', for example, there is 
a duet between the 'voice' of Merriam Webster OnLine and of 
Microsoft's Encarta Online. All the tracks are non-copyright, in free 
download and in mp3 format. The whole thing not only enables a better 
understanding of the lyrics but also provides valuable instructions 
on how to assemble other tracks by oneself by using this mix of 
technologies. This putting together and interfacing different 
techniques thus makes it paradoxical that the operation cannot be 
attacked legally and opens another window onto the overall 
understanding of the uselessness of copyright as currently applied. 
It is the strategic key for the growth of contemporary culture, ready 
to take back the heritage of music which belongs to it.


Collective Jukebox
Sound Injury
Siren's Voice
What's the noise
Illegal Art


(1) Barlow, John Perry. 'The Next Economy of Ideas', Wired 8.10, Oktober 2000
(2) O'Brien, Jeffrey M. 'Would You Download Music From This Man?', 
Wired 10.05, May 2002
(3) Lessig, Lawrence 'The Future of Ideas', Vintage, 2001
(4) Ýberraschung: die Napster-Filter funktionieren nicht
(7) Leopoldseder Hannes, Schöpf Christine, 'Minitasking' in 
'Cyberarts 2002', Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002
(8) Hultkrans, Andrew 'U2 Can Sue Sample Simon', Mondo 2000, Issue 8, 1992
(9) Gans, David, 'The man who stole the Michael Jackson's face', 
Wired 3.02 February 1995
(10) Toop, David, 'Oceano di Suoni', Costa e Nolan 1999

March, 2003.


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