Are the Floodgates of Public’s Access to Information and of Global Communication Irreversibly Open?

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s writings on piracy culture, particularly The Anarchist in the Library, references numerous examples of the church and crown’s efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the flow of information to protect their power.  In a chapter discussing the history of control, there are clear parallels between the Catholic Church and those of the United States with the implementation of The Patriot Act.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe was the first to produce a handwritten English manuscript of the 80 books of the Bible.  44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope declared him a heretic, banned his writings, and ordered a posthumous execution.  His bones were dug-up, crushed, burned, and scattered in a river.  Similarly in the 16th century, William Tyndale was the first to translate and print the New Testament into English.  As a result he was imprisoned for 500 days, strangled and burned at the stake.

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William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).

By the dawn of the 21st century, the freedom of information that came with the printing press experienced its most-recent incarnation with the world wide web and social media.  The Patriot Act was the government’s struggle for control over the anarchic freedom that was the internet and came in the form of mass-surveillance.

Edward Snowden became the latest in the line of dissidents who worked to empower the public by exposing the corruption of the government, just as Tyndale and Wycliffe before him.  And a curious web search for the terms “Spanish Inquisition” + “Patriot Act” instantly returns a piece by Walter Cronkite comparing and contrasting the two systems from 2003.

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger states in his article, Who Says We Know that “Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion.”  This same dissemination of distribution is what resulted in the music industry’s panic and frenzied struggle for control with crippling technologies like DRM and its continued anti-piracy campaign.  There is simply no longer a need for the monopolistic record labels that once commanded the industry.  Artists are empowered to distribute their content directly and can communicate with their fanbase without a commercial intermediary.  This artist-empowerment is expertly discussed by Amanda Palmer in her book, The Art of Asking (and in her TED Talk of the same name.)

20141103.Amanda-Palmer_TheArtofAsking-635-2-thumb-620xauto-80148Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

In each of these milestones in the history of information freedom, the acts have been irreversible.  Gutenberg’s printing press empowered the public good through democratization of information – making it inexpensive and readily-accessible.  The web has been much the same, only exponentially more potent.

Still, small but persistent communities continue to prepare for a dystopian world war over information.  They archive the Wikipedia daily and hypothesize alternate methods of mass-communication should the Web as we know it come under fire.  Is their fear valid?

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An eBook export of the Wikipedia

It is difficult to envision a scenario in which first-world governments could close the floodgates of the world-wide web without immediate and drastic reprisal from the public at large who have come to view the internet as a right and a public utility.  Furthermore, global commerce, banking, and the mechanics of industry could not likely stand to make such a sacrifice in the name of control.  Shutting down the web would thrust the global economy into an instantaneous dark age and entire systems of utility, government and finance would collapse.

What are your thoughts?  Is our access to information irreversibly free?  Need we take measures to stockpile and protect the information we have today in preparation for a darker tomorrow?

How Music Got Free – Cover to Cover

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Thrilled to have received my copy of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free in the post on its date of official publication, I made myself comfortable, put on a full pot of coffee, and eagerly dove into what I anticipated would be a fast-favorite addition to my library.

The book quickly settles into an exciting rhythm – its chapters circling around the activities of key figures in the story of the music industry and of music piracy in the last thirty years. It begins with the struggle of Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop his MP3 audio compression format over twelve years of fine-tuning and a constant battle for acknowledgment by a fiercely competitive industry.

The action then jumps to a few seemingly inconsequential men working at the PolyGram compact disc manufacturing plant in North Carolina – an unsuspecting locale for the most pivotal characters in the end of an industry.

A chapter later, we are privy to private exchanges between the newly-appointed CEO of Warner Music and his fellow overseers of the empire. As the story unfolds, we follow these figures through label acquisitions and purges, through major shifts in industrial policy, through aimless crackdowns on “pirates” including the elderly, the deceased, and a 12-year-old girl who’d downloaded the theme song to Family Matters.

As these individual stories progress, the reader develops an in-depth perspective of the tumultuous end of an era for recorded music. The author offers an astoundingly detailed account of the lives and conversations of core members of the Rabid Neurosis warez group and their suppliers. The storytelling is exciting, calculated, and fast-paced. In elegant Hollywood style, each chapter leaves one scene at a critical cliffhanger to pick up at a similar point of action from another of the sub-plots in the puzzle that was turn-of-the-century music.

I read How Music Got Free eyes wide from cover to cover, captured by every thrilling twist in the tale. What could have been a dry and drab account of compression algorithms and legalities is instead an action-packed saga of a dangerous underground organization where anonymity is critical and risk is always high.

The book also explores the advent of the iPod and the birth and death of numerous filesharing services like Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire, Bearshare, the rise and fall of TPB, and Oink, as well as a few contemporary players I’d never expected to see named in print.

The ending is incredibly satisfying, and even evokes a strong sense of emotion and empathy in the reader – yet another surprise I hadn’t anticipated from a text on piracy. Witt’s book is a fascinating read and adds a much-needed perspective to a story which is still being played out before our eyes. This is easily my favorite title of the year.

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Steve Albini’s Keynote Address at Face The Music – The State of the Music Industry

Steve Albini may not be an expert at public speaking. But he IS a 40-year veteran of the music industry – working as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, record producer, audio engineer and music journalist for most of his life. He lived and worked through the age of commercial rock radio and payola, through the birth of MTV, and through the most formative years of filesharing and torrenting right up to the present day.

Albini has worked on an estimated 1500 albums, which certainly qualifies him to speak on the state of the changing music industry.

He delivered a Keynote Address at Face The Music in 2014. The first 30 minutes comprise his essential arguments – exposing the self-perpetuating system of major labels, commercial radio, and the convoluted laundry list of associated professionals who were all guaranteed to profit from a band’s record, usually leaving the band with nothing.

He demonstrates that the old system was in place to serve everyone EXCEPT the band and its fans – the two inconsequential and often ignored parties of the music industry.

Albini then outlines how the internet and improved recording technologies rendered the old system obsolete and empowered artists. The web and filesharing gave bands, for the first time, a direct and personal relationship with their listeners and exponentially increased the reach of their music.

In closing, Albini describes the resulting listening culture as discerning and passionate, with the ability to pursue their own niche musical fetishism, and that these listeners find a way to reward the artists they love in return.

The old industry giants loudly proclaim that the new system is “broken” and a “crisis” that must be remedied. But in reality, the bands and their listeners are better off now than ever before.

This address shattered my shame about filesharing, and restored my faith in music.

Published in: on May 30, 2015 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Pirates to the Rescue: Giving the Listening Public What Commercial Services Will Not

Ladies and Gentleman – I’m proud to share my first published article as a music journalist for Queens Free Press in NYC! The article is live on their website and there are plans to feature it when the time comes for their first print edition.

The piece is titled, Pirates to the Rescue: Giving the Listening Public What Commercial Services Will Not.

Visit Queens Free Press and CHECK IT OUT!

By Jon Åslund [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jon Åslund [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rally in Stockholm, Sweden, in support of file sharing and software piracy.

Published in: on February 22, 2015 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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And in the end…

After a brief discussion with a friend today comparing and contrasting the merits of print vs eBooks, I began to re-examine my obsession with record collecting (and with materialism of any form).  I’ve been grappling with both sides of the collectibility coin for years, but the end of a calendar year seems a fitting time to look back and reflect on exactly what I’m doing and at what cost.

My purchasing of printed books has become more selective and refined in the past year (as it has for much of the public with eBook sales still on the rise.)  Statistia.com forcasts that ePub sales will exceed those of printed books by 2017.  This has been my most active year ever for book purchases – the same year I built myself a virtually-departmentalized library of eBooks.

eBooks vs Print Chart

Similarly, my vinyl purchasing has become specialized as well.  2014 has been Innerspace’s most-active for both digital and vinyl acquisitions, with each directly inspiring activity in the other.

107 LPs (accounting for each of the discs in multi-disc box sets) were purchased in the last 5 months alone, making the second half of 2014 our busiest purchasing period in the history of the Innerspace Library.  Actual spending for album acquisition in 2014 (purchases between Jan 13 and Nov 26) totaled $1,140.30, including all spending for overseas shipping and other courier services, with a mean monthly expenditure of $103 for the 11 months of activity.  The vast majority of these purchases were special-edition, limited releases, and original-pressings of milestones from my favorite genres.

Comparatively, 4,138 of my digital album folders were added or modified in 2014, (though this number includes folders in which tag maintenance or restructuring occurred during the last calendar year.)  The increase in digital album “consumption” had a direct impact on my vinyl-ordering activity.

But increasingly, the reasons I’ve used to justify my LP purchases are being eroded by the changing landscape of the FLAC community.

And so I thought I’d take each head-on.

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CLAIM 1: Vinyl often features better mastering and production quality than their digital counterparts

The genres I collect, particularly avant-garde, modern classical, ambient, and experimental electronic music have an audiophile fan base dedicated to the digital preservation of these recordings.  Where once fans had to rely on pirate remastering work by Purple Chick and Dr. Ebbetts (among other legendary engineers), the democratization of recording technology has made home-archiving inexpensive and easy without having to chase down shiny black discs.

And for albums previously only available on wax, we have claim #2.

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CLAIM 2: You can’t find these recordings anywhere else

Thanks to archival technology, there has developed a large and well-networked community of collectors eager to share their rare vinyl recordings with the rest of the world.  The community has evolved to the point where vinyl-only issued and limited-press recordings are now readily available in the form of community-generated digital lossless archives.  While commercial networks like Spotify offer only a tiny fraction of these recordings (I think there are six) due to their limited commercial interest and costly rights negotiation, actual fans of the music have stepped up to the plate and made the albums available where a commercial market has not.

"Armand De Brignac" Champagne Party at the VIP Room

CLAIM 3: Supporting the artist

This is a moot argument in my specialized case and in the case of those like me.  99% of the albums I buy are used records pressed forty years ago.  The used market has little to no impact on composers and artists, (with a few special exceptions like that of Rodriguez).  One exempt title which comes to mind is Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes LP.  Yorke made headlines when …Boxes became the first album ever to be sold through a commercial torrent channel, demonstrating the viability of the sharing medium.  I saw my purchase of the deluxe LP as a contribution to a cause I supported.  But those two exceptions aside, I don’t think Ludwig or Karlheinz need my money that badly.

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CLAIM 4: It’s all about the experience

The experience is one of the outstanding merits of vinyl albums with which digital music cannot compete.  Selecting the album, removing it from its artful gatefold cover, dropping the needle, and so many other elements of the vinyl experience remind us of the value of music in an age of digital gluttony.  The experience is what still motivates me to purchase records, but with greater selectivity than before.

REAL FRIENDS HELP YOU MOVE RECORDS

With the erosion of the above arguments in vinyl’s favor, the reasons against collecting grow larger than ever.

REASON 1: They weigh a ton.

Ask anyone who’s been generous enough to help me move.  Collecting records requires the dedication of space and the enlistment of an army should you ever need to relocate them.  I know it’s part of vinyl’s charm – they are Objets d’art, but they’re admittedly a burden at the same time.

REASON 2: The stuff I’m after costs a fortune.

That $100 a month is over a grand at the end of the year that I could put toward living more comfortably and taking care of my beautiful partner.  I’m grateful that I am able to accommodate the limited disposable income I have for a fulfilling hobby and as a means of social interaction, but greater selectivity may yield a greater reward in the end.  Contrariwise, the only available digital resource for these vinyl-ripped and rare recordings is the file sharing community, which is 100% free.  And there isn’t much that can compare with free.

REASON 3: Accessibility and Organization

What I love most about our Digital Library is that it is meticulously organized and instantly indexable by multiple points of metadata.  With just a few clicks I can export charts and visualizations of library data for my annual reports.  And with 100% of the content on my home server, I can access any track wherever I go.  My unlimited data plan grants me uninhibited access to my content in FLAC without needing to transcode to stay below a corporate-determined threshold of data.  I take several TB of content to work each day, enjoy it on the walk there and back, and DJ my office for the 8 hours in between.

(Oh yes… and 13,000+ albums don’t take up any real estate on the shelf.)

And so…

Moving forward into the new year, I’m going to significantly pull the reins on my vinyl-buying impulses.  I might attempt to quantify my purchasing decisions with a 3-question qualifier before buying (as I’ve a fondness for doing things mathematically.)  There will still be incredible albums here, and there is no reason I can’t talk about a FLAC vinyl-rip and throw up a shot of the LP… (it’ll be our little secret.)

I welcome your thoughts.  Please feel free to share your support for or against this notion.  And I’ll see you in the new year.