Beyond Free: Open Music

Forgot that, through DRM, the music industry has decided for us that we don’t really own the music we buy. Forget that artists and musicians have traditionally made their living (if they indeed were able to make a living on their music) through the use of copyright and other intellectual property rights.

In the 21st century this model is crumbling fast and taking with it the business models of the successful musician and major record label, or at least changing them. No matter how DRM’ed your music is, it will escape to the Internet where the world can download it for free. It is a basic fact and if you don’t realize that, then you’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

All this is old news. And with DRM-free music being sold online in at least a few places (eMusic, most EMI recordings on iTunes, etc.), the music world has finally seen the writing on the wall. Mostly.

But what’s next?

One of the coolest things about the Internet is that once you release content, there are no limits on the creativity that other people may apply to your material to morph, mash or otherwise change it. Greasemonkey allows users to modify the web pages they with additional information, such as overlaying crime or median income statistics on top of Google Maps. Many web services have opened interfaces to their databases to encourage this sort of creativity. And of course there is the whole open source programming community, that has developed software such as Linux, the Firefox browser, the Apache web server, and even WordPress, the blog software powering the site you’re reading from right now.

Mashing up, or remixing music is not new. One of my guilty pleasures is an overlay of the Doctor Who theme on top of a Green Day song (do a web search for “Dean Gray” if you want to find this banned material). Dozens, perhaps hundreds of other releases are also available, including mixes of rap music and heavy metal, jazz and country-western…there are no limits. Many of these mashup artists owe a great deal to pioneer Jon Oswald, who has been splicing reel to reel tapes for years before the digital era. His Grateful Dead piece is my favorite output from the Dead, mashed or not.

Sampling of one artist by another has been around since the early eighties at least, but what I am talking about is the wholesale laundering of a piece of music. And it is a legitimate art of its own. Digital rendering and networks allow us to easily, copy, change, and distribute a work of art without damaging the original copy – this is more than the modern equivalent of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It the opening of completely new methods of expression.

Recently a number of artists have released to the world multiple tracks of their works for remixing. This list includes Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, (of course) The Dead, and others. I’d like to see this taken to the next level.

Either for free or for a modest price, an artist makes the tracks to a song or even a whole album, downloadable. With the price is an unrestricted license to remix, mashup or otherwise modify the tracks and re-release them as long as attribution is given to the original artist.

Any of us could easily and legally use, edit, change, and distribute this open music as we see fit. And as the software tools evolve, the limits are endless. Don’t like it where the vocalist goes out of key? Fix it. Hate the saxophone? Replace it with a guitar. Can’t figure out why your favorite band plays the same riff 16 times in a row with no variation? Cut it down to 4 times. Feel like a particular theme or motif should be explored for another 2 or 3 minutes? Do it. Ever thought to yourself, “this would be a great album if only…”? Now you can do something about it.

Newton admitted he stood on the shoulders of giants. Scientists use the research of their peers in their own research. Before the era of written music, songs were handled down and shared by ear, with each artist making his or her own personal variations. Today, copyright is essentially unenforceable. Perhaps the last 50 years of strict copyright enforcement will be seen as an anomaly in the history of music. And then the personalization of music will accelerate and blur between composer, performer and listener will lead to new forms of music.

AAJ Reviews

From AAJ:

10-Jun-07 Tord Gustavsen Trio
Being There (ECM Records)

10-Jun-07 Carlos Barretto Trio / Louis Sclavis
Radio Song (Clean Feed Records)

10-Jun-07 The Cracow Klezmer Band
Remembrance (Tzadik)

09-Jun-07 Billy Fox
The Uncle Wiggly Suite (Clean Feed Records)

09-Jun-07 Trio Beyond
Saudades (ECM Records)