So Who Owns Culture?

Today we can chat about the question of “Who Owns Culture?” . A lot of this has been copped from an article in the New York Times.

The New York Times reported on a public lecture (sponsored by Wired magazine but I couldn’t find any mention of it on their site… so I guess we can scratch them from the running as potential owners of culture) – a discussion of digital file-sharing, part of a library series called “Live From the NYPL.” Both Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco, and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor who has opposed criminalizing file sharing, seemed to agree that just about anybody who owns a modem also owns – or at least has every right to download – culture products.
“I don’t think anybody should make any money on music,” Mr. Tweedy said at one point, only half joking.
“Maybe we would pay audiences.” . Obviously Mr Tweedy has never worked in Melbourne pubs where “paying to play” is almost the rule… but this isn’t a discussion on door deals so we will move on.

Mr. Tweedy became converted to Internet peer-to-peer sharing of music files in 2001, after his band was dropped from its label on the cusp of a tour. Initially, the news left Wilco at the sum end of the standard rock equation: no record/no tour, no tour/no money, no money/no band. But Mr. Tweedy released “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” for streaming on the band’s Web site, and fans responded in droves. So Wilco then paid for the tour themselves as a band (Hmmm maybe they have done door deals after all?). The tour was a huge success: Mr. Tweedy remembered watching in wonder as fans sang along with music that did not exist in CD form.

OK so now the story hangs a serious left turn. Nonesuch Records decided to release the actual plastic artifact in 2002. And where the band’s previous album, “Summerteeth,” sold 20,000 in its first week according to SoundScan, “Yankee” sold 57,000 copies in its first week and went on to sell more than 500,000. Downloading, at least for Wilco, created a demand for the CD. Somehow I dont think Wilco are going to replace Metallica as posterchildren for the RIAA website.

So at a point in time where sanitised FM radio has squeezed out virtually any possibility of hearing anything new, interesrting and worthwhile, the internet is where you are most likely to find music you might want to buy. And during the presentation (which was streamed live on Wilco’s Web site), Mr. Lessig added that the decision to outlaw downloading would have a profoundly inhibiting effect on the creation of culture. He said that in every instance, from the player piano to radio to VCR’s to cable, the law had landed on the side of the alleged “pirates,” allowing for the copying or broadcasting of cultural works for private consumption.

So far, both the music industry and the film industry has succeeded in making it illegal for consumers to download their products . Mr. Lessig said that “the freedom to remix, not just words, but culture” was critical in the development of unforeseen works of art. He pointed to “The Grey Album,” produced by the D.J. Danger Mouse, a remix of the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album” that resulted in a wholly new and unexpected piece of music (hmm possibly not great choices as I have heard both and wasn’t really impressed).

Mr. Tweedy has little sympathy for artists who complain about downloading. “To me, the only people who are complaining are people who are so rich they never deserve to be paid again,” he said.

“Once you create something, it doesn’t exist in the consciousness of the creator,” Mr. Tweedy is reported to have said, telling the audience that they had an investment in a song just by the act of listening.

It’s going to be a long and bumpy ride folks.


  1. I was reading somewhere about Irish traditional music – it was apparently very localised or regional prior to the development of the ‘session’ (pub or otherwise) in the 50/60’s. Musicians played solo in people’s houses in their own area and would not play in front of other musicians for fear of their music being stolen – the exception being their own students (usually family).
    I guess its one way of maintaining ownership of culture

  2. It was the same here in Melbourne in jazz bands, rock bands, folk bands. People would cover up their effect pedals, so you you couldn’t figure out how they did it. Trying to control information. Fortunately there were always people who would share and help you out with some of the more arcane bits.

    I didn’t realise that the ‘session’ pub was such a recent innovation? I sort of got the feeling that they had been around for ever.

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