Friday, October 24, 2003

Digital Distribution in Art (a repost)

(I don't normally do reposts -- in fact, this might be my first repost ever -- but the topic has come up lately, and rather than just rehash it all I can just repost. I wrote this back on February 9, 2003.)

I've been thinking a bit about the "digital distribution revolution" that is unfolding in the music world, and is beginning to bud in the film world -- the uploading and downloading of songs on P2P networks, the various copyright issues, and such. While I grant that the industry attempts to stuff the genie back into the bottle are equal parts laughable, draconian and dumb, I also have to admit a certain suspicion of the motives of many who are allied against the RIAA and MPAA. For all the high-sounding rhetoric about "freeing Mickey" (with which I generally agree; copyright was surely never intended to last for periods measured in decades) and "progress" and "the evil record companies" (with which, again, there really can be no dispute, since the RIAA's typical view of talent is not-that-distinguishable from indentured servitude), it seems to me that the bedrock motive always comes back to money. The RIAA does not want its golden goose killed, and the file-swappers are under the impression that a fabulous new day is dawning when paying for music and movies and whatever else is a thing of the past. "Information wants to be free" has always struck me as a ludicrous idea, especially since the conduct and quick anger of those who insist such never fails to convey the actual message of "I want my information to be free".

Some other thoughts, largely unrefined, have been stirring about in my brain for a bit, so I'll just throw some things at the wall. If anyone has answers or thoughts of their own, feel free to comment.

:: The means of distribution affects art in many ways. For instance, every article I read about filesharing and its related issues discusses the shared content in terms of songs. I see this in the Apple tagline, "Rip. Mix. Burn." I see this every month in WIRED, when some celebrity or important person is asked to list their current playlist, and it's always a selection of ten or twelve completely different songs. When WIRED recently compared a group of music-download sites, they used a single song as the test case. My point? While I do often speak of individual songs, I've always preferred to think of the song as something atomic, with the larger work -- the album -- as the actual work of art. I may be one of a minority in this regard -- I haven't done any research here -- but I wonder if something isn't being lost when our attention turns from albums to individual songs. I worry that the idea of a great album -- say, Brothers In Arms or Led Zeppelin IV or The Wall or Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely -- may die out as our focus shifts to finding those songs that we like.

A great album isn't merely a collection of songs. A great album has an entire character on its own that is defined by the way its constituent songs work alongside one another; how the mood of one song leads into the mood of the next; the ebb-and-flow of the tempi and style of the songs. What place, then, for an album in a world where the song is the standard of exchange?

:: I've thought of getting an MP3 player, once in a while, but I'm not at all certain how much mileage I would get out of it. This is because I tend to listen to entire albums, as noted above; but also for another reason: I just plain like CDs. When I read comments in WIRED that imply that the CD has become uncool and square, I really wonder how on earth this can be. I've never found CDs to be anything other than marvelous and wonderful. They are convenient; their sound is frankly better than an MP3; and I actually like things like cover-art and liner notes and whatnot. And I don't like the idea of my entire musical collection existing as nothing more than ones-and-zeroes on a hard-drive, subject to the various problems that affect hard-drives now and again. I like the physical reality of my CDs. Thumbing through my music collection and finding old gems that I haven't heard in a long while is always a pleasure; although admittedly I haven't tried, I can't quite believe that scrolling through a collection of folders and files on my PC would have the same cachet.

:: If the digital realm is really the future of content -- music and books and film and whatever else -- then I worry even more about the "digital divide", where so many people in our society are unable to join the online world, whether because of cost or disability or whatever. The Digital Divide is real, and it is large; and it seems to me that if we're going to transfer a significant part of our cultural expression to the digital realm, then we'd better make damned sure the Divide is reduced to almost nothing, if not eliminated entirely.

There are many people in this world who cannot afford a computer and whose only opportunity to go online is to use a public terminal at a library, if they can even do that. But a person who might not be able to spend $600 on a computer may still be able to scrape together $30 for a bargain-basement CD player. They need not be shut out of our culture entirely, which is what I fear may happen to an uncomfortably large segment of our society as we become more and more digital.

Digital media are wonderful and have stunning potential. But I'm unconvinced that the infrastructure exists to make our digital world a reality for all people, and if we can't bring the digital to all people, then I am not prepared to allow those people to fall by the wayside, thus creating a caste of Untouchables -- perhaps we would call them "the Unconnected" -- who are not only divorced from the Internet, but divorced from our culture itself even as they walk amongst us.

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