Is every piece of music that’s created a cultural artifact worthy of saving for future generations? The answer, according to music industry veteran Andrew Dubber and digital culture pioneer Jez Collins, is a resounding “yes”.
Both Dubber and Collins were guest speakers at the recent gathering of OpenMusicMedia, the semi-regular digital music gathering hosted by Jonas Woost and Dave Haynes, whose day jobs see them working at Last.FM and Soundcloud, respectively. The theme for the night was entitled “Music As Culture”, and this proved to be an interesting and evocative topic for all those gathered on this warm London evening. In an industry currently consumed by the fallout created by declining physical sales, rampant illegal downloading, disruptive business models and the very nature of copyright law, it was refreshing to take some time out to consider and debate something a little more, well, lofty for a change.
This particular evening saw 40 or so individuals from (mainly) London’s digital music scene discussing the longer-term legacy of music and how its preservation might help to inform and possibly even shape future societies.
We Are The Cosmos
In his opening remarks, Dubber mentioned that the 1977 Voyager satellite’s “Golden Record” included a recording of Beethoven’s 5th symphony as our musical gift to the cosmos. As there was relatively little room on the disc that carried the chosen recordings, the choices made (by a group lead by Carl Sagan) must have been very difficult to make at the time – although there seemed to have been little debate that it would be mainly classical and folk music that was taken, as opposed to, say, Sonny & Cher. In fact, the chosen recordings on the Voyager Gold disc make for interesting reading and the exclusion of popular Western music provides us with excellent little factoids for any cocktail party.
According to Wikipedia, “Johann Sebastian Bach is the most represented artist, appearing three times, and, with the addition of two pieces by Beethoven, make Germany the most represented country with six appearances, followed by the United States. Sagan had originally asked for permission to include “Here Comes The Sun” from The Beatles album Abbey Road. While the Beatles favoured it, EMI opposed it and the song was not included”.
Oh well, at least they’ll get a little Chuck Berry. But as Voyager spends the next 40,000 years getting “close” to some new stars with it’s rather charming old-school grooved disc, back here on Earth we have discovered seemingly unlimited (and much less expensive) ways to save and store audio content as compressed digital files. As such, today we face perhaps an even more difficult choice:
Is there anything we shouldn’t be saving for the benefit of future generations back here on Earth?
Commerce, Yes. But also Culture
The topic of “Music As Culture” first arose as a discussion between tonight’s hosts/guest speakers at this June’s Unconvention in Manchester. For those of you who don’t know already, the Unconvention is, “A music conference aimed specifically at the grass roots of the industry, the goal of Un-convention is to bring together like minded individuals to discuss the future of Independent music. From DIY labels and self releasing bands, to promoters and agents, entrepreneurs and innovators, Un-convention is looking to the future of music, and how it will develop and flourish in the technological age.”
Bringing “Music As Culture” back to London and OpenMusicMedia is all part of the effort to get these types of issues debated on a wider scale. A statistic quoted in the evening’s hand-out was revealing,
“The vast majority of all recorded works (estimates place this in excess of 90%) are not commercially available in any form. This represents a phenomenal wealth of cultural capital that is locked away and inaccessible simply because it is not considered commercially expedient for the labels to make it available, and there is no incentive or imperative for them to do so.”
Are the demos of Danish pop trio Aqua’s hit singles as important as the masters for Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’? Well, yes, probably. At least to somebody. Could their song ‘Barbie’ be viewed as an ironic musical reaction to an increasingly materialistic 20th Century society? Er, maybe. And if the availability of boundless digital storage space means that we have the means by which to save ‘Barbie’ and everything else ever committed to tape/file, what could possibly be the argument for not doing so? It’s actually difficult to come up with reasons without invoking at least the slightest bit of cultural snobbery on some level.
Naturally enough, the issue of copyright (and its owners) was raised several times throughout the evening’s discussion as representing an obvious barrier to any genre or national archival project. While there’s little question that this is almost certainly the case in most territories (someone mentioned the Danes are perhaps the most enlightened in this area), this issue gave Dubber the opportunity to describe his concept of a rolling, renewable, “5 Year Copyright” regime (in contrast to the current 100 year+ arrangements). This raised a few eyebrows in the room, of course, but from the point of view of preserving our musical cultural heritage, it makes a lot of sense. Basically, it would say to labels and other rights owners, “Hey, you’ve gone to the effort to record and buy the rights to all this material. Now, use it or lose it!”. Or perhaps more realistically, “Hey, can we please borrow a copy for posterity?”
Dubber is also in the process of authoring a book on the subject entitled “Deleting Music“. His authoring is collaborative, and anyone interested in contributing to this work on music preservation and archiving are invited to participate in doing so on his website.
It’s Also A Race Against Time
Managing today’s digital output is one thing, but let’s not underestimate the importance of saving all those scattered pre-digital tapes and reels which are slowly disintegrating in studios, corporate archives and broom closets around the globe.
This is the issue so close to the heart of Jez Collins, the night’s other guest and a man truly leading from the front for the benefit of the musical heritage of his home town with the Birmingham Music Archive project. It really is an admirable effort that shows just how much headway that a single interested and motivated individual can make in preserving our musical heritage. You can catch a television interview with Jez himself here.
But beyond passionate and motivated individuals such as Dubber and Collins, who else might we look to to undertake this work? The artists that create the music in the first place might be a good place to start, and this brings to mind the emergence of grass roots artist groups such as the Featured Artists Coalition According to their website;
“The Featured Artists Coalition campaigns for the protection of performers’ and musicians’ rights. We want all artists to have more control of their music and a much fairer share of the profits it generates in the digital age. We speak with one voice to help artists strike a new bargain with record companies, digital distributors and others, and are campaigning for specific changes.”
Reading that, it’s fairly clear that wages and copyright are at the top of a musician’s agenda right now, but one hopes that there’s also room in their manifesto for the equally important, if longer-term, issues of music preservation and archiving.
Back To The Future
Despite the passionate efforts of people such as Collins and Dubber, and no doubt the best wishes of musicians everywhere, it is quite difficult to imagine anyone but governments realistically working with all the interested parties to ensure the level of cultural preservation being advocated at tonight’s meeting. One supposes that without such backing that the alternative might turn out to be a sort of “Musical Darwinism” wherein the most popular (but not necessarily best/worthy) music will survive down through the ages.
But then again, Darwinism has never described the survival of the ‘fittest’, rather, it explains the survival of the ‘most adaptable’. And if that’s the case, then whatever humanoids inhabit the earth in the next millennium will almost certainly have access to the full works of Marillion, if nothing else.
A sobering thought indeed.
(The next Unconvention event, for those interested, will be held this September in Wales.)
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