My Year in the Bush of Ghosts
Crossposted at Uncertain Form, which is a blog that you must read if you’re interested in the future of music.
1. One Year Ago…
I decided to stop being part of the destruction of the old music industry and to be part of the construction of the new music industry. At the time, I wasn’t sure what that meant: having discovered Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Archive.org and Official.fm in the course of sharing some lo-fi cut-and-paste tracks that I’d put together over the previous year, I knew that I’d only scratched the surface. The more I dug, the more I discovered: a range of netlabels, the Free Music Archive, free culture blogs, a whole ecosystem of creativity that existed in ambiguous tension with the commercial music business.
My place in that ecosystem was and remains unclear, at least to me – partly because the old label of “consumer” doesn’t seem to fit any more. I listen to a huge amount of free music of all genres, and I’m always seeking out more, but I haven’t produced any since last year. I started to share a monthly podcast (sporadically monthly, but I can always dream…) using only free music, and started a twitter hashtag to share some of the best albums I was listening to (#yourfreemusictoday, if anybody wants to join the fun). I occasionally write to artists to thank them, I share specific albums with friends, I write posts like this one – but none of that feels like it’s enough.
The reason why it doesn’t feel enough is described Alexander Stretton’s post, which finished by saying “As consumers of the freely distributed art we are participants in the creative commons culture and community, but it is time we become active.” The internet provided new means of disseminating music, but while that shift has created new infrastructure for marketing and selling, we have not yet managed to get away from the terrible verb of “consuming” music. The music business continues to dominate music – although sometimes the price it pays is its own continued existence – partly because it continues to dominate a model in which music is “consumed”.
So we reject that old label of consumer; we’re not Hungry Hippos, gulping wildly at any cheap plastic marble that the industry machine rolls in front of us. Yet it’s not clear what we are in a confused and confusing post-scarcity musical economy, where the tools of production are in the hands of the workers thanks to a technological culture driven by libertarian principles. We don’t want the free music culture to become like poetry culture, where those interested in and supporting the music are primarily the ones producing it, but what other models do we have for participation?
2. The Bush of Ghosts
In a 2010 interview for the Guardian newspaper, Brian Eno pointed out that “records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky… Eventually, something else will replace it.” Eno is of course a seminal figure in cut-and-paste culture thanks to his collaboration with David Byrne on the album Our Life in the Bush of Ghosts, originally released in 1981. In 2006 Byrne and Eno released two of the album tracks for remixing under a creative commons license, an early shot in the conflict around music distribution that continues to rage. (I’ll take this opportunity to plug a project that came directly out of that, Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet, curated by Marc Weidenbaum .)
That album title was taken from Amos Tutuola’s novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a classic of African literature. In Tutuola’s work, those entering the Bush of Ghosts are transformed and transformed and transformed again; the Bush is the place “in which both ghosts and spirits of the dead were living as if in their own town… Once one entered it, it was not easy to find a way out. One could not travel to the end of it; that was as impossible as it would be for a mosquito to travel around the whole world without perishing.”
The Bush of Ghosts works as literal / metaphor for the human subconscious, the well of creativity from which our music comes. The music industry promoted the fiction that the Bush was so dangerous that ordinary mortals should not venture there, that we needed experienced intermediaries to navigate it on our behalf in order to bring back its treasures – the intermediaries being, of course, the record companies. Creativity has always been regarded with unease, especially by cultural elites who dislike the way it eludes their control, but the record companies achieved something great – they persuaded us to actively participate from our own alienation from that creativity.
3. … the Present Day
That alienation started with the rise of recorded music, which in some ways was a democratising influence on music: for the first time, the greatest artists were available for everybody to hear anywhere, at any time. That honeymoon period didn’t last for long, and in some ways the history of popular music has been a long process of taking music back from cultural elites. First, playing music was reclaimed as mass-produced electrical instruments (especially the electric guitar and keyboard) appeared; then, personal computers made the process of music production more accessible to a wider range of people than ever before.
The last barrier was music distribution, and the internet has cut the legs out from under the monopoly previously held by music companies and shops. The music industry started from the principle that everybody has the capacity to consume music, and was built around getting the maximum number of people to do just that. The problem for that industry model is that it can’t earn enough money from getting more people to consume music any longer, since the cost of consuming music has dropped so precipitously. It’s still unclear, but the new music industry seems to start from the principle that everybody has the capacity to make music, and will be built around getting the maximum number of people to do that instead of merely consuming it.
This is the Bush of Ghosts that the music industry warned us about – dangerous to mortals, filled with transformations, chaotic and deep – and told us that we couldn’t survive without their guiding hand. Yet I just spent a year in the bush, living off only what I could forage, and it turns out that the music industry lied to us. The transformations are dangerous mainly to the music industry rather than to us, and you can live perfectly well there (although whether you can make a living is another matter). You can’t live there alone, however, you need something of a community around you; the new challenge is to find the best tools for building that community. Welcome one and all to the Bush of Ghosts, because we all live there now…
January 5, 2012