When Kurt Loder asked cyberpunk sci-fi writer William Gibson about file-sharing, this is what Gibson answered: “I suspect we’re at the end of an 80-year technological window during which it was possible for quite a lot of people to make quite a lot of money selling recorded music.” This bears some thinking about, and the more I wander around the thought of it, the more I think Gibson is right. Again.
If you’re not a sci-fi reader you won’t remember the jolt of Gibson’s first novel, 1984′s Neuromancer. Let’s not get into it now, but compare it favorably to the first time you heard REM’s Murmur, or U2′s War, or whatever Nirvana track it was that made you understand that Kurt Cobain wasn’t just another rock hack. Compare it favorably to the first time you saw the water lilies, or “Guernica.” It was that good. If you liked that kind of thing. A lot of people did, and Neuromancer became the first novel to win the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award, all together.
Gibson got a lot wrong, but it felt like he hit more than he missed with his future vision of the post-industrial Sprawl, the shady plug-in cyberworld of data jockeys, easy recreational dermal designer drugs, digital interface warfare and defending ICE in The Matrix, and the rest. So he’s a natural figure to ask about what the Internet is doing to us all.
For my part, I don’t think filesharing is killing the music business. Our company and the host of this blog, Home Office Records, was the first record label to work with Napster (the original Napster) way back when, and we believe now as we did then that filesharing is the new radio, more or less. We might not need it if the old radio hadn’t failed us so completely, but it did and we do, so here we are. CD burning and actual piracy – remember that downloading is neither piracy nor stealing, it’s copying, which is a different beast – are more problematic. But here’s an old rule of rhetoric: control the vocabulary and you’re halfway along to controlling the debate. So you’ll hear the words “piracy” and “stealing” bandied about endlessly, with utter disregard for their actual meanings.
In all the noise, we easily lose sight of some simple facts. Until Edison, music was something that could not be captured (“fixed,” as we say in the Industry, and suddenly I am reminded of neutered housepets, and maybe there’s something to that). If you wanted to hear a song again, you had to play it again yourself, or convince your local musician to play it for you. If you saw Caruso, you had a rare experience and a memory you could take with you to the grave. You could describe it, boast about it, write about it, tease with it, ply and seduce with it. But you couldn’t hear it again. Once it reached the air, it was there and then gone. A triumph of entropy.
Then there was a machine to snap up the sound, or a reasonable facsimile, and play it back at later leisure. It’s an amazing innovation, if you think about it, like freeze-drying time to live through when you’ve got a hunger on. And soon enough an industry arose to process, capture, and
neuterfix sound for resale, later, to a hungry public.
It’s our birthright; we are masters of sound. We will have our personalized ringtones, our mp3′s on our iPods, our screensaver sound schemes, and our rude conversations in night clubs while the band is trying to do a ballad. (I hate you, I want you to know that, you with the big mouth, wherever you are.) As we crawl through the Noughties trying to make sense of the din, perhaps the din has come to own us rather than the other way around. Buying music is an economic transaction, not an act of love.
What we forget here is that we aren’t buying music at all. We’re buying a fixed product in a fixed game, something etched and scrawled by machines out of patterns in the air. It’s good – it’s really good, sometimes – but maybe, as Gibson says, the tech trick that made it happen is about played out. It’s like playing Pong on yesterday’s outmoded 286 when you could be playing Neverwinter Nights on a screamer of an Alienware AMD 64 FX box, or better. Maybe our ossified big music business, which does hardly any good for anyone, and knows it, and wilfully forges forward to fuck things up even worse, was squeezing everyone down for its own nefarious reasons (*cough* profit *cough*). Maybe we could have had more, and better, for cheaper, all along. And maybe, after eight decades in a cage, the music is getting out again, taking a huge industry down as it goes.
I think I’ll welcome that. And I know I’ll want to see what comes along to replace it.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – first line of Neuromancer, 1984