Ambitious – Pirate Party to the Sky!

In a move that roughly parallels global capitalism’s quest for domain over the heavens since the late 1950s, Pirate Parties are now suggesting taking to the sky via balloon or satellite as a means of ensuring access to culture without the hindrances of territorial law. Basically a hi-tech, sci-fi redux of the British pirate radio pioneers of the 1960s. Here, here, here, and here.

Capital is driven to expand as it seeks ever more opportunities to intensify surplus value. In the last 200 years we have seen it expand from regional mercantilism, through colonialism, the expansion of the factory, and recently into globalised trade and manufacturing. It also took to the sky in the late 1950s as the “space race” was cast in terms of the cold war between “free” markets and state socialism. In a palpable sense, it was surmised that whoever got into space first would thus prove the superiority of their economic system. The Soviets got there first, followed soon after by the Americans. It is of no small significance that the purpose to which space was put was principally that of communication. And for years we have taken for granted that a) space is no longer contested, reinforced by international scientific cooperation aboard MIR and the ISS and (b) that it is there solely to be put to use by the ever expanding needs of capital, reinforced by the now current fascination with private citizens funding their own space exploration, by renewed dreams of space tourism, and tellingly by continued threats to the public funding of NASA.

It is within this scenario that those who are concerned with cultural freedom and intensified legal restrictions on the reuse of cultural work are now speculating on the use of space for goals that resist those of capital, at least at the level of IP. I think it’s also of some significance that resistance to intellectual property law – to be sure a law of the abstract and ethereal – is in this case literally taken to the ether. It’s also suggestive of the long history of space as the domain of the imagination, “out there” where anything is possible. Space is the place of dreams. In this way, it is refreshing to see discussion that takes place in the realm of speculation and the imagination rather than in the often dry and procedural arena of copyright law and international trade negotiations.

Bizarre French Anti-piracy Strategy

This is the most bizarre but imaginative strategy I have heard of yet. And like many other anti-piracy strategies seems like a weak band aid.

For the next two years the French govt will subsidize half – that’s right half – the cost of a 50 euro ($70 USD) card to be used to download music from approved subscription-based online retailers. Consumers will be limited to one card a year.

Somewhere between a social service debit card and a tax break, this strategy appears to be both an admission of powerlessness in the face of piracy and also an assertion of state involvement that on the surface seems to run counter the “hands off” anti-regulatory ethos of neoliberalism and the Sarkozy regime. Additionally, this is a great example of the intensification of state surveillance regimes, surely there must be a way to then gauge the “taste” of the nation, or even to index the number of music files a person possesses against the number they buy with the card – any discrepancy and its the gulag for you! Alas, it may also be another case of the state funneling of public resources toward private interests. And this time, instead of a bailout to the finance industry, this is a way to direct tax payers’ money toward “legitimate subscription-based services.” It’s hard not to see how this doesn’t amount to paying twice. It also doesn’t seem clear if this is about nurturing French cultural production specifically, or just ensuring that for-profit distributors get a slice of the pie. However, in exchange for state aid

website operators will be required to cut the price of music, extend the duration of subscriptions, and contribute to the cost of advertising the card. Their benefit will be capped at 5 million euros each.

That said it also seems a rather ingenious way to promote cultural awareness and listening to music. I can’t imagine a British or North American government so blatantly funding the consumption of artistic work. Here we cut arts funding and gut humanities departments in universities. What else could be next: a tax break for every theatre ticket purchased? A granting system for reading materials? Still, if there’s a mood for state involvement these days, why not a lump sum to the download services and performing rights agencies via a blank media levy like we had on blank tapes and CDs and then let everyone download away? I’ve seen studies that suggest support for this. Or, even better, why not scrap the whole notion of state support for for-profit entities (not very “free market” anyway is it?) and instead support people with a universal living minimum wage that would also account for the purchase of cultural/creative works, which, following food, I’d say are pretty important for a well-nourished soul.

See also here.

Having a Ball

The Economist. What’s Working in Music – Having a Ball: In the supposedly benighted music business, a lot of things are making money

The problem I have with articles like this is that they begin with the now axiomatic premise “The Internet has changed everything” and then largely go on to show how little if anything has really changed at all. Here, the woes of the recorded music industry are put into perspective. Despite a decline in recorded music sales (which were really artificially enhanced by the phenomenon of replacing old LPs and Tapes with CDs in the 90s), other areas of the industry are thriving – touring revenues are up, merchandising is the new profitable thing along with tour sponsorships, while listeners who might be “worth nothing” to the industry as pirates are now “worth a little” if they respond to advertising on free streaming applications like Spotify. So, we have a here a shift of profit from one based around the sale of physical media, to one based on the proliferation of the symbolic: we pay more for concerts – the price of tickets has far outstripped inflation – which are evanescent, immaterial. We buy clothing (the elementary commodity form) and we pay for the privilege to be advertised to by the music’s sponsors. But, don’t worry, in all of this the raison d’être of the music industry as such remains: profit. Change indeed!

The problem in this article is that the change is superficial, and it betrays an ignorance of some of the fundamental alterations that have been made, outside of the narrow mainstream music industry scope. Of course, the Economist can only think in terms of the profit paradigm, because it is so dominant. (That said, the acknowledgment of age and the superstar factor are important, and I think under-recognized in the turmoils of the record industry.)

But, in other areas of music distribution online, i.e. “piracy,” with a shift in perspective we could see that a lot more is working in music than merely its function as a conduit for profit. It travels faster to a wider audience, unencumbered by the barriers and limits that are set in place by the industry infrastructure and the profit motive. It occupies a central position in the development of online musical discourse, and acts as a common ground for many online “communities.” A vibrant and self-regulating community of “pirates” has emerged that privileges obligation, reciprocity, and “sharing” over profit. Indeed, the power of autonomous music distribution online is acknowledged by the IFPI who say that “the pool of pirates is so huge at present (IFPI, an international trade group, reckons that 19 out of every 20 tracks downloaded are illegal) that it ought to be possible to make serious money from persuading people to make the switch.” This is just pure jealousy. People are out there doing things that the industry finds difficult to monetise, nothing gets the ire of a business up more than that – people doing things better without their help. (Of course doing these things helps the computing industry immensely…another topic).

The trick here is that people ought not to be persuaded. Real change that doesn’t just shift the profits from one sector to the other, with music still in the position of commodity, but one that recognises the full import of music and doesn’t diminish this in the commodity form could be hastened by the even further entrenchment and emulation of pirate practices not just in the distribution of music but in the wresting of control over the production and technological infrastructures that undergird it. Let’s look outside the mainstream adaptation of “flexibile specialisation” and “vertical integration” to alternative practices for inspiration here.