David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: books, business, distribution, history, recording, @musings info

"The Cult of the Amateur" & Music

I'm reading Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur". I spotted this book on display at the entrance to Powell's Technical Book Store and gave it a cursory examination. At first glance Keen seemed to share many of my own observations about the `net, in particular his condemnation of the narcissistic nature of social-networking and popularity-based sites. I also noticed that Keen dedicated a couple of chapters to the effect of the `net on the music industry, a subject near and dear to my own interests.

As I'm reading for content, though, I am less than impressed by Keen's research and objectivity. He juxtaposes uncorrelated facts, leading the injudicious reader to conclude that there may be a cause-and-effect relationship. I've also been exposed to one of Keen's inherent (and according to the foreword, admitted) biases: that the careful consideration, analysis and filtering by "experts" is absolutely essential to the preservation of our cultural strengths.

Keen's experts, or "gatekeepers", may have been an essential part of our society a couple of generations ago when the world's cultures were isolated and considered to be (even if not in actual fact) relatively self-consistent. Nowadays the genie is out of the bottle. Politics, technology, fashion, finances, even morality exist in a global context. The days of isolationism and the paternal guidance of the media are long gone, replaced by the free-for-all information dump of the `net and the transparent maneuvering of the old-world information outlets to hold onto both their relevance and advertising revenues.

I get the impression that Keen is blissfully ignorant of the failures of traditional media and publishing. While it may be true that the modern information dump which is the `net exposes much material which is banal, tasteless and potentially harmful to society, it's also true that there was no shortage of any of those qualities in pre `net society. The primary difference is that memes, both positive and negative, took much longer to propagate in the epoch preceding the `net. You can spin that observation to suit your own prejudices, but from where I stand it had both good and bad consequences. When information takes longer to propagate it's less likely that ideas considered detrimental to a society will have an immediate impact, and will therefore be easier to counterbalance through persuasion or legislation. On the other hand, "bad" ideas can take much longer to be recognized as harmful to society, which means that they can take even longer to counteract. This is especially true of harm committed by powerful organizations such as governments and multinational corporations operating in the shadows cast by "responsible" news organizations.

On a lighter - and more musical - note, I find it incomprehensible that Keen puts forth the proposition that self-publishing harms our musical culture. Some of Keen's detractors have branded him as a Luddite, a label which I would certainly not apply based upon his arguments. If Keen was a Luddite, the prospect of self-published musical works would delight rather than distress. Prior to the advent of broadcasting and sound recording, music was centered within family and urban and rural communities. Local musicians performed at community functions. Musical road shows visited these communities, providing an extremely limited and slow dissemination of shared culture. (Remember that this happened in the in the days when travel was via horse-drawn wagons and early automobiles, well before interstate highways much less commercial air travel.)

The introduction of broadcasting and sound recording provided the first quantum leap in the spread of a shared musical culture. Now a single musical performance could be be heard in a large number of geographically-diverse locations simultaneously through the technology of radio broadcasting. The modern reader needs to understand that early radio networks had a surprisingly broad range. AM radio stations - relegated in recent decades to carrying lunatic-fringe talk shows - were the sole carriers of musical content in the days before sound recording, television, FM radio, satellite broadcasting and the internet. Many readers below a certain age are probably unaware that AM broadcast signals can be received hundreds - sometimes thousands - of miles from the transmitter. This phenomenon is facilitated by the ionosphere which, after dark, becomes a pretty good reflector for radio signals at certain wavelengths.

Not only does one AM radio station cover a lot of territory, but the presence of the telephone system - implemented entirely by land lines, with calls switched by human operators - enabled the earliest forms of radio networks. An originating station could send an audio signal via land lines to its affiliates, which would then simultaneously broadcast the program via their own transmitters.

Sound recording has been around since the days of Edison, but the introduction of portable disc-cutting machines in the late `20s or early `30s provided the next quantum leap in the spread of a shared musical culture, providing the ability for a single musical performance to not only be heard in multiple locations, but also to be repeated at will. The exploitation of musicians - paying them a pittance for a performance that would sell many records - has been in play from the very beginning of the recording industry. That exploitation continued for more than seventy years, with the perpetrators secure in the knowledge that corporate media outlets - beneficiaries of advertising and promotional revenues from the recording industry - would not deign to give a voice to those who wished to educate working musicians about the fiscal realities of a recording contract.

Yes, there have been books published about the music business. They weren't even inaccurate. Corporate publishers with their expert editors produced volume upon volume detailing the intricacies of recording and publishing contracts, meticulously documenting the status quo without ever examining the equity of the underlying business model from the viewpoint of the musician. After all, the authors of these books - all "experts", many of them lawyers - had nothing to gain and much to lose by questioning the status quo.

Say what you will about Courtney Love, but it was the publication of her rant about recoupment that started awareness aong musicians about the one-sided nature of record "deals".

The transparently self-serving the behavior all of the experts and cultural gatekeepers is almost comical. It reminds me a bit of one of my coworkers who visited a fortune teller strictly for the entertainment value. Forty dollars for the first visit wasn't a big deal; he got to tell a funny story about how well in some cases, and poorly in others, the fortune teller did her first "cold" reading. What happened next, though, is strongly suggestive of the way in which "experts" operate. The fortune teller strongly encouraged regularly-scheduled return visits at two-hundred fifty dollars each. The first consultation with an expert is relatively inexpensive. It allows the expert to establish a rapport and a certain degree of credibility with the client. For the really good information, though, you must rely upon the expert again and again and again; this not only gives the expert the opportunity to refine his initial conjectures, but provides him with a steady stream of income while simultaneously reinforcing his "expert" status.

Don't misunderstand me: there are people who are, through formal study and hard-won experience, legitimate experts in their fields. The expert status of a so-called cultural gatekeeper, though, derives solely from the ability to make their viewpoint heard above most of the competing voices. The real gatekeepers are not the mouthpieces who issue pronouncements regarding the quality of cultural milestones, but rather the corporate entities who work hand-in-hand with advertisers and businesses to ensure that any cultural shift does not happen in such a way that it can't be exploited for financial gain.

This, I think, is a key sticking point for Mr. Keen. The ability to self-publish on the internet is taking us back to the days of a community-based culture, except that the community is now self-identified in a manner that can't be conveniently exploited by advertisers or guided by self-appointed cultural gatekeepers.

First, though, let me close the loop on my Luddite reference. The `net has taken us back, in the strictest sense of the term, to a "folk" culture. This is culture of the people, by the people, for the people. It's the way things were before technology was employed to subvert culture for profit.

There's a certain tension in the dynamics of the `net. If you believe in some kind of centralized control or guidance the `net should be a vehicle for establishment of a global culture. On the other hand, the ability of people to interact in an unmoderated manner gives the populace not only the ability to ignore gatekeepers, but also the ability to form smaller, more focussed communities than at any prior time in our history.

Keen and his music-industry contacts decry the proliferation of "amateurish" musical content which would never be published anywhere if not for self-publication. They say that such self-publication is harmful from a cultural standpoint. What they won't say, because it sounds a lot less like they're truly interested in advancing the culture, is that self-publication undermines their ability to earn a living by imposing their own preferences, habits and biases upon the artistic output of others.

Mr. Keen is not a Luddite. He doesn't want to take us back to the days of folk culture. He is clearly interested in protecting the status quo of the music industry. His noble rationale: to protect us from the unfiltered, unrefined amateurish art of a community-based folk culture. So he says. Perhaps he despairs of finding a way to financially exploit that culture.

Keen disparages the long-tail model which gives equal opportunity to all products to find buyers, rather than limiting choice to a miniscule set of products chosen for their broad, if somewhat antiseptic, appeal. He conflates the long-tail product distribution model with the inability to create a livable income from sales of those products, citing meagre income earned from self-publication by some relatively well-know content producers.

We're living in transitional times. The old-world paternalistic corporate media engines and the new-world community-based self-publishing folk media producers coexist on the `net which is still - despite many corporate efforts to the contrary - equally accessible to all. The old guard is struggling desperately to find a way to control and monetize the creative output of Keen's "monkeys" (making reference to T. H. Huxley's conjecture that a million monkeys seated at typewriters might eventually produce through random chance all of humanity's most cherished literature - a thesis which has most definitively been invalidated via observation of the `net, in my opinion), while the new guard is searching for increasingly clever and accurate technological means to enable and support virtual communities.

It is these virtual communities which will ultimately, I think, make the long-tail model financially viable. We've been hearing about an information-based economy since the early days of Al Gore's "invention" of the `net. Were a well-connected technologist to look around, he may think that the information-based economy has already arrived. The truth is: we are still in the very earliest days of the transition to an information-based economy. Although computers are deeply embedded in the world's financial industries, the average worker is no more an information worker than a caveman was a machine operator at Intel. What's missing are the mechanisms to support commerce in a sense which is compatible with the emerging "folk" culture of the `net.

What of the corporations and the cultural gatekeepers? Will humanity be worse-off because no one in a position of power exercises guidance and oversight of the output of creative people? I can think of plenty of examples where the gatekeepers have sacrificed the good of the culture through pandering to greed, prejudice or flat-out cynicism. Upon further reflection, it's hard to find a preponderance of examples in which the gatekeepers have acted in the interest of furthering development of the culture rather than the interests of their corporate sponsors. Can the proletariat really do worse?

I agree with Keen's premise that there's a lot of content on the `net - made possible by self-publishing and by social-networking sites - which is ultimately uninteresting to any given viewer. However, the cost of this abundance of content is negligible (bearing in mind that Keen illustrates no defensible cause-and-effect relationships supporting his clever juxtaposition of facts) while the potential benefit is enormous. Keen overstates the importance and objectivity of his cherished gatekeepers while severely understating the cultural harm inflicted by these same people.

The combination of inexpensive access to the `net and the availability of quality recording gear and musical instruments at very affordable prices is the third and final quantum leap in the spread of a shared musical culture. The ability to compose, record, produce and distribute an unlimited amount of original music is now within reach of anyone with `net access and the ability to scrape together a thousand dollars or so to cover equipment costs. While Mr. Keen may decry the lack of any gatekeeper to protect him from music which doesn't meet his own standards, I'm willing - I should say happy - to seek and discover music which tickles my own eclectic tastes. I haven't listened to the radio since 1995.

Keen's underlying assumption that some music is inherently better or worse is elitism at its self-serving worst. Music does not exist in a void. It is a social phenomenon experienced only within a cultural context. Denying the inherent musicality of some genre is to deny the validity of its cultural context. The long history of music gives us examples of vastly different styles and instrumentation. Some are pleasing to a broad audience, others are not. For many forms of music the cultural context is long since gone; the music remains to serve as a connection to that culture. The same will be true of today's music long after the cultural context has evaporated.

One of Keen's other concerns with self-published music regards the quality of a performance. I consider this to be a non-issue. Much well-known music has been created and performed by amateur musicians. In many cases the cultural context is far more important than a technically-superior performance. In the case of newer genres there may be no established concept of virtuosity: the creators of the genre may be exploring new ways to use their instruments as they explore the boundaries of possibility within that genre. Perhaps they'll create a new genre. This experimental egalitarian approach to music has resulted in an explosion of new kinds of music unheard of in the days of music's stewardship by cultural gatekeepers.

Meanwhile, the old-school music machine strives to produce an ever more uniform, consistent, undifferentiated product best suited for mass consumption and product endorsements. In the old-world view, these properties define a quality performance. Engineers take raw performances of varying virtuosity and normalize them to a consistent standard through pitch and time correction and formulaic sounds and arrangements. This production methodology is not new - it's simply made easier, and its application more common, through the conveniences offered by modern studio technologies.

Even the virtuosity of the performers themselves should not be of concern if you take a community-based view of self-publishing. Performers all have to start somewhere; there's always someone listening to them. Whether it's recitals or community orchestras or garage performances or dive bar gigs, every well-known performer had plied their craft somewhere before they "made it". The only thing that self-publishing changes is that someone not physically present at the time of a performance might review the performance at their leisure.

I don't see how this any of this degrades the musical culture. The recording is out there taking up space on a server at some infinitesimal cost. If the recording appeals to someone they'll pass a link to their friends. The more people like a recording, the more it'll get heard. The recording's mere presence on the `net - regardless of perceived quality - neither degrades nor enriches our shared musical culture. This is one of the most difficult things for people like Keen to understand: there is no objective measure of the quality of music independent of the collective viewpoints of a particular community. Don't like it? Don't listen. The traditional music publishing model, based upon scarcity of broadcast and retail outlets, no longer applies.

October 13 2008 06:08:26 GMT