Walling off Another Garden: Is Soundcloud Turning on Its Supporters?January 24, 2011
This is a guest blog post. The original post, which has images and a great comment thread including the thoughts of Jace Clayton aka DJ /rupture, can be found here. Both Larisa Mann and Jace Clayton spoke at Public Knowledge’s second annual World’s Fair Use Day.
Looks like the walls are going up again…
You may remember the thing memorialized on Twitter and beyond as #musicblogocide which was actually the second wave (and there may be a third?) of what is basically an inevitable clash between the practices and desires of local music scenes, especially dance music scenes, and the way music-making is structured under law and capitalism. I wrote about an earlier wave in 2008 and then this February it started up again, with many folk starting to get into the deeper issues, including this magisterial take by Wayne.
Anyway it looks like it’s about to start again with Soundcloud, one of my favorite sites of the past year. Starting a couple days ago, I’m starting to hear from producers that some of their remixes are being taken down from copyright complaints, and from djs that their mixes (or so-called mixtapes) are being pulled as well.
This is a real shame. Every aspect of music that I care about and that I participate in, for the past 15 years Djing across 19 countries on 3 continents, has been based in practices and traditions in which remixing and mixtapes are a fundamental element. In fact, similar practices are fundamental to every living musical tradition (from hiphop & reggae to jazz improvisation to tecnobrega and beyond (and are vital to nonmusical creative traditions too). Whether they involve re-using copied digital recordings or live re-performances or re-incorporating riffs, quotations, basslines, and beats… those specifics are different in different times and places, but their legality is not relevant to the creative practice. Recycling/repetition/reference is a basic element of creativity. Creativity is a living, social practice that arises from people (and peoples) interacting and communicating.
So I am sorry to hear of Soundcloud cracking down on this practice and making it harder. I don’t really care what they say their official policy was (it’s there if you look), in practice they knew what was happening because they benefited from it. And the law on this is hazy, there’s fair use arguments to be made even within the law as it stands, but nobody can afford the lawyers to make it.
Especially not most of us early adopters from dj culture: I heard about Soundcloud through DJs and dance music producers who rely on djs, and I told lots of dj and producer friends about soundcloud and recommended it to them. So many djs, producers, and fans signed up (100,000 in 2009), and many, like me, gave them our money for further functionality, because of its fantastic services for people involved in dj and dance music culture. But it may stop being worth it very soon. I don’t think you can kill the music, but I wonder if you can kill the site’s usefulness to a lot of the music scenes that gave it its start.
Those of you who care about borders, walls, fences should recognize how this is going to sort out, unless someone wakes up. The propertizers of culture have arrived again, and are drawing lines and raising fences.
If they have their way, the site wouldn’t necessarily go away, it would just become the playground of commercialized music vetted and approved by the more powerful players (look like Universal might be the big guns right now). Which would be a shame.
But the greater shame is the way that development hits the early adopters who have contributed so much so far. Soundcloud more obviously than any other platform, came to its strength through the participation and funding by dj culture, and specifically serves and focuses on djs and producers’ music, not only the text around music (as in music blogs).
It may be a victim of its own success: so many people are participating now that corporate owners –i.e. copyright protectionists and maximalists– are starting to notice what’s happening. But just caving to their claims on a case-by-case basis is not a good beginning, especially as it’s only going to get worse. And it rankles because their success is based on exactly the practices and people it now is shutting down. Although they said their target market is “creators,” in dance music that includes djs, producers, remixers and mashers, all of whom flocked to the site, and helped test its functionality, added in their data and metadata and made it a desirable site through providing fascinating content (likely all targetable by the RIAA). Which of us will get locked out?
Rather than sending out letters and taking down tracks one by one, I wish Soundcloud would go public about the pressure they are under. If they are not comfortable doing that, then it’s even worse, because they KNOW how much it’s a spit in the face of the people who put so much time, energy and money into the site.
So will it be time for us to leave, taking our creative seeds and sparks and connections with us?
It looks like Soundcloud has been more sympathetic to these practices than many: sponsoring CC licensing on the site, which mildly broadens copyright’s flexibility through a voluntary choice to recognize participatory cultural practices, and even doing some educational work through featured artists who use CC-licenses on its blog.
Unfortunately such incrementalism will never be enough for the corporations. I’m pretty doubtful that big corporate entities will ever wake up and recognize the prevalence and desirability of self-defined interactive musical culture. I would like to see one of these new, small, supposedly different-from-the-big-bad-guys companies put up a fight along the lines some group like the EFF might lay out, and make an affirmative argument for creative culture that includes remixing. But to do that requires that they be upfront about their allegiances and recognize that you can’t please everyone. Sooner or later you will have to decide whether you are going to please the rich & powerful or stand with people on the other side.
Will any company stake its claim on the same side as these scenes and subcultures who provide so much of the basis for their success? Or perhaps we need to find a platform that is not privately funded, because at base a corporation will always put profit before community? Perhaps private institutions simply fail at stewarding popular culture?
Regardless we need ISPs and the server hosts to have a politics – as I said on Jace’s show, questions of intellectual property and power still come down to the material control of resources, and any law-based control is at the mercy of the people who have in-house lawyers. Physical control of land and material (including servers and satellites) may be our best option. To start with we have to recognize that this is a question of politics, and not just tweaking the rules. We need to organize ourselves to be in control of our own digital resources (resources for the social aspect of production: distribution, sharing, and interacting), and find allies who believe in our vision of cultural practices and recognize how it directly challenges the copyright extremists.
At the very least, liberal allies like the EFF might be able to shape a more expansive vision of our rights in a creative community. And indeed some people have made arguments for commercial music industries not dependent on current definitions of copyright. But at this point, I’m thinking if the Pirate Parties (Sweden, but Canada offered too, the more the jollier right?) can host Wikileaks, why can’t they host dj culture as well? Or how about renting the the basement of a casino? Or is there a tech-savvy crew off the coast of Somalia we can link up with?
About Harold Feld
Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”