Where Did Free and Open Ever Get Us?

The Dutch theorist Geert Lovink has a long history of activistic academia – often talking about tactical uses of the media. Here he discusses several issues that I’ve been thinking about lately.

“In these times of ongoing financial crisis we can no longer afford to celebrate ‘free’ and ‘open’ as the default on the Web and pretend that it is everyone’s private business how they are going to make a living. [..] We need to politicize this situation and not presume that ways of making an income is a private matter”. For me this is spot on. Artists think too much about themselves. Why is there so little politics in electronic music? Why is it normal to use corporate tools to make, distribute and archive music into eternity? Perhaps “The main enemy is our own naïve passion to forget the politics of the tools that we fall in love with, time and again (Technikvergessenheit)”. How many people died to build your computer?

“Free software and creative commons never created confrontational situations— and that should make us think. As alternatives they have created their own modest niches but never created antagonistic situations. After 20-30 years it is time for the cybersubculture to publicly discuss these strategies”. Creative Commons makes little sense to me. When Swedish radio used my CC-licensed music for jingles, the license made no difference. The point with CC is more to encourage others to remix. But eh, who needs that?

“The free and open rhetoric needs to be dismantled. Instead we should promote a discourse which states that it is cool to pay. Sharing for free is boring and in the end a nihilist act. What we need are those bloody ‘alternative revenue models’”. Lovink has a point. Even if it’s a boring one. If you want there to be money in music, you need to talk about revenue models. Personally, I don’t make a living from music anymore, so I don’t bother. But on a structural level the whole free/open/CC-discourse hasn’t really mattered so much, right?

“Stop with the free services as they will screw you”. Yes. And we like it.

27 Responses to “Where Did Free and Open Ever Get Us?”

  1. Dragan Says:

    Lovink made this point some time ago in “Zero Comments” as well, where he describes the relations between news and opinion blogging and what is called journalism. Indeed, practically, the free rides culture is nihilistic, because, at the time of this writing, people need “money” to survive.

    However, I find the discussion about CC more interesting, because CC was supposed to be something more differentiated. It was derived from ideas of the free software movement and applied them, quite blind, to “cultural artifacts”. Indeed CC licenses change little in practice, if somebody likes a tune, they will take it and copy it, just as software licenses do not really change software piracy. Because, in reality, who cares about licenses?

    The only effect CC had in my experience was that it optimized communication to zero. Before CC, some people would at least write an email to the author of a cultural artifact, asking if it was okay to use it in another context. Today they only need to look for the CC attribution, take what’s theirs and and will never contact the author. That is really boring and not enhancing the relations between creators and their audience, quite the contrary.

    CC totally missed the economic aspect of licenses like GNU’s. Free software allows a certain group of people, developers, to collectively increase their market value, increase their freedom and make their knowledge transferable. The value of free software for a developer is that somebody will hire them to change this software. And the developers can transfer the value they create and the knowledge they gather for this one employer to their next job. They will never have to sign NDA because it would be illegal in most cases to create secret stuff from GNU licensed code (at least with v3 of the license). This means that every developer working with highly complex Free Software can sell it as their own product. It is actually quite amazing. The trick is that for everybody else but the developers, free software’s value is different. Everybody can use it, but for the most advanced use you need a high-paid specialist.

    This works on the upper end with the Linux kernel and the lower end with webdevs customizing blog templates.

    With music or photos, text or whatever else, *everybody* can easily make use of it. To enjoy a finished recording of a tune to the fullest, I do not need any specialist, I just doubleclick that shit. To derive even more joy I can load it into my pirate copy of Ableton and fool around with it. There is no need for the outcome to be of any fixed quality, because the fumbling around by itself is rewarding enough. The same with text and images.

    Free Software excludes people who cannot write code from generating monetary value with it. And music licensing could have done the same. E.g., a community like micromusic could have limited the rights to the tunes to exact members of the community that uploaded something for example. (Micromusic worked great as a closed system in other regards.) But the kids didn’t like this idea back then. :) Don’t know if would have worked as in being a legal license, but it would have worked with the musicians self-image for sure.

    • goto80 Says:

      Good points. The classic critique against open/free things is of course – for whom? I can release the source for my C64-music, but the Defmon software I use is not publicly available. And it feels a bit like that elsewhere too. For most people, it’s only open/free in theory.

      Ever since I read Zero Comments I’ve had that idea of nihilism stuck in the back of my mind. It bothers me a bit because I don’t think I am a nihilist with this. But I probably am.

  2. chunter Says:

    I understand where this line of thinking is coming from, but I sense some combination of fear, jealousy, and narcissism in it. We already have models where “it is cool to pay,” they are Bandcamp and the iTunes store. They are not good choices for me, but I know people who sadly will not accept music from elsewhere.

    He raises some good questions but there are no real answers to Lovink’s questions, so I’ll answer the question that titles the article:

    Free and Open got me an audience.

    Best wishes

  3. chunter Says:

    Reblogged this on chunter's factor analysis and commented:
    I understand where this line of thinking is coming from, but I sense some combination of fear, jealousy, and narcissism in it. We already have models where “it is cool to pay,” they are Bandcamp and the iTunes store. They are not good choices for me, but I know people who sadly will not accept music from elsewhere.

    He raises some good questions but there are no real answers to Lovink’s questions, so I’ll answer the question that titles the article:

    Free and Open got me an audience.

  4. goto80 Says:

    Yes, your personal needs might be fulfilled. But the point for Lovink is to go beyond private matters. For me one question is: what does the world gain from a free/open discourse that almost operates outside of the economy?

    iTunes and Bandcamp – are they cool? I don’t know. Flattr and Bitcoin? Maybe. But they’re not as cool as the don’t-copy-that-floppy-guy yet :)

    It is frustrating that there are no answers, but that’s why the questions are so important.

  5. k9ddy Says:

    i’m having a hard time putting all thoughts together but the post is provoking. someday i’ll finish a remix, if only i could surpress all this luxury guilt! people sink money into indulgent hobbies all the time, music is mine. would i want to wake up every morning thinking “i’ve got to write a tune and do some interviews and book more tours” … no, that would suck the life out of music-ing for me and i’d have to find something else to be an enjoyable hobby. enjoying it better is the only place where i’ve got room to improve. my open source code i release gets about as much attention as the creative commons music i put out, my weird shit is universally immune to blowing up. but damn i wish some deranged fan would buy me a synthesizer and feed me an acid burger! then maybe sleep under my desk and operate the synthesizer for me since i can’t bring myself to practice scales. mystery keeps the mind alive but curiosity killed the cat so we have to keep up this balancing act.

    • goto80 Says:

      Yeah the post is meant to be provocative, rather than super clear. Questions questions.

      But on an individual level it’s less complicated. Then it’s just up to oneself. (which is hard enough, of course)

      However, if we’re to think about bigger solutions it gets very difficult. Things that can actually make an economic difference on a large scale. Hm. That sounds incredibly boring. But well… :)

  6. Christo Says:

    I welcome Lovink’s dissenting voice just like I welcome the dissenting voice that is (was?) free & open source.

    But charging and free/open source are not only compatible, they are themselves technologies designed to solve specific problems. Free & Open promotes ubiquity and critical mass in platform and infrastructure projects. Ubiquity is just a technocratic term for mass organisation. By encouraging sharing, you remove a barrier to adoption.

    But maybe a barrier to adoption is not everyone’s biggest problem. Maybe paying the rent is. Free & Open source has tended to suck for may kinds of applications and I think this has been loudly proclaimed in the FOSS world for decades.

    But after all, I think Lovink should acknowledge charging money for creations is still the dominant expectation in the “more creative” arts. There are plenty of free apps in the Apple App Store but not free Music, Movies or TV Shows as far as I know.

    Lovink uses CC as often as possible because he’s a “radical pragmatist”. Measurement has been widely published that sharing academic papers freely and openly maximises exposure and acceptance (adoption) and sharing information has been critical to making strong progress in the academic sciences for centuries.

    But Lovink’s goals: promote discourse with indicators of success like “controversy” and “confrontational situations” seem to warrant justification. Yes, these are unfortunately sometimes necessary. Sometimes you gotta fight for your right to party. But who wouldn’t prefer to work harmoniously towards specific ends?

    • goto80 Says:

      Charging money is obviously the standard in ‘the creative industries’ but those money often end up in the wrong hands. It’s still easier and sometimes better to pirate stuff than to buy it. Even when it’s not, it still doesn’t make much sense. Creating content is not valued much these days – so time to focus on other things perhaps?

      Even if we don’t make monetary capital from sharing things, we still make cultural capital. For academics it makes sense to share, partly because it’s the tradition, and partly because they have other sources for funding.

  7. Christo Says:

    On reflection, I think Lovink has this all backwards.

    The internet and the social platforms (some “corporate tools” like google and facebook) are replacing much larger numbers of more expensive “middle men”. Artists can get paid and they can collaborate and explore more than ever.

    The elephant in the room is marketing!

    To be honest I think Lovink should recognise that what we have is a situation where all the new technology has lubricated the mechanisms so far in favour of artists that now the only thing they need to do is marketing.

    Look at record companies. Marketing is the tiny remaining fragment of what record companies do that you can’t really get almost for free on the internet. For marketing, you have to put in the hard work, or pay for it, and these days it comes down to networking (which Lovnik does actually mention, but only in the context of creative collaboration).

    In this era, commercially successful artists universally have excellent marketing, and that’s basically all they are usually missing, thanks in great part to riches bestowed by Free and Open source (which Google and Facebook could not do without).

    • goto80 Says:

      Perhaps for a few years it was possible for indie artists to become successful through marketing. But I don’t think it works like that in general. Especially not when the tools for marketing are controlled by institutions that favour its own artists.

      Otoh… If you allow me to paraphrase you: everything that artists have to do is marketing. Hehe. I mean – it’s a shallow thing to stay afloat in the attention economy. “Marketing” means everything and nothing. When musicians are also marketers, their music risks being adapated for getting more likes and RTs. Perhaps that’s a good thing? Or no? But perhaps it’s futile to separate content from marketing.

      If you’re interested/annoyed by Lovink, I can recommend to read more of his work. He’s for example one of the most well-known scholars of network studies.

      • Dragan Says:

        > When musicians are also marketers, their music risks being adapated for getting more likes and RTs.

        I think there is a lack of understanding who benefits from Likes and RTs. When clicking the Like button that is placed under something that was created by a person, we do not “give” the creator the Like, we give it to Facebook. For the creator the information on how many people clicked this button is not valuable, neither culturally nor monetarily. For Facebook, it is essential information because it can connect it with their behavioral database records for every user.

        The same with RTs, a creator does not gain close as much from a RT as Twitter does. For the creator, if a link to their work is rushing through Twitter, usually only the bandwidth bill goes up.

        This is a caricature of marketing. Mere toys given to the users by Internet Goliaths who can actually monetize the information gathered and are reluctant to share it with the creators, because the creators live under the illusion that they already get something in return.

        Running after Likes and Retweets is shameful enough when people who call themselves “social media marketers” are doing it, but it is simply sad to see netlabels or independent artists doing so.

      • goto80 Says:

        Ok – for some people it doesn’t matter how many likes/RTs they get. But for others it does. I know I have paid too much attention to all the stats that are around. It’s a dirty pleasure! At best. Most of the time it’s disappointing, of course. :I

        And meanwhile the platform owners benefit the most. But I guess the oldschool media also had that, somehow. It’s incredibly expensive (still) to buy ad-time in tv/press/radio. And nobody knows how effective it is anyway. There’s probably a lot of bs about traditional marketing too.

      • Christo Says:

        All creators, not just “Artists” have an opportunity these days to do their own marketing. It might risk the purity of the art but then that was always true, and it’s still an option to go to the big record labels or publishers and bend over.

        I think all forms of publishing are essentially vanity. Why not just put your art on your own fridge for yourself to enjoy? It’s not bad, it’s just that anything an artist does beyond that is a form of marketing.

        Artists who use traditional media businesses like record labels should consider what they are doing is outsourcing the dirty marketing (and logistics) to a specialist provider. Ultimately, their sales need to fund all that expense or they can’t come out ahead. Big business stack the deal so they can’t lose even if the art doesn’t sell.

        I think it’s really interesting that now artists have the choice. New media is just like sticking up your own posters for your band, except now it scales.

        If you are “guilty” for seeking likes then it may speak to your own true goals. Real marketing has as its main goal to increase sales (or signups or whatever). It’s not a profound mystery. If professional marketers get off track and follow unbankable vanity metrics then they usually see it as a mistake.

        Perhaps what artists struggle with is the paralysis of total freedom to create and publish entirely on their own terms?

      • k333d Says:

        love all the shit that’s stirred up, people have feelings!

        i’ve always taken the krew mentality to pushing my music/art/lifestyle ’cause what’s better than rolling deep? for me the gain isn’t money but having a better chance of hearing what i like on the speakers where ever i go. it’s not easy fighting mainstream music with lyrics but some swines got to do it!

        ex1. colon pipe krew pushed the gameboy noise aesthetic in minneapolis. we didn’t need to practice with each other… whoever showed could plug into the mixer and blast their fresh jams. keep the vibe alive.

        ex2. hexawe.net label. we upload mp3 and sauce for every release, and folks are active swapping sav files. i haven’t actually dj’d anyone elses material but i’d be honored if anyone repping hexawe played my shit out.

        i make mix cds featuring my favorite tracks and artists from the label to give out at shows. everyone gains exposure. and when i ship a package of 10 burns off to someone, i know those discs will wind up in the hands of friends and true fans who give a shit what they shovel into their ears.

        i don’t think this krew approach is rare at all in netaudio or the chipscene. or demoscene. or hip hop. or bro core. but i didn’t see it represented in the thread so eat it!

        i do plan on getting all hexawe releases into CDBABY so they show up on spotify and iTunes and other culture rape sites. but typing that makes me wonder, is it worth buying into the cool-distribution-channel scheme? is our music more discover-able if it’s in these places? or would we be better off releasing our music one place and then using the money that would go into CDBABY or whatever else on a publicist or targeted advertisements.

        i always thought jahtari was cool for their redik web site and lack of distribution but they’re on iTunes now. what would jah\n do?

        if the service my music is getting squirted into is as smart as pandora and someone listening to stuff i’m influenced by gets fed a track by me next, that’s pretty niffty.

        i often feel like an old man collecting mp3s and netaudio releases by hand when i could just set up a pandora station to feed me things i’ll like. but most of what i’m interested in simply isn’t there.

        i have no shame in being as passionate about distribution as i am about the art itself. the klf were kings of the art of spectacle and pr and i look up to those crafty mothers, socially engineering hacker kings!

      • goto80 Says:

        Sometimes when my old heroes decide to collect all their material in once place for instant download, it feels like something is lost. A lot is gained, obviously. But for someone like me who somehow also appreciates broken links (404 acid), it’s also a loss. The perfect and eternal archives are really useful, but not very interesting.

        Idk but it seems like a natural reaction to the consumer ease of internetty. When one need is satisfied, we start looking for something else. Uhm. Perhaps I’m going OT. Besides, I find myself arguing for crappy spotifiez that has no good music on it. :)

      • goto80 Says:

        You’re probably right that there is a paralysis around doing all the parts of make/distribute/market. And perhaps that’s one reason to not call it total freedom.

        For me it seems like a good idea to have someone else to take care of promotion and marketing. Perhaps it even gives more freedom in the production – contrary to what it was supposedly like a few decades ago. But it’s also important to note that the contracts that you sign usually means giving up more than that, right? Worst case is a lifetime exclusive contract. You’re formally not allowed to copy your own music anymore. But in practice, maybe that doesn’t matter so much anyway. Everybody else is copying it anyway :)

      • Christo Says:

        Artists looking to outsource marketing can go directly to smaller marketing operations either by hiring individuals or businesses (by negotiating a revenue share or paying an agreed fee) or looking at platforms like http://www.topspinmedia.com/ and those kinds of operations take a much smaller cut than big record labels do.

        Then there’s kickstarter. Kickstarter is an incredible opportunity for artists to find patrons. Any artist blaming anyone else about how they’re not making enough money from their art who doesn’t know kickstarter should really be ignored. http://www.kickstarter.com/

        Large record labels (used to?) make multi album deals with mandatory minimum spend on mandatory music videos which resulted in debt to the musicians before they even ship any music. The musician’s final cut of product shipped starts out negative and for many, never reaches positive profit.

        This is all changing.

        Who cares if google or facebook benefit “more” by a +1 or a like than an artist? The artist has a new choice. It’s another deal on the table. There’s frictionless optional ad-revenue sharing (on google anyway). Importantly there’s total alignment of interest between these companies and the content creators. Google wants to provide its ad-funded traffic and publishing system to creators for a minority cut of ad revenue. This sort of deal was never available to the little guys.

        Plus recognise what ads are – filthy dirty scumbag… yeah… but they are also just another outsourcing of product sales to a third party. If you’ve got a creation to sell, then why not just advertise it? How many people who click your ad will buy? Well that’s something every marketer lives and dies by. Conversion rate. Filthy dirty stuff for artists, but no less so than taking art out of the studio and putting a price tag on it.

        If you’re a film maker, check Cinovu http://cinovu.com/

        Artists just have to deal with the reality that if they want to charge for their creations and have revenue expectations, then they’re going to be facing the question of what makes people buy their stuff. That’s the realm of marketing. New outsourcing options for that dirty marketing piece should be cause for celebration!

        Open source is not the enemy. It’s the lubricant in the machine that makes this shit feasible.

      • goto80 Says:

        Yes, there are options for distribution. And some of them are probably really good. But I don’t know if they are new, exactly. If I put my music on cassette, I make more money by selling 10 of them than by having ads on my site for a year. Or 100000 spotify-listens. Or stuff like that.

        It’s not so new that DIY-distribution is possible. And the most difficult thing is still to package, promote, market, etc. To get a lot of people interested. Make money. Maybe more difficult, even?

        I’m not sure if you know what I mean. Perhaps we just have very different attituted to this.

      • Christo Says:

        Hey goto80 I just wanted to follow up… I found this a very interesting and through-provoking thread. Nice stuff.

        Also, you are right about the DIY aspect not being new. Cassettes sold out the back of cars are absolutely the old way and the new way is just more automated and scalable.

        Package and promote/market is the hardest thing for creators, I agree with you. I don’t think it has to be though, and it may well be more worthwhile to learn and build skill in this than waiting tables which is how I see many musicians funding their art.

        I still have quite a few cherished artist-made cassettes. RobJ from Non-Bossy Posse I’m talking about you man, wherever you are!

      • goto80 Says:

        > it may well be more worthwhile to learn and build skill in this than waiting tables which is how I see many musicians funding their art.

        agreed. and that’s exactly what i’m doing, actually :)

  8. Dragan Says:

    Did you all read Tracky Birthday’s “Born To Fail”” yet? http://www.upitup.com/tracky/dropbox/born_to_fail.pdf

  9. We Are The Zombies, Not the Machines « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] on practice, and argue for hacking the black boxes – echoing the free-and-open discourse (which deserves some scepticism). But how – and why – would the opening of technologies lead to something that we […]

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