in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Of nasty mums, sad beavers, and the FLAC-copping community [Pt. III of III]

So we’ve heard about the needle, the laser, the flash-drive and the damage done. And last week I scored a few cheap points (cheap, ha, they were free – I downloaded them!) against the recording industry.

Speaking to people (as opposed to record execs), one of the refrains was the idea of not wanting to harm the ‘little guy’. Mr Footstool is the friend of the little man… can we be too, and keep downloading? Forget about the ‘big, bad’ recording industry, what about indie record stores, small distribution networks, boutique labels? The ‘bad’ industry will look after itself, and has – collapsing celebrity, marketing and genetically-engineered spectacles into an interminable rutting circus, a media orgy (available on iTunes) of pole-dancing, pole-smoking Pussy Cat Moles who will nip, tuck and grind for your tweenage delectation, provided you’re willing to pay through the hose. So much for them. A lot of people just want the latest fad single, the latest ring-tone – and they’re willing to pay to download it, as the success of iTunes has demonstrated.

But what about the ‘good’ industry? Well, the first point to be made on this tip can be summed up by the (mythical) idea of ‘lossless’ files. There’s no such thing as a lossless file, just like there is no such thing as a ‘war without casualties’ ‘sin without God’ or ‘calorie-free food’. There are no gains without losses, and although we can minimise harm and loss, we can’t get rid of them all together. As a perceptive friend pointed out, “It's almost like the cries of sheet music publishers when radio was introduced: ‘what will we do now that songs can be heard for free?!’ But in the end their songs were heard by more people, and a new era started.” Or recall the British recording industry’s 80s campaign: ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’. Just like home cooking is killing hospitality. Or home damming is killing beavers. What nasty mums. What sad beavers. Indeed.

So if this a new era, a new reality, and we can’t eliminate loss or harm, then how can we minimise it?

I’ve spoken to downloading addicts, I’ve spoken to DJs, I’ve spoken to gigging musicians, and I’ve spoken to record store owners. A lot of people mourn ‘the loss’ (wherever it may be), but there’s only three aspects of the industry that are absolutely under threat: record stores, the recording industry ‘as is’, and medium-sized producers or bands who can’t, don’t or won’t perform live.

To musicians who won’t perform – well, you should. Musicians were performers. And so should they be. If you can’t perform, then DJ. And if you won’t do either? Well, okay, then you’ve got a problem. To the recording industry – change, or perish. But I get the idea that this has already happened, although not without ‘casualties’. And now we come to small record stores, and the joy of buying a work of dedicated creativity from a passionate expert who is themselves dedicated to creativity, one of the guardians of the archive. This is where I’m really sympathetic. Without knowing the details in each case, in the past three years Melbourne has seen the closure of Rhythm & Soul’s city store, substrata’s wonderful online service, Slap records and more recently Synaesthesia (although this was apparently for other reasons). It can't be a mere co-incidence. These are all very real losses whose impact will be felt as a loss of expertise, a loss of the joy of buying music (even with all that entails) and, perhaps most importantly, as a loss of community.

Online aesthetic communities, the so-called blogosphere, they’re all very well, but it doesn’t amount to much. The flipside of being free to discuss music is being free from any kind of embodied relation. The blogosphere can create weak links between two people anywhere in the world, but it struggles creating strong links between you and the girl next to you on the tram. As I’ve said, she might be the only other girl in Melbourne who likes sleeparchive… but how would you know? Forget money, forget records, forget music. If we can’t relate to each other face-to-face, then that is a great loss. And a real challenge.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dirty Sanchez in El Dorado (the returning of the screw?) [Pt. II of III]

Last week, we looked at the world of Squibznik (private tracker extraordinaire), a world that is El Dorado to downloader-members, and Dirty Sanchez to the recording industry. I finished the column begging the question, (thee question if you’re wearing chocolate face fluff): why would I buy a CD?

‘Because it’s illegal not to,’ squeaks Sanchez the rec. exec, ‘downloading music is stealing!’

Is it stealing? Hmm…

In that irritatingly unskippable ad on a lot of rental DVDs, downloading is equated with stealing people’s ‘things’. ‘You wouldn’t steal a handbag… so don’t steal movies!’ Is the irony of the fact that this appears on rental DVDs lost on these eedjuts?
Whatever the case, the ad is wrong for two reasons: downloaders are not thieves, and they’re not stupid. Let’s say I steal your manbag, full of cash you earned dishpigging of a Saturday eve to pay for your tweakend shenanigans. It’s ten o’clock on Saturday night. The phones are running hot. You’re all gee-d up. And I took your money. There goes your lost weekend. I’ve taken from you, past and future: your projected fun and the time it took you to earn that cash, which you’ll never get back. Those five hours, those precious moments of your life you sacrificed washing dishes… I’ve robbed you of something you can never replace.

But mp3s are different – ‘almost’ nothing, just information telling your vibrator how to vibrate (yes, your iPod is just a fancy vibrator for your mind). Now, if I learn Japanese, I’m not depriving anyone in Japan of his or her language (imagine poor little Kenji, reduced to a lifetime’s grunting and signing because the nasty foreigner ‘stole’ his Japanese). Similarly, sharing music files doesn’t decrease a finite, scarce amount of something owned by an individual. Artists (well, living ones) ‘retain’ their music – they keep their own copies, and sometimes even the rights to its reproduction (if they’re lucky with the record deal). And they get to keep their unique ability to ‘perform’ their music face-to-face, which is something that nobody can take away from them, even though cover bands try.

The downloader hasn’t deprived anyone of ‘music’ – they’ve actually contributed to its abundance. It’s dishonest to say you’re ‘stealing music’ – historically, only record deals have had the power to steal an artist’s own music from them. What you’re actually doing is stealing ‘revenue’. Copyright, intellectual property – these are just ways of protecting profit. Because record companies see artists as sources of profit, it’s easy to see why they get confused. But, by their logic, why not sue all cover bands? Or attack second-hand record stores, who contribute nothing in royalties, and actually profit from selling other people’s music (unlike downloaders)? Or ban cassettes? But they’ve all been tolerated, because the record companies knew they retained their monopoly. Really, if you wanted to acquire a collection of music, it was impossible to bypass them. But now it is. Hence the panic. You’re not just stealing milk… you’ve Squibznicked their cashcow.

So there are two ‘real’ issues: providing a way for living artists to continue living as artists, and refusing or allowing the recording industry to retain its monopoly over the means of distribution. To me, this is a no-brainer: provided we can look after musicians and their entourage, the labels can go jump. This is an industry that ensures artists get no more than a few dollars from the sale of their own work; that has been happy to sell re-packaged versions of dead artists’ work at full price and take all the profit; that ‘forced’ digital on consumers because it was lighter, cheaper, and smaller. This aggressive, possessive parasite is screaming blue murder, now that they too have been rationalised by the same logic they forced on us… is it time to return the screw?

But what about ‘good’ record stores? Live venues? Independent distribution networks? The artists who’ve made all that incredible cover art? And the studio heads? Isn’t downloading kind of like A-bombing the temple, just because there are some thieves in it? Or is it that now, for the first time, we have to ‘think’, because we finally have a meaningful choice to make?

That’s what we’ll look at next week…

© (he he) Peter Chambers 2007

Thursday, April 12, 2007

From Napster to Squibnik (‘Heaven on Earth’ vs ‘Our Worst Nightmare’)

Remember Napster in the ‘good ol’ days?’ When that puppy peaked in late 2000, almost everyone I knew was getting their first real taste of downloading. I’ve kept one of the first compilations I made on CD-R: it’s full of brittle, thin-sounding obvious ‘copies’ of each purloined piece. The volume and intensity of each track varies wildly, and a lot of them pop, click and glitch.

Fast-forward to ’03 and everyone’s on Limewire and Kazaa: mostly singles, lots of corrupted files, badly or incorrectly labelled tracks, no cover-art or proper tracklisting, and still no good for complete albums, very underground artists or up-to-date singles/EPs and remixes. That, and the spectre of dodgy spyware attached to a program that crashed and hung constantly. Certainly, it was no substitute for purchasing music, if you were serious about collecting.

Two years later, and people are getting whole albums off BitTorrent, ripped at 320kbps or even encoded with ‘lossless’ codecs, supplied with comprehensive tracklisting and cover art, and even (in some cases) pics of the original disc. The download speeds are still erratic, and you can’t get anything you can think of. But you can get almost anything. And suddenly, it’s almost possible to acquire a decent collection of music without paying a cent more than the cost of your broadband subscription.

But all that malarky, that’s just greasy kid’s stuff compared to Squibznik. Ladies and gentlemen, enter the ‘private tracker’. Private trackers like Squibznik (not its real name) are the private gentlemen’s clubs of the internet. In order to gain access, you have to be ‘invited’ by an existing member of good standing, who risks their reputation on you. Once invited, a new user is asked a range of questions, similar to the T&C everyone skips when downloading software. Having agreed to the various rules of the site, the new user is then allowed access to the Squibznik’s complete list of torrent files. But in order to keep downloading, you have to guard your sacred ‘ratio’ – if you don’t share torrents with others by allowing them to upload from you, you’ll eventually be barred. Like being discovered drunk and disorderly at the bar of the Melbourne Club every Saturday. It’s strict to the point of irritation, but users inform me that virtually any piece of recorded music (yes, really) can be had at 320kbps (at least), and all within ten minutes or so. Yes, really.

Basically, technology and sociability has ‘solved’ the distribution problem. Provided you’re wealthy enough to have broadband (or even live in a country with such luxuries), and are then invited by an existing member, you can have ANY music you want, without having to pay for it. For the music consumer, it’s heaven on earth. For the recording industry? It’s their worst nightmare. But given this situation, a profound question arises for your average cash-strapped and time-poor punter:

Why would I buy a CD?

What the entertainment industry is asking the consumer do is to pay AU$30.00 for something that can be had for about a dollar. The retail CD might be a bit prettier, but really, is it $29.00 prettier? Is it thirty times better? ‘But that’s illegal!’ you squeal. ‘That’s why you should buy the CD. You’re stealing from the artist.’

'Am I? Should I? That’s what we’ll be exploring next week.

© Peter Chambers 2007

My Life in the Bush of Mnml, Vol I

The first thing you should know is that mnml is nothing. We were never mnml, and neither should you be. And especially if you say you are, you’re not. So there.

With that in mind, MLBMnml is pleased to report the following trendencies:

1) Tools: No, not you arseholes. A lot of artists are releasing tracks that are openly designed as loops and sampling tools. Whilst this will make the (un)genre even more perplexing to the uninitiated (imagine paying forty bucks for a double EP with four sides of ten minutes of an unchanging groove, outrageous!), but it does put more creativity back in the hands of the able DJ. (Un)fortunately, this means both an increasing scope for hands-on, balls-out, multi-layered mixes and the inevitable ‘don’t you get it?!’ scenario of idiots playing a four-bar-loop for ten minutes. That means you folks are hearing that beat around 1300 times before (s)he mixes. Argh. Some EPs to check on this tip are Luciano’s fabulous ‘No Model No Tool’ package, Donnacha Costello’s 6x6 series or Onur Özer’s ‘Red Cabaret’ EP on Vakant, which is totally unsatisfying as a composition but chock full of ‘cool, spooky horn noises’ which fade in and out of the mix.
2) Dubstechno: some commentators are convinced that it’s a fringey, nerdy thing that won’t take off down the disco. Certainly, this music seems to be appreciated (mostly) by nerdy boys in bedrooms dreaming of sexy girls (attested to by the bedside piles of tissues). But from Shackleton’s atmospheric mesmerisers on Skull Disco to Surgeon’s recent convergence of his old abstract, banging style of techno with dub-techno and dubstep rhythms (check ‘Whose Bad Hands are These’ Pts I & II), an fascinating cross-pollination is afoot. Interestingly, both dubstep and techno seem to share an imagination of romanticised urban decay, alienation and dread that’s allowed them to cross-mutate without any friction their stylistic differences might have caused.
3) Banging (vs. deep house): A lot of German floors are in the grips of a (re)discovery (and re-interpretation) of a lot of classic house, especially deep house and even (apparently) wild-pitch. Berlin label Diamonds and Pearls seem to be riffing on some of these ideas. Check EAT’s wonderful ‘upbuilding’ tracks. Not that it ever existed, but I have it on good authority that mnml is, like, so three years ago, and not even worth disavowing anymore. All this as M_nus’ Magda explains, “When I think of minimal, it's not what we play, you know?” Then M_nus goes ahead and releases two records that are, well, quite banging and old school, like the recent Tractile and Baby Kate remixes. Meanwhile, another thread in the bastard tapestry appears to be going right into the bleep/sine-wave techno of old, as you can find in full effect mixed in with the usual gems and oddities on JG Wilkes’ (of Optimo fame) amazing ‘Walkabout’ mix, definitely my mix of the year so far.
4) The continuation of trance by other means: If Misstress Barbara’s recent (and appallingly bad) release on Border Community is any indicator, the interesting if muddy intersection between clicks’n’cuts, micro/tech house, mnml and prog/trance that the label instituted has withered and turned into a parody of itself, re-spawning an openly regressive ‘trance’ turn but (hopefully) enabling more than a few former trance-allergists to follow the word and the idea without shame into dark and mesmerising territories. All this as (formerly incredible) Aril Brikha drops another trance-as-dishwater badboy on Kompakt, simultaneously proving both that Kompakt are the ‘Ikea of techno’ as someone suggested, and that Detroit is sooo dead. AND that dodgy trance will never die. Meanwhile, stay tuned as trance’s ‘bad camper’ self returns, muddier – expect lots of hard, trippy tech-trance reminiscent of the Air Liquide days, but returned repackaged as… mnml. Donato Dozzy, Modern Heads and even some of the recent Metope tracks like ‘Braga’ are really worth checking on this tip, and Dozzy’s ‘dozzydozzydozzzy’ mix is well worth the free download from Mental Groove’s website.
5) Fossils, nerdscapes and Ksubi party monsters: Meanwhile, in the absence of an organising visual principle (a la Modular), mnml’s fractious trendencies appear to be fated to attach themselves to (then be disavowed by) a range of genres which are fossilising, being re-born, or just plain miscarrying (again). The nerdscape/blogosphere/production microverse keeps on revolving and evolving new, hyped sounds every few months, but so often these days this only seems to have a (ahem) mnml relation to what the ‘kids on drugs in clubs’ are dancing to, or at least how they understand what they’re doing. Younger peepz, unfussed by the sharp genre-specifics of 90s partying, appear to be picking, mixing and re-arranging parts and pieces of mnml into an overarching ‘style’ unified by visual cues – so the successful parties are increasingly those which offer a wearable subculture.
Nano’s recent successes (offering a vision of mnml to a dedicated audience) seems to have ‘proved’ (at least temporarily) that the music is viable in Melbourne. And why not? The parties are great, especially in the openness of Miss Libertines. But time will tell whether the style, which seems to yearn for stylistic purity, is at odds with Melbourne’s innately rockist, eclecticist music culture (on the one hand) and an increasingly visualised clubbing culture that subordinates content to coolsie kids in Ksubi jeans who cut their musical teeth on Triple J Hottest 100 comps in the suburbs… shhhh.

© Peter Chambers 2007

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.