Week 8

The new folk tradition

No, I don’t mean the current crop of earnest young beards singing the songs of the harvest. The digital folk revival can look and sound however it wants, because it’s the revival of a tradition.

As the remix artist Girl Talk mentions excitedly at the end of Good Copy, Bad Copy, the music industry is getting back to the old way of doing things. He remixes a Brazilian remix of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ and marvels at how far the song has traveled, changing along the way, until the documentary ends on his unrecognizable loop of about a second of the chorus. Despite all the attempts at corporate definition of the digital music industry, there seems only one way that art can and will survive in the age of networked abundance, and that is by going back to how it was done before the corporations took over.

This is what Lawrence Lessig calls the “read-write culture” in his TED talk ‘How Creativity Is Being Strangled By The Law’. In the old days (before recorded sound was the main way of hearing music), sound was not a commodity. It barely mattered, and was barely known where songs originated, what mattered was the connections they made as they were taught and learned, adapted and altered continuously. A performer could sing for his supper, but there was no artifact, so business could not get involved. The widespread use of recorded, broadcast sound made music a “read-only” culture. You hear a song but you cannot do anything artistic with it. Playing it, singing it, changing it is all frowned upon because now someone owns the music, the mysterious song essence – a few chords here, a melody there – and they’re damned if you can use it without paying obscene amounts.

There have been problems with copyright in the past. Musicians were accused of stealing other bands’ ideas, courts squabbled over the grey area where ‘artistic influence’ meets plagiarism. But with the digital era of music, where infinite replication and transmission is the click of a button and the legal system vainly flaps to control and monetize media flow, things are undeniably “read-write” again. We’ve seen remix culture recontextualize and warp sounds made by others beyond all recognition. Then the remix gets remixed which gets remixed and every time the song changes, is given something new by an individual performance and sent out again for the enjoyment of all. Just like Dylan would take a bit of a blues song, a bit of a Woody Guthrie song, and yelp out his own words over the top.

To a lesser degree, most new musicians engage in folk culture now. They make their songs available for free online because they want to express themselves more than they care about ‘making it’. Some use their freely available music to advertise events where they sing for their supper, others just do it because they love to, which is pretty important when it comes to art.

As Lessig says, “freedom actually drives a more vibrant, important economy than restriction and control”. When the copyright enforcers are forced to relent, the folk tradition of music/any art will actually make the industry flourish. Freedom to listen and create encourages enthusiasm about music. People want to support musicians they like, certainly if it’s a choice between that and them making less/no music. They’ll do it through sites like Bandcamp which reduce middlemen hugely, or through going to gigs.

If there’s any reluctance to pay for music it’s not because we don’t think it’s worth anything or the musicians don’t deserve to be paid, it’s because we’ve got so used to a music industry which is renowned for being unfair to artists and fans. When copyright is relaxed to let the digital folk revolution take over, the distrust which has plagued the “read-only” system will be replaced by an enthusiasm and artist-consumer connection which is more intimate and conducive to glorious sounds.



The reason for this slightly strange title is relating to this post:

In which Barry Piling celebrates that ‘Ikea understands the internet!” In his post he talks about his parody of an Ikea advert.

He gleefully shares some of his correspondence with the furniture giant, saying  “How brilliant to see a global company with a sense of humour!” when they could have gone all copyright on him and his dubbing.

Piling sums it up pretty nicely when he writes:

“Now here are two ways to look at this situation… You could say I’d stolen footage that I didn’t create, added a piss-taking voiceover, changed the branding and uploaded it to my personal YouTube Channel without permission in order to get a few laughs. This is all undeniably true.

However, the more modern and, in my opinion, much more beneficial approach is what has happened here. IKEA is clearly a huge corporation with a strong enough brand to withstand parody videos like mine. In fact, any discussion, parody or sharing of any kind only increases brand awareness, which is a good thing for the company. They get to show off their sense of humour by allowing it to remain online, and increase views of their brand by 74,000 (at time of writing).”

The key words – “more modern” – bring up what Larry Lessig opens his TED Talk “laws that choke creativity” with, a need to move with the time. Modern times require modern laws and modern mindsets. He ends by pointing out that “kids are different…they make TV instead of just watching it”. IKEA show an active engagement in the power of harnessing the pervasive force of a big multinational and balancing it with the grassroots of video production, whilst not getting bogged down in copyright law that is designed to protect IKEA from bigger fish than Piling.

The contrast between this fun, cat-filled example and the next highlights the breadth of reaction between the two large groups.

Brian Kamerer made a youtube video which Jay Leno supposedly found hilarious and subsequently played it on his show. All well and good, until Kamerer returned to watch his video and found he was blocked from watching his own video under Jay Leno’s show’s copyright claim. Kamerer subsequently uploaded the video to Funnyordie.com and expressed his feelings, as you can see in the above link.

The show claiming the right to distribute Kamerer’s video, combined with Larry Lessig’s TED talk that brought up George Lucas gaining all rights to content uploaded onto ‘Star Wars Mashup’ (and thus removing all creator rights) caused me to wonder at what point does big industry start setting it’s own legal (or not?) loopholes. I don’t really know enough about actual copyright law to investigate this as much as I’d like, but the fact that you can broadcast someone’s original material (without their prior permission) and then claim any sort of rights over the video seems utterly backwards.




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