So why focus on music?

Pirate with headphones

A few things have made me question my focus on music as the territory for this conversation recently. After all, all culture is under threat as a result of copyright conservatism in a changing media environment.

Chris Bestwick raised the point in a comment on my last post, I’ve talked about it with a few people – and a somewhat belated viewing of Rip: A Remix Manifesto earlier this evening made the point really clear.

The cultural and intellectual lockdown extends way beyond popular music into books, visual arts, academic works, medicine… and extends into the realms of international trade, global politics and genuine life and death issues.

And yet – the book in progress (not to mention this blog) is called ‘Deleting Music’ and not ‘Deleting Culture’. Why?

Well, first the most prosaic and uninteresting answer: I like music. Music is my background, it’s what I talk and teach about, and it’s what I’m most interested in. But ultimately, that’s also an unsatisfying answer. There’s more to this debate than music, and I need to acknowledge the broader cultural ramifications of that.

Second, there’s the answer that says this is an important issue and it needs to be communicated to as many people as possible. I want to talk to the people who love music – the musicians, the fans, the collectors, the independent label owners, the music educators, researchers, retailers, distributors, promoters, DJs… and if someone else could please talk to the visual artists, the biochemical engineers, the film makers, the potters, the choreographers, the architects and everyone else – that would be really cool, thanks.

I don’t want to preach a message to an audience who (quite rightly) don’t think I have any credentials or understanding in their area. My credentials, such as they are, are rooted in the music side of things – a territory I’m far more at ease discussing and debating.

But third – and I think most importantly, this book is not purely and simply about copyright reform. I am, as you may have guessed, a copyright reformist – and the purpose of this book will be as much advocacy for change as it will be a description and analysis of a cultural issue. Current copyright regimes are clearly implicated in the story I’m telling here – but that’s not the full picture of what I’m working on with this book.

There’s a genuine cultural crisis going on in the music industries. Master tapes are decaying in vaults. Original works – by artists you’ve heard of, not just obscure and irrelevant wannabes – are not being preserved. Archives and libraries are only reluctantly being supplied with copies of released material – and not reliably so.

In music, perhaps in more than any other field, culture is not merely being prevented from being remixed – it’s completely disappearing, preventing it from forming the basis of any future works or research. And it’s that, more than anything else, that I want to communicate through this book.

This is not a hypothetical problem, or merely an unfair distribution of power. Popular music culture is literally vanishing right now. Magnetically-charged metal oxide particles are falling from master tapes as we speak.

To me, that’s important, urgent – and worthy of its own book.