‘To explain music genres’ – Probably the biggest lure of free music to both fans and artists is the near absolute creative freedom it grants. There are good reasons for the imbalance towards experimentalism and niche genres within our scene, most notably that the commercial world is usually unready or unwilling to accept the truly different into their own fold whereas the nature of online distribution and low-level community organisation means that the free model allows pretty much anything, no matter how jagged and indigestible, to carve out its own corner and its own success. It is, without doubt, one of the best qualities of the system and one which will, as more and more people adjust to the truly open nature of the online world and the musical exploration it encourages, prove to be a major draw to those who find themselves drifting out of the orbit of the commercial system and into more personal, less dictated, musical discovery. Indeed the more obscure and innovative styles we embrace the more we outpace the mainstream system which has only ever picked up on originality and creativity when they’ve already manifested themselves to a level where they can be imposed as a musical norm. Punk, Hip-Hop, Blues, Jazz, Grime, Dubstep, Reggae, Rock ‘n’ Roll – none of them are the product of the conventional methods of distribution which have always arrived late to musical trends and proceeded to milk them until any given genre has been butchered by the production line of genericism that treats music like any other commercial resource, something to be squeezed dry before being discarded for the next trend. And historically this ultra-consumerist attitude towards music created far outside of the commercial system has prevailed absolutely, unopposed by its originators and soon tamed by those whose notions of where the music came from and what it means is picked up solely from commercial presentations of it.
There can’t really be much judgement or blame on this point given that, until now, any musician who wanted their music to be heard was obliged to enter into that mainstream industrial model of culture and art. Go back to the glory days of the major labels, where they really were the only game in town and you can see that for many artists and genres there was absolutely no choice but to hand over their art to business interests and hope for the best, usually only to find that the core concepts behind their work was immediately transformed into a media-friendly parody of what it was. It’s a death grip which was, to a minor degree, challenged by the D.I.Y ethic of indie labels and the introduction of home recording (back when it were all tapes around these parts) but still the mentality was geared towards cult or local audiences, accelerating the spread of musical styles but still leaving any emergent movement vulnerable and small enough to be consumed by the mainstream commercial system. Now, however, with the online revolution still very much in its early days, there’s potential for a growing sense of confidence when new music emerges. The inevitability of the cult-mainstream exploitation-cult model is slowly eroded away as musicians find themselves more and more able to protect their creations rather than compromising it for the sake of the imposed (and often imagined) tastes of the mainstream. Genres may no longer have to rely upon commercial recognition in order to flourish before a wider audience and we around the free music movement are at the forefront of this liberation. The problem, however, is that we don’t yet know how to claim ownership over what we’re doing.
Acting without a sense of unity all too many artists either find themselves trying to push into the mainstream or simply juxtaposing themselves to it without realising that they’re already participating in a model which is dynamic and strong enough not to need to simply be classed as ‘non-commercial’. Free music is more than just a difference in financial practicality, it’s a cultural evolution and the music which can and is emerging from it isn’t just a slightly more liberated alternative to what came from the traditional models of music distribution it’s a whole new set of standards and ideas about what can be created. Where innovations on old styles or entirely new styles are emerging there shouldn’t be either an assumption that it’ll ultimately be surrendered to the mainstream or that it’s doomed to be a niche development set to the side of what the mainstream does. What this system can create needs to be viewed as a whole new cultural tradition, with a whole new method of recognition and proliferation which is where, I think, the focus on examining and understanding genres within free music should come into its own. Like any other cultural movement we need to pay close attention to our own history if the concepts and ideals of free music are to last beyond the first assaults of commercialism, which will undoubtedly see elements of the creativity our scene has suborned into the traditional model. Much the same as we localise musical innovations geographically, noting the differences between what’s happening in (for example) Russian and French Hip-Hop, we need to start figuring out what’s taking place within the various corners of free music, understanding that what a artist has done on a free release is something they could not have done under a commercial one and accepting their creations as the product of our own distinct model. Each genre, ghettoized as it may be, is going to evolve at least a little differently when it’s being practiced under the freedoms of the Creative Commons system and that difference can’t just be developed and then handed over to the mainstream, it needs to be comprehended as a product of our cultural system and taken forward as such.