The Future of Free Music

Free music, free culture in general in fact, is a thing of obvious benefits. To the creator it’s an outlet which allows for honest enthusiasm, for the passion which was invested into the work to be appreciated by as many people as possible without having to adhere to a communal, often corporate, set of ideals. To the observer it’s even more; it’s a completely accessible, democratic and non-dictatorial cultural sphere where it truly does fall on the individual to seek out their own tastes and interests without any dictated trends or tastes being laid down by commercial and stylistic influences which rely on absolute saturation and semi-programmed indulgence to retain their hold of cultural life. It’s a liberating ideal, one which we’re only just starting to see the extent of and of which we can have no idea of the limits which it could reach as an alternative world of art and content.

We’re all naïve about the precise nature of the scene we’re part of. For most, of course, it’s just a way to get good, free music; it’s an act of exploratory indulgence and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But if you’ve got an interest in probing the form and nature of this new open culture concept then it’s bewildering to try and judge what role it could ultimately play.

It sounds like exaggeration I know, to suggest that our relatively minor free music movement could one day fulfil a major role within the cultural whole, especially when looking at it now only the roughest of organisational and promotional structures are emerging, almost always reliant on the efforts of hobbyists and enthusiasts. But you only need to look at the last cultural shift to occur, the proliferation and expansion of the internet, an ethereal entity which has altered life for a vast chunk of the worlds population and yet which started with people arguing about Star Trek on newsgroups. Comparatively speaking our infancy is at least decidedly cooler.

The big push with both the present and previous generations of media evolution has been to make the ‘consumer’ an active participant in the content itself. From the internet was borne the concept of interactivity which has merged wholly with the mainstream media, be it TV, print or corporate online entities. An idea of individual freedom of thought and expression has been turned into a side arm in the armoury of slow moving, hierarchical, dictatorial cultural megaliths. Yet still, at the most crucial and creative of levels the individual still takes charge. The audience still overwhelmingly pursues its own path in favour of those created and dictated by commercial media Shamans.

The Creative Commons movement is implicitly tied to the ‘alternative’ model of culture. For all the investment and encouragement of mainstream participation in the CC licensing model the main exponents remain the bands, the listeners, the labels, the producers, the artists, the photographers and everyone else who, through their own experiences, decides to release their work for free. And the form which the movement takes in future is wholly in the hands of those people who have created and sculpted it.

If traditional media bodies do take up the CC system then, as with the internet before it, they’ll seek to shape and define it’s final form. To homogenise and monetise the movement seem like easily plausible aspirations, reflected in the increased push to copyright enforcement, moderated content and centralisation of the internet itself. If one of, say, the four major corporate record labels decided to embrace the idea of free music as a precursor to merchandise and gig sales then it’d be well within the scope and financial clout of such an organisation to marginalise entirely the masses who’ve created the scene so far. Not to say that the passionate individual could ever be completely removed from the equation but it’d be the work of a few million to eclipse them as a force within the philosophy.

And perhaps it wouldn’t matter. Perhaps the corporatisation of our free music world could lead to the sort of explosion of free culture that could alter society entirely, although it’s hard to see how an independent releaser, outside of the evolved commercial structure would have much chance of rising through their own efforts. The mainstream, I believe, will consume alternative models of cultural life without thought of opposition; they’ll buy us rather than fight the concept, but the process almost always eats away at the ideal. Punk ends up as clean cut 17 year olds pretending to play guitars, the truer exponents of the musical philosophy marginalised; generations of piracy exponents turn to aspirant commercialism, Hip-Hop becomes 50 Cent, a near-parody of a cliché. The Creative Commons movement becomes… what? A PR tool perhaps, or a stage managed farce, the stomping ground of media whores artificially constructing a new misuse of a concept juxtaposed to the fabricated, hierarchical nature of cultural distribution. Pessimism, I know, but a more than viable future for the structure we’re creating.

I don’t know how much control any of us, no matter how organised, can have over the future of the free culture model or if it even matters; perhaps the future holds nothing but a ghettoised hobbyists paradise but an awareness of the fact that we are in a dynamic, evolving community which does have a future which we are a founding part of seems like no bad thing. Whatever this scene’s to be we’re the ones, for now, who get to have the greatest say.

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