Black Lantern Music is the new netlabel I am running in conjunction with NeverZone and Urge Mode (formerly Audiodacity). Our philosophy is pretty simple - we offer DRM-free MP3s, at 320kb, under a Creative Commons License, completely free of charge. So why have we decided to give our music away for free? Here, I'd like to explain what I understand about the concept of the non-paying market, and why we as artists and publishers have chosen to embrace it.

Hakim Bey, the philosopher and anarchist thinker behind the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, was talking about Balinese creative culture when he described a society where "...the artist is not a special kind of person, but each person is a special kind of artist.'' I believe this is the kind of culture that is beginning to arise now that the internet and technology have provided every potential author or creator with the means for both production and distribution of pretty much any kind of art imaginable.

Seed Magazine recently published this essay about the coming era of 'universal authorship' ushered in by blogging and social networking. This doesn't just apply to writing however: it also applies to photography, film, music... any kind of art currently practiced. In an era where many people have cameras on their phones, and can upload shots to Flickr or similar sites, photography similarly becomes a mass activity. The same is true for film-makers and other artists - hundreds of amateur films are uploaded every day to YouTube, just as DJ mixes are uploaded to SoundCloud, drawings to Deviant Art and so on.

The question that usually comes up at this point is that of quality. In a culture where 'each person' can potentially become an artist, does this mean that so-called 'true' artists' work is devalued, or swamped by amateurish nonsense?

This question is particularly relevant in light of the debate over copyright issues, and when considering the issue of fair payment for an artists' work. Artists such as Metallica and Eminem have famously pursued fans who have been caught filesharing, arguing that the loss of revenue from illegal sharing could cause a collapse of the industry. A brief browse around Flickr's comments will show that many consider the site to be 'for pros only,' and will mercilessly ridicule and abuse people who use the site in what is perceived to be an amateurish fashion. So where is the line? Do we agree with Bey when he says that no artist is special? How do we judge which works should be jealously guarded, and which freely shared?

The music industry is perhaps the most obviously affected. In the past, bands would have to build up a local following - they would perhaps have access to low-tech demo production in the form of a four-track tape recorder, but in most cases they would have to pay for studio time to make a professional-sounding demo. The demo would then be sent to record labels, who would then assess the band's likelihood of success - could their local following be widened through touring? Werer the band likely to fit with or revolutionise current trends? Therefore an act picked up by a major label would have to be tight, slick and professional - but most of all, commercially appealing. Most of the time, that meant fitting into an established genre.

With the advent of studio software like Ableton and ProTools, it is now possible for people to make professional-sounding music from home. Furthermore, they can distribute it easily online, whether through hosting it on profile sites such as MySpace, or through the more recent streaming sites such as Last FM. It is now common practice to record, not demos, but EPs - four or five-track collections that showcase the artist - and distribute them through re-hosting sites, such as MediaFire or YouSendIt. These download links are temporary, but can allow huge numbers of people to access a band's music - and if the music is successful, it can be re-hosted on blogs, torrent sites and websites elsewhere.

Essentially, giving away music for free has become the norm - even if it is a forerunner of an attempt to be signed by a major label, and become the old-style touring / recording behemoth, it has now become a mainstay in most band's career trajectories. So Free is definitely here to stay - but can it provide artists with a strategy not just for their startup phase, but for their entire career?

Wired founder Kevin Kelly, among others, has written extensively about the economics of giving your work away for free. His article The Long Tail suggests that digital distribution can be used by artists who would previously have been considered too leftfield for the mainstream to build a small but loyal fanbase, who can support the artist through donations, exclusive merchandising and live performance (among other techniques). Chris Anderson, another Wired writer, has also written extensively about the rise of the free market. When Prince gave away his last album for free, in conjunction with the Daily Mail, Anderson's explanation of the mechanics of this giveaway provided a genuine insight into why Prince, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and many other successful artists are embracing the concept of giving away their work.

What it comes down to is this - by giving away what was traditionally thought of as the 'core product,' you can potentially reach a much larger audience, who are all grateful for getting a free album / EP / whatever. These people are then more likely to become 'true fans' who will come and see you at a show, or will perhaps buy the limited edition, custom designed items you sell in small numbers, but at a higher price.

None of this is news - artists have been embracing free distribution across the board for several years now (at least, most of those artists who are starting out have). The mainstream, established artists are starting to embrace the concept too - although many of them are still tied to the old-fashioned concept of the cross-subsidy ("Buy this detergent, get a free LaRoux mp3!").

The dark side of this new democratisation of availability concerns the moves to consolidate and complicate copyright law. A few years ago, the Creative Commons Licenses were created to allow people to reserve some rights to their work. The various licenses allow artists to set the level of copyright they wish to retain - often allowing remixes and non-commercial re-uses of their work free of charge.

Many, many netlabels have sprung up around this concept, taking advantage of the ease with which you can now publish content on the internet. Many use CC Licenses; some charge, others suggest donating, others are defiantly free. Labels like Alterhit allow artists the option of charging for their work. Many, like Chew-Z, also sell CDs and merchandise. My personal favourites - and the labels that inspired me to start Black Lantern Music - are the labels that use the free downloads as a hook to promote shows, club nights and events. The likes of Leeds' fantastic Dead Channel, the ambient-focused Myuzyk, Leipzig's Jahtari and Glasgow's Little Rock provide some seriously inspiring and uncompromising music, and rely on the support from end-users coming to their gigs. The great thing about these labels is the sheer breadth of experimentation they are able to encompass - in the free market there are no rules about genre, track length, production quality or song structure. Artists recording at home on self-bought (sometimes self-built) equipment, often self-taught, can produce whatever they like.

The whole culture of the free netlabel didn't spring from nowhere, though. It has its roots in the punk tape-trading scene; in the zine culture, in semi-legal mix-trading sites like DnBShare or BareFiles.

The advent of the netlabel doesn't always mean free music, either - there are paying or subscription-model netlabels, like Boomkat's 14tracks, or Edinburgh's own TenTracks. There are sites like Tunecore, who will help artists get into the paying markets of iTunes and Napster. There are smaller local labels, like Kobra Audio Labs' Dumb Hero, who sell both physical copies and downloads, sometimes offering extras and remixes for free.

When it came down to launching our own netlabel, we had to assess where we were at with the various bands we were involved in. Some of us had released on indie labels such as Tru Thoughts or Labrat Audio; many had gone through the process of independently releasing albums; a fair few of us already gave away our music for free via the aforementioned MediaFire or similar sites. What we learned was that selling physical copies of albums, even to people prepared to come and see you at a gig, was often difficult. Free music on temporary servers was easily forogotten. We wanted to collect all of our projects in one place - give them a permanent home. We wanted to liberate our music from necessitating a physical presence. We also wanted to still be free to release the odd thing on other labels.

Thus, Black Lantern Music was born. Fired by Cory Doctorow's thoughts on eBooks and Warren Ellis' ROTOR concept, not to mention his wildly successful free webcomic FreakAngels, we collectivised, and abandoned the notion of preventing people from copying our work. We embraced the concept of viral spread, began to actively court it.

We believe that by doing this, we can not only help Edinburgh to build a sorely-needed underground scene, we can also extend the reach of our music to a potentially global market. Now we're here in the land of the Free (a land without borders, or laws... or land), we want to emulate the forward-thinking non-conformism and intellectual rigour of projects like Coilhouse. We want the mass appeal and connectedness of local heroes like Noise Porn. We don't care about charts, deals, or sales - we care about music, and we care about our audience.

We believe that by embracing the digital approach, we have not only liberated ourselves from the attendant hassles of a dying industry, we have actually aligned ourselves with the direction of mankind's evolution. As technology becomes Earth's third replicator, we celebrate the end of the record company, the end of the CD... we salute the democratisation and de-commercialisation of music.

Raise the Black Lantern.

1 comment:

Liam said...

Nice. Cheers for the props. Lots of food for thought in there... Is it just my browser? I seem to be struggling to open the Black Lantern page.

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