Alessandro LudovicoPeer-to-Peer: the collective, collaborative and liberated memory of sound
Michael Robertson, founder of mp3.com.
The key to accessing one’s own memory of sound.
The unstoppable popularity of peer-to-peer networks and of millions of mp3 files exchanged every day cannot simply be reduced to the usual equation “free=everyone wants it”. There is something more complex and wider-ranging that makes neophyte users constantly rack their brains over how to make hardware and software mechanisms work to access the “celestial jukebox”. This is the instinctive search for one’s own experience of sound, everyone’s memory of music which has found somewhere to begin afresh and re-establish those neural connections which produce indelible associations between events and tracks and tunes. Unlike any form of 'revival', decided from above by publishers, the peer and non-profit network offers large amounts of original, unmanipulated material which awakens familiar sensations and brings back memories. Downloading files compulsively, driven by the mania to take advantage of an “open safe” thus means something more than accumulating cds full of files without actually having time to listen to them. This stereotype which is put about by the old media leads nowhere, because it forgets that everyone lives their lives intimately surrounded by sounds. The free exchange of tracks, not for gain or small-scale business, seems as necessary to existence as looking again at certain photos or re- watching certain films at one’s leisure. Fragments that were lost over time, records lent and never returned and that, thanks to digital swapping, turn up again. Music is in fact contained not only in the safes of industry or the dusty ledgers of copyright associations but in everyone’s home, via the myriad cds, vinyl discs and cassettes which together represent an enormous heritage of music. Digitizing this heritage, although sometimes available only in snatches with technical limits, means it can take shape so that it can reach and satisfy anyone. The very notion of ownership of a music product is radically redefined by its changing into something which is not material. Apart from reassessing the contents one owns insofar as they are merely activators of other exchanges, peer-to-peer networks are perhaps the first model of contents “on-demand” which has truly worked because it is negotiated between peers. The notion of a network has worked splendidly here since it is others who keep one’s own memory of music. The reward is not only “obtaining” music but also taking part in an enormous collective process, as happens with a chat room, newsgroup or blog. Sharing one’s files is thus no mere act of generosity or a gesture that it is hoped will encourage others to do the same, but an act of participation, proving one is part of a game, a process or a collective performance intended to liberate sounds and share them. As John Perry Barlow says, “the more connected we become, the more obvious it is that we're all in this together”(1): this is the culture of the net which is expanding rapidly, rewarding collective consciousness, expressed via the artistic heritage of musicians and which lives again in our memory. Basically, as stated by “Lord of the Borrowers”, a highly active user making available his 54 Gigabytes of data: “There are loads of people out there who have no idea of the use they could make of their computers ... I think I’m doing a public service.”(2) This is a similar concept to Michael Robertson’s, who had conceived mp3.com as a “service bureau”, based on the assumption that “data changes the balance of power”(3) . Thus a public service, but self-organized and self-generated with ramifications which, whenever pruned by court action, regrow and thrive more than ever, like creatures of myth. Once started, the sense of community knows no bounds. That was seen in the spring of 2001 when the RIAA drew up a list of 135.000 tracks to be eliminated from the servers of Napster. Immediately there were groups and single users who came up with stratagems that were imaginative, to say the least, such as using the figure '2' instead of 'to' or writing the names of the tracks backwards or in pig latin, or even creating sites automatically converting the names into forms which could not be recognized by the automatic control mechanisms.(4) However, access to the files is subject to intrinsic limits such as the text search for the name of the artist or track, without taking account of other interrelations of data, such as dates of production, sound structures used and so on. Yet these limits do not discourage searching and sharing in a peer-to-peer social and socializing practice. Indeed, one of the most fascinating sides of MP3 compression technology is that its diffusion and direct consequences were not planned at the outset but, as in the best tradition of informal networks, have expanded incredibly thanks to ordinary word of mouth. Viewed in the abstract, the structure of a pc network with a large number of music files resembles that of a sort of huge sound machine able to satisfy most needs. This is the so-called “Celestial Jukebox”, an ideal machine able to reproduce almost any track recorded in the history of music.
The main innovation of the MP3 compression system is that it has started new processes, both in composition and in the use of music, in line with the participatory structure of the net. The work of artists active on the net hinges on two concepts: the ramified spatial structure of sound information and the analogies between music files. “Tetrasomia”, for example, is a project by Stephen Vitiello: starting from four “cardinal points” of sound – very short compositions of about a minute and a half each related to earth, water, air and fire – the surfer is guided to other sounds on the net, such as the frequencies from orbiting satellites or the twittering of certain birds that live in remote corners of the globe. The tracks do not cancel each other out during listening but can be layered and activated together form a small cross-section of sounds from the world put into a personal form. This sound panorama is possible thanks to a number of contributions outside the creation of the artist, who becomes a new point in a network concentrating the experiences of others. A similar concept lies behind the sound sculptures of Atau Tanaka, who in “mp3q” shows a file of addresses processed into a three-dimensional textual structure where the user constructs a form of polyphony by making the files sound in a certain order. The artist intends the user to contribute to the work by pointing to new addresses and this request for cooperation breaks down the traditional barriers between artist and audience. This direct interaction mingles the roles of “creator” and “user”, thus enabling real development of ideas which draw their strength from the fact that they are created and approved by the public. And the notion of collective contribution is also behind “Collective Jukebox”, an experiment inaugurated in 1996 by Frenchman Jerome Joy, whose intention was to combine the spontaneous donation of tracks with public use independently of the limits of space and time of the artists involved. Joy’s work in fact combines the infrastructures of the net with those of traditional art, inviting anyone wanting to take part to make their tracks available at a publicly accessible internet address. Periodically, he then organizes and exhibits them via a real jukebox with thousands of files which are used in some kind of public space, such as a museum or café. Furthermore, the opportunity for reciprocal interaction opens further chances of processing carried out together with others, introducing a new social side into the production of sound. A musical artifact may indeed be the result of something done by more people than those normally in a band and so open up to an indefinite number of active participants who make a significant contribution to the final product. This concept is applied to particular advantage in “Sound Injury”, a mailing list for electronic musicians which ends interaction between members every month with a piece composed collectively. The list follows a simple procedure: a sound is distributed to all members who modify it and then resubmit it to the other participants. The process lasts thirty days with all the chaotic intermediate stages until the definitive version. A more playful sort of exchange recasts Peer-to-Peer networks as an easy hiding place for suitably disguised data. In “Siren's Voice” by the media company “plinq”, the user is invited to take part in the plot of a story by locating its missing parts hidden in exchange networks. The story is structured so that some parts are located in tracks with apparently ordinary titles distributed on Peer-to-Peer networks and which can be recognized by working together, which enables the story to be completed. These search mechanisms have a structure of data flows which only materialize in the minds of those involved in the interaction. The antipodes of this approach is the art of constructing software showing real images inside the abstractions that are files and producing a sort of microscope showing the normally invisible processes of the formation of blocks of digital numbers. “Minitasking”, by German duo Schoenerwissen, follows this principle, working on a particularly large data flow generated by the Gnutella network. Coloured “balls”, as the artists call them, represent the content of the file in size and colour, bringing out their intrinsic instability by dynamically mapping the data involved.
MP3 is now a medium in itself, as shown by a number of media operations which can easily be defined as performances. Currently on Peer-to-Peer networks, intentionally wrong names and titles are given to shared tracks, which disorients exchange and makes the user realize the fallible nature of “packages” of non-material goods. This approach is sometimes taken by small labels in search of glory, such as Evolution Controlled Creations (EEC), who distributed their tracks by saying they were unpublished items by Nirvana. The American record industry lobby, evidently in trouble, uses the same detour approach to discourage the spread in advance of new, long-awaited albums. This has produced companies like MediaDefender, one of whose services is the sale of the activation of many simultaneous downloads of a track on Peer-to-Peer networks to make it inaccessible. This form of conservative opposition is an attempt to make comprehensible a phenomenon far too complex and diversified to be so and which spreads with no technical obstacles in its path.
The quickest net language is worm viruses and they have clear effects on the user’s emotional vulnerability and hardware. Trusting that some music swappers might feel guilty, in July 2001 a hoax group sent out a communiqué saying that on 4 July, (American Independence Day), all computers on earth would crash due to a virus called MusicPanel and all MP3 files contained in them with the five hundred best-known tracks would become unusable. Posted on some newsgroups (including alt.music.bootlegs), it clearly shows how media panic can be instigated and is also a slap in the face of censors who have used similar tones when launching their crusades.(5) This technique has been used on other occasions, such as 1998 when a similar hoax described a new worm called 'Bloat' which would supposedly make the MP3 files on a hard disk five times as big.(6) The useless guilt feeling instilled by commercial marketing concerning the free exchange of sound goods which have been legitimately purchased brings with it new forms of cultural rebellion which come out in unsuspected ways.
Plagiarism: MP3 is the message.
Liberalization of music tracks via MP3 files in Peer-to-Peer networks is a fundamental of a whole artistic scene called plagiarist, which is another way of saying the free use of sound content in digital format. The opposition and enthusiastic support aroused by these artists over the years concerns exclusive copyright, which is beginning to waver. It will inevitably soon dissolve in the face of the new media and their technical possibilities of manipulation and reproduction. Various artists have shown the paradox of a system which has gone against its noble origins as an artistic defence, turning into merely a crutch for the record industry. As irreverent jesters of a commercial system blindly hanging on to its own privileges, the members of the band Negativland have always been passionate about sampling “spoken” material, from TV jingles to radio talk shows with almost maniacal accuracy in editing and often manage to show just how obsessive something commercial can be, thus short-circuiting our over stimulated attention system. They became famous because of a legal challenge which dragged them into a bizarre sentence of which they tell the story in their book ''Fair Use: The story of the letter U and the numeral 2”, where they also explain the techniques applied here. In 1991, the band issued on the SST label a single which had “U2” over almost all of the cover with a U2 spy plane in the background and the name “Negativland” in small print, while the vinyl contained two parodies with 35 seconds of a sample of “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For”. Sales figures were not above the average for the group’s other products, i.e. 15.000 copies against the millions sold soon afterwards of “Zooropa”, the next album by U2 themselves. “Island”, U2‘s label at the time, demanded all available copies be destroyed and $90.000 in damages, which Negativland agreed to pay because they could not afford the costs of a trial. The serious economic repercussions of an episode of this kind became the symbol of a battle in which the only weapons available are irony and sarcasm applied to the production of culture and transmitted via a dense network of exchanges. Negativland became a sort of icon for the free use of sound samples and continued their valuable artistic and political work which is half-way between art and propaganda. They also supported other campaigns, such as “Toywar Lullabies”, an album issued in 2000 by the Etoy group of artists in an attempt to get back the etoy.com domain which had been taken away by a large toy company. Their core idea is that “copyright came from the idea that people who create have to be properly paid for what they do, not that they have to get every possible payment that derives from it” and as Don Joyce, one of the members of the band says, “any fragmentary use of someone else’s work should be absolutely free” (8). This is one reason why net artists 0100101110101101.ORG asked Negativland to compose a piece for their project “Glasnost”, intended to put out as much public data as possible on themselves. The track entitled “What's this noise?” uses samples of a month of private phone calls between the artists and others who were unaware of what was happening and brings to the fore all the uncertainties everyone has concerning the invasion of privacy. Other artists are also aware of the experimental potential of sampling and use it to compose, such as Canadian John Oswald, who has received the attention of lawyers representing a major record company. His sound collages are full of rapidly changing sequences of such famous sacred figures as James Brown and especially Michael Jackson, and the artistic quality of his editing is never in doubt. His own definition of this style is “plunderphonics”, i.e. “audio piracy as a compositional prerogative”. And it was these particular samples which in 1989 led CBS Records and the Canadian Record Industry Association to take action, despite the phrase “Not For Sale” appearing on the cds and the fact that they were distributed free of charge. Nor have the minutely detailed “credits” on each album been enough to get the composer out of trouble. In a subsequent work called “Plexure”, Oswald attempted to assemble five thousand fragments by five thousand famous pop stars, changing their names but leaving them recognizable, e.g. “Sinead O'Connick” or “Bing Stingspreen” and working on the progressive speed of the entire piece.(9) “It’s a work on the recognizability of information, seeing that in the end there are so many familiar starting points that the memory quite literally gets lost in its own meanderings,” as Oswald himself says, although he regrets that in music “there is no convention about putting in quotation marks as is done when quoting a text”. Over-zealous bureaucracy aside, it really would be twisted thinking to consider these sound works as a theft of intellectual property, because purchasing the support on which the original works are recorded also means purchasing the right to listen. David Toop, an English journalist and author of “Ocean of Sounds”, stresses that the purchaser of an album also pays for the right to ignore the artist’s intentions completely, to massacre the product as much as they like and to listen in a variety of creative ways, thus changing it utterly.(10) The latter is markedly different from what is commonly called plagiarism, since it is a new reprocessing of the material used, treating the digital samples as a violinist uses the notes written on a stave. This is also the attitude of the label “Illegal Art”, supported by media activists RTMark, which issued the famous “Deconstructing Beck”, an album obtained by sampling and restructuring tracks by the musician Beck and obviously alerting the lawyers of Geffen/BMG. Notice of the decision to sue was sent by email, since the only way of contacting the mysterious label was an email address. Even more incredibly, BMG did not yet have a copy of the cd, (1.000 copies had been pressed and quickly sold), and so based their demands and threats on the “word of mouth” echoing around the internet. The next work by Illegal Art was “Extracted Celluloid”, a brilliant collage of samples of film music used “in direct opposition to the sound clichés they were taken from”. It is an exemplary work in the deconstruction of tunes remembered by most people living in Western countries, with samples from such soundtracks as “Titanic”, “Saturday Night Fever”, “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Dr. Strangelove”. Yet again, this shows that digital files are not only a medium for carrying sound but also political and social content. An even more outstanding case in this respect was the censure of the DeCSS source code, (Descrambling Content Scrambling System), the industry code protecting the DVD standard. After a sentence forbidding its “publication”, one of the many alternative channels became an MP3 file (decss.mp3) in which a voice synthesizer “sings” the code. Initially the piece was available as an unpublished track in a free space on mp3.com and then removed by the company since, according to an official communiqué, it contained “a title or lyrics deemed offensive or inappropriate”. The effectiveness of these operations lies in finding technical mechanisms which are perfectly legal and which, although they cannot be attacked, show how backward the procedures of institutional protection are. Another conceptual hacking is “Dictionaraoke”, a real stroke of genius, consisting of a collection of over one hundred pop classics from the past thirty years, sung in perfect artificial English. The “Snuggles”, a group of fans of Negativland, hosted these tracks in which the original lyrics are sung by the pronunciation tools of the widely used English dictionaries and encyclopaedias found online. In “Don't go breaking my heart”, for example, there is a duet between the “voice” of Merriam Webster OnLine and of Microsoft’s Encarta Online. All the tracks are non-copyright, in free download and in mp3 format. The whole thing not only enables a better understanding of the lyrics but also provides valuable instructions on how to assemble other tracks by oneself by using this mix of technologies. This putting together and interfacing different techniques thus makes it paradoxical that the operation cannot be attacked legally and opens another window onto the overall understanding of the uselessness of copyright as currently applied. It is the strategic key for the growth of contemporary culture, ready to take back the heritage of music which belongs to it.