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Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: dispatch

Make your music downloadable so people can connect with it

Mathausen Concentration Camp - July 2004

I’m listening to my music library on random right now, and a song just came on that was playing on my digital audio player when I was arriving by bus at the Mathausen Concentration Camp a few years ago. When it started to play on the bus then, it sent chills down my spine. When it played just a few moments ago, I felt as if I was there again.

I was introduced to a few Dispatch songs in the fall of 2002 — The General and Out Loud. I bought one of their live albums, Gut The Van, a few months later. I was disappointed because it didn’t really click with me. In August 2003, I gave it another chance while I was in Barbados. It clicked. I found out later that fall that the band had broken up, but I went to Boston in 2004 and New York in 2007 just to see their reunion concerts. And I didn’t like the live album at first.

Last night and on the way to work today, I listened to a few songs off some of my favourite albums — H. from Ænima (Tool), Lateralus and Schism from another Tool album, Lateralus, All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands from Seven Swans (Sufjan Stevens) and Recycled Air from Give Up (The Postal Service). I can tell you the precise moment when the Sufjan Stevens song became a part of my life and exactly what I was going through. When I listened to Recycled Air, I was brought back to the second week of May when the song helped get me through a rough few days. H. immediately brings to mind the face of a friend I parted ways with for a while. Schism and Lateralus both evoke so many different emotions (pieces, spirals and math), all linked to specific times or places over the past five years. From the same album, I can tell you exactly where I was and who I was with when I finally and fully felt and understood Reflection.

It’s these moments that make me want more.

I remember when I first saw Robyn Dell’Unto perform. The song she played first isn’t recorded yet, but I heard it again when she played it for me leading up to a gig in May. Both of those eternal instants are still present in my mind. Yesterday, Robyn introduced me to Craig Cardiff‘s music. I could tell she was a bit disappointed that I didn’t seem to be impressed at first. His music sounded great, I just haven’t had a chance to connect with it. She left it playing in the background.

I’ve tried to make the point before: if I can’t listen to your music, how am I supposed to connect with it?

Music alone is often not enough to catch your attention. I hear a lot of good music all the time, but I couldn’t possibly come to love and know all of it. I find what makes the difference between the music that crosses the threshold and that which remains unnoticed is often merely fortune and circumstance, which determines whether or not we are given the opportunity for that music to resonate with us. Hearing a song in one situation might not leave an impression, but hearing it another time when it has a direct connection to your experience or current events in your life can leave a permanent mark.

This is one of the reasons I think artists should make their music available for download. It’s like Andrew Dubber says, people hear music, people like music, people buy music. Or in Haydain Neale‘s words, people feel music in this order: hips, heart, head (well, he actually said “groin, heart, mind”, but I like the alliteration).

In order for people to go from hips to heart to head or from hearing to liking to buying, they need exposure. There’s no real pattern in my examples as to whether the connection came before or after a purchase, but when I connect with music like I have in the cases above, I don’t forget it. And I support it (e.g. Dispatch concerts). That’s how you earn a true fan. Streaming a couple tracks on MySpace doesn’t do it. I can’t take that with me and hear it when it might be relevant for me, when I might connect with it or relate to it. I don’t have the same opportunity if I have to sit on your website. Make it downloadable.

To those with hesitations, what’s more important — another album sale or another true fan? True fans buy albums. Focus on allowing people to connect with your music.

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Pete Francis and Braddigan are co-headlining a tour

Big news [Facebook] for Dispatch fans! Pete Francis and Braddigan are two of the three members of this legendary independent band. I flew to Boston to see their farewell concert (along 110,000 people from 20 countries) and to New York to attend one of the three sold out nights at Madison Square Gardens for the Dispatch Zimbabwe benefit concerts. They are that good. And these record breaking concerts come from a band that’s never been signed with a major record label or received any serious radio airplay, from a band that came to Napster’s defence. It’s cool to see them still collaborating!

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On treating people like criminals

I recently came across Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists (1976). Although new to me, it’s by no means news. However, since reading it I can’t help but think about how connected it is with the current software landscape and, in particular, Microsoft’s business practices over the last three decades, especially when taken in contrast with the GNU Manifesto (1985).

The letter is a tirade against the widespread sharing of authorized copies of his company’s software, namely Altair BASIC – Microsoft’s first product. Gates was angry with the fact that the developers of the software were not being paid for the work they had done, that the majority of users had obtained the copy without paying.

The letter raises an important point regarding the economic question of sharing software. If copies are being widely circulated, how are the developers to make a living? There are two main sentiments that I detected upon reading the letter. They are that hobbyists and “users” (Gates used the quotes himself) are amateurs and thieves, respectively. First, without real professional programmers they wouldn’t have any good software. Gates completely dismisses any contribution that volunteers can make. Second, users of the software are looked upon and treated like criminals. Rather than recognize that the users are “fans” of the software, that they are helping increase it’s popularity, and trying to find a way to capitalize and monetize that, the users are treated as criminals.

In contrast, the GNU Manifesto (which was written separately from the Open Letter to Hobbyists – Richard Stallman had not read the letter at the time) takes a radically different approach. Richard Stallman considers the freedoms to study, modify and distribute software as absolutely essential freedoms for the computer user, and he sets out to find a way to protect those freedoms. He too addresses the question of “how will programmers make money?” with some suggestions that have been proven to be effective over the last two decades (such as customizing software or providing services and technical support for free software projects).

Let’s take some quotes from the two documents.

Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

– Bill Gates

“Won’t everyone stop programming without a monetary incentive?”

Actually, many people will program with absolutely no monetary incentive. Programming has an irresistible fascination for some people, usually the people who are best at it. There is no shortage of professional musicians who keep at it even though they have no hope of making a living that way.

– from the GNU Manifesto

Both the proprietary and free software mentalities have developed greatly over the past few decades, as our world becomes increasing run by software. The free software movement and open source movement have proven that volunteers can build powerful (often the most powerful) software. Take a look at Firefox, or the LAMP web server environment (GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl). Large companies like Google and IBM run on free and open source software. Companies such as Red Hat and MySQL are extremely profitable developing, selling and providing services for free software. Many start-ups, like Google in the early days, or Facebook just a few years ago, rely on widely available inexpensive and powerful free and open source software. Without it, they might not have had the means to begin.

But proprietary software is still the norm, and Microsoft still treats it’s users like criminals. A friend of mine pointed this out to me the other day, as I was trying to explain what it was that I disliked about Microsoft’s mentality. His computer has been calling him a criminal for a while now, as Windows Genuine Advantage is accusing him of using an authorized copy of Windows. He certainly didn’t copy it himself, so there’s one of two possibilities: either the distributor he purchased his computer from used an unauthorized copy, or Windows Genuine advantage is wrong (it’s been wrong at least a few hundred thousand times already). It displays notices when he boots his computer and periodically while running. It’s withholding certain updates from his machine. And it took away his Windows Media Player (I know, I know, no big loss, but that was what he had been using). Mistrust breeds mistrust, and rightfully so.

I can’t help but look at the parallels in the music industry. Record labels have really been treating fans like criminals since the RIAA begin its indiscriminate lawsuits against music fans (or their dead grandparents) several years ago. The record industry is all but dead. There are large lay-offs and cutbacks, a huge decline in CD sales. Many insiders believe it’s already over, for the majors. But the music industry is still very much alive, and groups of artist, like the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (CMCC), have formed to combat the “treat the fan as a criminal” mentality which has lead to disaster for the major labels. Groups like the CMCC and many independent record labels have been developing new business models, rather than using draconian measures to protect outdated ones. The Barenaked Ladies are a great example of this, as is Dispatch (an independent band that embraced Napster instead of rebelling against it).

The movie industry, unfortunately, seems to be making the same mistakes that the record companies made. It seems as if they believe that the record industry just didn’t come down hard enough or early enough on new technology. The new video formats are increasingly loaded with Digital Restrictions Management, even to the point of building it into the hardware. They’ve cracked down on camcordering, as if that’s eroding the core of their business and is a replacement for going to the movies rather than simply creating hype for them. Want to feel like you’re being treated like a criminal? Try going to the movie theatres, where after paying for a ticket, you have to walk by posters and sit through trailers that are increasingly headed in this direction:

I believe that the only effective “anti-piracy” policy involves recognizing that the word “piracy” is being misused. People who share music are music fans. People who share software are computer enthusiasts. In the digital world, we can easily make copies of songs or programs to share with other people without having to take them away from someone else. This is fundamentally different from the concept of stealing material objects that proprietary software developers and major record labels want us to associate with sharing. The only thing that makes this type of sharing illegal is the present copyright system, which is just a legal construct and has no basis in natural law. Copyright isn’t an inherent right; it’s simply a system of incentives. The system can be changed if it’s not serving it’s purpose to society. In today’s world, copyright is a weapon used by large corporations to restrict people’s freedom for the sake of increased profits. We are more connected today than ever before in human history as a result of technology, yet so much of our effort goes into building digital walls.

Fear, uncertainty, anger and greed on behalf of corporations in the face of social cooperation produce things like Windows Genuine Advantage and the record industry’s demise. On the other hand, the flexibility, adaptation and innovation of the free/open source software movement and the independent music scene produce software/music that is more plentiful, quite often better quality and more widely available.

Which are you interested in supporting?

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