Free culture – good or bad?

I wrote the following essay as part of a course on Listening to World Music.  The question was about who owns music, especially from other cultures, and should it be free. Here is part of the question:

An issue increasingly present in discussions of the expansion (and most believe democratization) of access through new technologies, is that of the “free culture” movement, which, put crudely, suggests that there should be none, or only very limited ownership of culture; that creativity thrives on using the works of others to create one’s own artistic and musical works. What are your views on the “free culture” movement and its values. What are the pros and cons of such a position in the contemporary world?

Here is my response.

The underlying premises of the free culture movement according to the freedomdefined web site is that a music work or any work of creation can be “freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified by anyone, for any purpose“.  Digital technology advances enable anyone with a computer to edit, remix and distribute a song over the internet to reach a global audience.

I was a teenager in the 1970’s and played guitar in a small “garage band”. We could only record our music on a cassette deck. We couldn’t afford multi-track recorders, mixers or special effects units. The only way to share our music was to make copies of cassette tapes which was too time-consuming. Now a musician can use a laptop computer to do all of these things. In addition, it is easy to take sounds from existing recordings and use to make new works.

The November 2004 edition of Wired Magazine had a cover story on American hip hop group Beastie Boys with a headline “Fight for Your Right to Copy”. In an article by Eric Steuer, The Remix Masters he describes how their music is created from samples of a variety of Western music – for example, Joni Mitchell’s drumbeats, Pink Floyd’s piano chords and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. Some of the samples are very small and modified to the point of being unrecognisable. Steur writes that the Beastie Boys “have made careers of transforming the sounds of the past into cool new music”.

I am supportive of the free culture movement as I believe this is the basis of most musical creation. I enjoy classical musical music and one of the first pieces of music was by Benjamin Britten titled “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. I thought the music was quite modern as it was “composed” in 1946 but I discovered it was an adaptation of a theme from Henry Purcell’s opera Abdelazer which was performed in 1685.

Other composers have used folk tunes in their compositions for example Bela Bartok – Roumanian Dances, Aaron Copland using old American songs in “I Bought Me a Cat”. Mozart made a composition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. Bartok used to make field recordings of folk songs from which he would transcribe the melodies and use in his compositions.

The positive side of free culture encourages people to use existing sounds to make new musical creations. Using a sample, melody or style can introduce the listener to a new musical landscape, such as Hancock’s use of hindewhu n “Watermelon Man”. The music industry is slow to adapt to new technologies and the existing laws on copyright and intellectual property expect compensation a composer’s work until 75 years after his death. The artist gets performance royalties but usually this is subject to the contractual agreement with the record company.

In 2010, the singer Prince decided to give his new album 20TEN away free to Daily Mirror readers because he wants as many people to hear his music.  I assume he had to bear the costs of producing the 2.5 million CDs as well as the studio costs to make the album. I think there is an increasing trends of musicians to promote and distribute their own music without the need for record companies. The costs of production are very low now that a laptop computer has the power of a recording studio. Songs can be sold through iTunes or directly from the musicians web sites without the need to make a physical product such as a CD.

The negative side of free culture is when musical samples without respect for their origin such as Deep Forest adding a voiceover text about pygmies that is not only inappropriate but offensive. There is always a temptation to add exotic sounds to a song without regard to the context. In the late 1960’s the Beatles used the sitar – an Indian stringed instrument to positively enhance the sound of their song “Norwegian Wood”. The song had nothing to do with Indian culture but that doesn’t matter as the sitar was used for sonic effect not cultural reference. Musicians must be sensitive to the culture and purpose of the field recordings they use.

The other negative effect of free culture is the loss of revenue to people who are trying to make a living from their creations. A popular musician who is under contract to a record company may not have rights to his own music. The Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil wanted to rerelease some of his own classic songs under a Creative Commons licence, free for anyone to use in their own music making. His record company stopped him saying they own the recordings and he was not free to share these works. I think that greed drives these large corporations to make as much money as possible from recordings for as long as possible. I think there should just be a short period of time when a record company is entitled to recoup the costs of recording and marketing. After that time, the music should be available under a less restrictive licence.

Free culture is a good thing but there are ethical and legal issues to be resolved as the legal system and the music culture catch up with technological change.

Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

2 thoughts on “Free culture – good or bad?”

  1. I got 9.5 / 10 for this essay. These are the comments I got from peer assessment:

    student1 → I appreciate your passion, allowing for a clear critical response.

    student3 → Well done, but please try to restrain your response to three paragraphs.

    student4 → Great essay! best of the 5 I read.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Thanks for sharing this essay, I found your thoughts on the subject interesting.

    You mentioned “Deep Forest adding a voiceover text about pygmies” and spoke about it being inappropriate and offensive however I’m not familiar with pigmy culture so I was hoping you might be able to help me understand the offense ?

    I quite like the song and you’ve got me thinking now.


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