“I can’t over-emphasise how much broadband has improved my life,” wrote Vicki Bennett, who graces this month’s cover, in The Wire 337, where she discussed the brave new world of sounds it gave her access to. “Although I worry about the control of this ‘free’ space, I remain optimistic of seeing blue sky between the clouds.”
Nine years later, when much of the blue sky thinking about the internet is done by libertarian disruptors and aggressive globalists, this idea of free space maybe seem a touch naive. But a year in and out of lockdown has underlined just how much we need, and what issues of justice and equality surround, access to the internet.
Bennett’s evangelism is understandable. In the early 2000s as broadband started to roll out, institutions like the New Jersey radio station WFMU, which Bennett enjoys a long association with, started to stick out like lighthouses of cultural enlightenment. At that time, if you googled certain rare pieces of music, WFMU would sometimes be the only hit you’d get; often, you were able to hear music that previously you’d only heard about. For disciples of avant garde music, it was like a light in the room had finally been turned on.
Bennett’s ideas developed through the 2000s following the notion of the gift economy, the philosophy that artists might thrive by sharing their work for free. Her 2012 essay appeared in The Wire’s occasional Collateral Damage column, which had kicked off the previous year after Kenneth Goldsmith, of Ubuweb and WFMU, wrote about how he no longer paid for music. But a rejoinder came quickly from Chris Cutler of Henry Cow and ReR, who explained how, for a musician and a distributor of marginal music, less/no income will mean less/no art to go around in the long term (you can go back and read all of The Wire’s Collateral Damage columns for free at thewire.co.uk.)
This discussion over paying for art versus getting it free online has exploded in the decade or so since these contributions. Among the key areas of controversy are the supercharged and libertarian philosophies ignited by the Pirate Bay file sharing platform and Pirate Party in Sweden; perceived cultural appropriation and structural inequalities exploited by sampling and file sharing of music; and most recently, the vexed use of blockchain technologies and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in an effort to create traceable ownership for digital data.
Since 2012, the philosophies behind Bennett’s ambitious sample collages have advanced too, as Abi Bliss’s People Like Us feature this issue shows. “My stuff can’t be commodified, because I won’t let it,” Bennett says. “I come from the standpoint that there’s no fixed or isolated thought or idea, because everything changes in time. So there’s no fixed, independent self and that resonates in some key areas of sampling. Sampling is the idea that you’re taking from an origin, but that origin doesn’t actually exist.”
Whether you agree with these Buddhist and Vedic influenced ideas or not, it’s a strikingly evocative description of her work. To listen (or to watch her films) is to enter a wormhole that’s a prescient and uncanny evocation of the internet experience of the modern era, where each click takes you somewhere else, and each reference point opens up into several more. If many of us feel rootless in the current moment, People Like Us makes for a compelling soundtrack.
What remains of the gift economy now? You see it on platforms like Bandcamp, where artists like Richard Youngs sometimes give away large swathes of their recordings for free, and pay-what-you-want compilations do good work for just causes. The concern now, brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, is that gift relationships might be fleeting and contingent, because they rely on the giver feeling in the right place emotionally and financially to do it. And this remains the challenge in this broadband era: how to form enduring, mutually meaningful and engaging relationships and institutions that might support our scene. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 447 May 2021 £5.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Yewande Adeniran, Vanessa Ague, Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Claire Biddles, Abi Bliss, Britt Brown, Madeleine Byrne, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Raymond Cummings, Laina Dawes, Phil England, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Noel Gardner, Michael A Gonzales, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, George Grella, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Leah Kardos, Kek-W, Joshua Minsoo Kim, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Steph Kretowicz, Neil Kulkarni, Chloe Lula, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Frances Morgan, John Morrison, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Stephanie Phillips, Antonio Poscic, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Mariam Rezaei, Ilia Rogatchevski, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Stewart Smith, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, Spenser Tomson, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Gabriel Jermaine Vanlandingham-Dunn, Val Wilmer
Images Claire Arnold, Josefina Astorga, Andrej Balco, Karen Paulina Biswell, Marieke Bosma, Polly Brown, Andile Buka, Nouta Kiaie, Robbie Lawrence, Cameron Lee Phan, Julia Lindemalm, Nicole Ngai, Savage Pencil, Gerard Rouy, Clare Shilland, Takay, Malini Vaja, Val Wilmer
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