Deleting Music revisited


Peter Jesperson inspects the tape vaults at New West Records

A few years ago, I was obsessed with an idea. This is nothing unusual. It happens a lot. It had to do with music, copyright and technology – so no surprises there.

It was going to be a book, but I wasn’t ready to write it. It was going to be a campaign, but I wasn’t ready to lead it. It was going to be a major project, but I wasn’t ready to undertake it.

Starting to think that I might be now. Or at least – I’m increasingly surrounded by people whose set of parameters about what is and isn’t possible in the world is much grander than I’ve been used to, and it’s starting to rub off.

The obsession was something I called Deleting Music. The basic premise is this:

There are millions of songs on iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, and so on. Tens of millions. But as impressive as that seems, this is just the tip of the iceberg of our musical heritage.

Most recorded music is not available for sale, is completely unavailable to listen to and does not generate income for anyone. It sits in vaults, unreleased. We’re talking decades of back catalogue master tapes. The history of both popular music culture and unpopular music culture.

95% or more of everything ever released by record labels is utterly inaccessible to the public, and makes no money whatsoever for the music industries or, for that matter, musicians. That number again: 95%. And that’s a conservative estimate.

But what’s worse is that most of this stuff exists in a form that decays over time. Magnetic tape does not last forever, and no matter how well looked after this stuff is, it is becoming irretrievably damaged. All of it. And we’re letting that happen.

We have the capacity and the technology to stop that from happening. Tapes can be digitised. It’s not a trivial problem and there are hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of person hours involved in the task of retrieving, indexing, cataloguing and digitising those tapes. But we can do it.

We can do it with the whole history of books. We can do it with cinema. I’m interested in doing it with music.

But here’s the big problem: even though this music is not commercially valuable to the record labels – or rather, because of that – there is no reason for them to actively preserve this music.

Some companies are more proactive than others – major labels are more of a serious problem than independents simply because of catalogue depth and the primacy of corporate profit motive over all other considerations.

They own the recordings as assets of the business, which means that nobody else can have access. But they do not see a commercial upside to investing in preserving or making available recordings that nobody has been interested in for 30, 40 or 50 years, so they simply do not bother. Why would they?

Other than the fact that the tapes fall apart…

For want of a dividend to investors, the vast majority of our recorded music heritage is being systematically deleted through neglect.

Like I say – I don’t think this is a trivial problem to solve. It’s a complex one. There’s a tangle of legal rights to deal with. There’s a technological and workflow solution to devise. There is a case to be made at a policy level as well as an entire industry to get on board.

But I think that there’s a way to begin to address this problem. To save much of what hasn’t already been lost. I believe a case can be made at a policy level. I think that a solution can be devised that intervenes and arrests that deterioration process. Most importantly – and this is the thing that has changed for me – I’m beginning to think that a profit incentive can be developed through innovation, which will start to remove the blocks that currently prevent this from happening.

It is not up to us what is of interest to the cultural archaeologists of the future. We can’t select to preserve only music recordings on the grounds of their popularity or commercial viability, because we don’t know that this will continue to be the criteria by which our culture’s musical history will be measured.

Museums will tell you they are as interested in the artefacts that ancient cultures discarded as they are in those that were treasured.

Our responsibility is to make sure that as much of our culture is preserved as is possible. We can learn from it. We can build on it. It can inspire new works. It can be studied and used to illuminate understandings of who we are and what we value.

Because even though we don’t necessarily have an obvious commercial incentive to save everything, and nor do we currently have the technological and legal means by which we might achieve this aim, we sure as hell have the storage capacity and the moral imperative.

Music is not just entertainment commodity. It speaks to who we are as a society and a culture. It’s time to stop sitting on our hands while we watch the vast majority of our musical history simply crumble to dust.

Let’s solve this problem.

Thanks to Craig Hamilton of Harkive, Jez Collins of the Birmingham Music Archive and Simon Grigg of Audio Culture for reminding me just how strongly I felt about this. Time to get to work. I’ll let you know as soon as I know just exactly what that work might entail…

Lessons in practical happiness

I was reminded yesterday of a story in which a guy, having decided to end it all, jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. As he falls, he has the sudden insight that he could solve all of his problems – except this one.

It may sound naive and Pollyanna-ish to talk about this stuff, and the cynic in me is incredibly reluctant to do so… but screw it. I like to be happy, and I like not to be sad. So this is something that’s important to me and I thought I’d talk about it here.

I’ve long been aware of the idea that happiness is not something that simply happens to you because of luck or a bunch of external events outside of your control, but it’s really come home to me recently that it is something you can actively work at.

This is not simply about just focusing on positive things, thinking happy thoughts and ignoring problems in your life (though I do like John C. Parkin’s somewhat westernised zen approach) – and nor is it about ignoring the injustices and negative elements in the world. It’s really more about recognising the things that make an impact on your general wellbeing, and doing what you can to maximise those things, while reducing the factors that get in the way of that, or that actively seek to undermine your happiness.

Physical pain and illness are obviously a factor for many people, and I’m not going to give medical advice about how to alleviate that stuff. Nor do I need to tell you that you should try. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong, and if you have a way of fixing that problem, it’s also your incentive to do so. You don’t need me to suggest it. It suggests itself.

But there are practical things and ways of considering your situation that have a profound effect on your happiness. Upon reflection, for me (and this may be different for you), there are three main factors to this.

1) Sunshine – I have become increasingly aware of my susceptibility to the mood altering affects of Vitamin D or lack thereof. Perhaps this has come about over time. I live in a predominantly grey and gloomy city, which is not conducive to my ongoing happiness, and my time in Auckland and LA over the first couple of months of this year really brought that into sharp relief. I have a daylight lamp that I use every day while I’m working, and that makes a real difference – but I need to find more ways to get more sun. Working on it.

2) Social and non-social behaviour – It’ll sound obvious, of course, but surrounding yourself with people that you like makes a huge difference. But so too does being okay by yourself. That ability to be on your own and have ‘non-social’ downtime is a real skill – one I struggle with. I’ve been working on it recently, and I find that going for long walks makes a real difference. I do like to sit on my own and simply listen to records, but getting over the need to constantly connect with other human beings (sometimes misdiagnosed as ‘internet addiction’) and experiencing alone time positively is very helpful.

3) Perception and assumption – This is the big one. Worrying what other people are doing, thinking and saying, or (more accurately) what we imagine people are doing, thinking and saying (because how can we know for sure?) are the source of much anxiety and unhappiness in life. It’s incredibly hard to do – but we need to recognise that it’s completely beyond our influence and, in fact, generally has zero impact on our lived day-to-day experience of the world. Solving that one is probably the biggest influencing factor on whether you’re having a good time or not. Certainly is for me.

In fact, for me that last one is the most important one. I have a real tendency to imagine the worst at times. But as my friend Steve is fond of saying, “you shouldn’t judge your insides by someone else’s outside”. How someone is communicating with you, or how you make sense of their interaction with you is almost never a sound basis for how you should feel about the world. And yet, the urge to interpret or jump to conclusions about the stuff that goes unstated tends to land us in trouble. And it’s almost always wrong.

I’m a generally happy guy. I have lots of reasons to be thankful (and it’s helpful to remind myself of those). Of course, I have my moments of down, and that’s perfectly normal when you go around being human. But I do prefer up.

I’ve been actively researching and working on a number of different ways to just feel better more consistently – and these include all the usual suspects (yes, including things like meditation, diet and exercise). Life can be turbulent, and it just makes sense to me to study ways of making that a positive experience. Seems a sensible way to spend time.

But of course, every now and then, something comes along and disrupts that. The trick is to deal with it, and get back to normal as swiftly as possible. And, perhaps more importantly, to work on making what constitutes ‘normal’ better.

That’s the current project. Your tips welcomed.

I’m bored with your ideas now

Photo by ĐāżŦ {mostly absent}

I started asking people for their ideas about stuff on this blog this time last week. I thought it might be an interesting follow-on from the project where I came up with an idea each day for thirty days.

It was inspired by the guys from Ideas Improv who stopped people in the street to ask for their ideas for a documentary project. Really interesting stuff.

I chose a range of topics and just threw the gates open. “Tell me your ideas”, I said. And some people did.

But I don’t think I thought this through well enough – and so now I’m going to stop. I feel as though rather than contribute to the value of this blog, just throwing out a topic and asking for your suggestions is getting in the way a bit.

So this is one 30-day project I’m happy to abandon.


Let’s hear your idea about… FOOD

Photo by stevendepolo

06. FOOD

Big topic today with lots of scope for inventiveness.

I want to hear your idea about food. Whether it’s about solving world hunger or preventing food wastage, creating home gardening kits, halting the obesity epidemic or creating ways in which kids can get more nutritious lunches at schools, I want to hear what you’ve come up with.

Maybe you’ve invented a new type of sandwich or designed a machine that poaches the perfect egg. Let’s hear your idea about food in the comments please.