Is the Internet Killing Culture?

A new book has been published recently called, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. It’s by Robert Levine who used to work for Billboard magazine, so he should know a bit about cultural content. And I am certain he does – but his book is flawed.

Bashing the internet
Internet bashing has become the latest fashion – it’s killing culture, changing the way our brains work by feeding us content in little bite-size chunks rather than in enormous and suitably weighty tomes, or it’s  constricting our horizons (rather than expanding them) thanks to our experiences on the net becoming more and more tailored to our individual likes and dislikes.

Books like Levine’s have provocative titles and make compelling, emotive arguments but they’re actually pretty conservative, as this brilliant review of the book by the Observer highlights. Now I’m not advocating piracy by any means (I am totally against it) but one of the things I love about the internet is the amazing discoveries you can make – especially when it comes to content. Levine is wrong – the internet isn’t stifling creativity at all. It’s providing a platform to millions of people to unleash their creativity in ways that only a few years ago would have been unimaginable.

The delivery of art and culture 
Forms of art and culture have grown and morphed and adapted over thousands of years – from paintings in caves to sunflowers to concertos to beds and tents and neon signs. But the way they have been delivered to audiences has completely ossified. Stagnated. Typically housed or played behind closed doors in galleries, opera houses, concert halls with all of the barriers to entry and potential inconveniences one could think of – expense, parking, transport, opening and closing hours, not to mention that what you are seeing is usually curated, directed and programmed by someone else. Essentially meaning that they have selected, organised and decided what is of value for you to see and how you do so. This can be a valuable thing of course – expertise in any field is to be admired and respected and can teach us a great deal. And there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a Van Gogh in the flesh (so to speak) or hearing a live concert surrounded by the buzz of a live audience or seeing the glint of an actor’s eye as they command a stage. But it is not the only way, it is not even the best way. It is simply – a way.

The deomcratisation of the arts
There are so many inherent barriers to entry in how the arts have traditionally been delivered to audiences that it is little wonder that art and culture can be seen as being for the privileged few. But the internet has completely changed all that. It has decimated and destroyed many of those barriers. It has completely democratised not only the tools of artistic creation (think of all the things you can do now with apps with even the most rudimentary skills) but more importantly it has also democratised the tools of distribution. That’s where the real power lies. And a LOT of people don’t like that. Personally – I love it.

Of course there are those who abuse and take and steal – it is a sad fact of human nature. We covet and prefer to take what we cannot afford to buy. Is this a malaise of the internet or a reflection of the shifting values of our society and culture. I think the latter. The internet is, simply, a platform. One for all sorts of people – both with good and questionable motives. But not everyone steals culture and content. Despite what the doom-mongers would have us believe. The fact is that, as Evgeny Morozov points out in his review of Levine’s book, a 2010 report found that:

“films that could be purchased and legally viewed online are pirated far less often [than those that are not]”

Get off the soapbox
So, where am I going with this argument? Well, originally I wanted to share a video and an album that I’d found today via a site called Bandcamp. And then I got on my soapbox.

So let me get down from that box for a moment…

I like Bandcamp a lot. It’s a brilliant site on which bands and musicians share their music – you can listen to it for free (not just 90 seconds of each track but all of it).  However, if you want to take what you hear with you then some bands ask you to pay a set price for it, others allow you to set your own, some even let you have it for free – they only ask that you show your support by going to see their live gigs. It is a completely democratic and quite brilliant system. It allows people to find and stumble across music they otherwise might never have found. It creates new fans, new communities, new musicians and artists who, inspired by what they see and hear and discover, decide to make their own music. And it provides a platform for artists. I love it.

I don’t think sites like Bandcamp should replace record labels – that would be horrendous. Or that the internet should replace concert halls or theatres or galleries.You need curated content, you need exhibitions, and labels and editors and so on. But sometimes discovering things for yourself or coming together with others who share a similar passion (even in a virtual environment like this one) and sharing what you’ve found can be hugely satisfying and deeply rewarding. Why stifle that? Why fear it? Why posit that there is only one way:the traditional way where what we see and hear and experience is controlled by the few?

What art and culture is meant to do
Art and culture – however it is delivered – is meant to enhance our lives. To enrich our experience of the world and to make us look at our fellow human beings with generosity and curiosity.

The internet is a platform that surely only enhances our curiosity and understanding. The internet is a place of discovery, a place where I have found so much (music in particular) that I love that has enriched my life in many ways. And it has led me to buy a lot of that music – to put my money where my mouth is. I am sure it leads a lot of others to do the same…

Ah hell. Let’s watch a video. The aforementioned one that I originally wanted to share. It was made by a company called Onesize to accompany a song that they too had stumbled upon by a band called, The American Dollar. They weren’t asked to create the video or commissioned by the band. They just heard something they loved and were inspired by it. And then they put up what they created for free and said, “we loved this so much, we made this. And we want to share it with you – so here it is. Enjoy it”.

What could be better than that? And the result is really quite lovely. See for yourself…

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