How many times do we need to be SoundClowned before we get wise?
Back in late December, tellingly/suspiciously right in the midst of the holiday vacation lull, SoundCloud started sending out the same sort of automated take-down notices to its users that YouTube has been using for years. Mix-style DJs and remix producers found certain of their uploads suddenly removed from circulation. According to an innocuously named audio detection algorithm, the tracks in question were allegedly guilty of infringing copyrights in their unauthorized uses of particular recordings. (Let’s not get distracted, I suppose, by the already stretchy notion that any of these things are substitutable “copies.”)
As Larisa “Ripley” Mann noted in the immediate aftermath, it seemed especially ironic that a site that so clearly courted users from across various DJ/remix communities — and, in turn, benefited immensely from said users’ (promotional) use of the service — would turn around and attack one of its core constituencies.
It’s ironic, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Because SoundCloud, like any other for-profit venture, is first and foremost looking after its bottom-line, of course it doesn’t assume the burden of contesting any of these assertions. Rather, per the DMCA, in order to remain in “safe harbor” territory, it complies with the data-analysis and auto-serves takedown notices. (And to its credit, again following YouTube, the company at least alerts people to the possibilities of submitting a “counter notice.”) This is, of course, reasonable behavior by a commercial company seeking legal cover against a content industry that has been known to drive similar platforms into the ground. But it’s not the sort of stance that is going to make SoundCloud the people’s champion (and ubiquitous audio app) it would like to be.
Despite the bloggy/tweety fallout, however — again, see Ripley’s round-up — SoundCloud has hardly seen its image tarnished in the wider world: last month, just a week or so after the first SoundClownings came to light, it was announced that the company had raised $10M in venture capital, and just yesterday I saw reported that the site has grown by 50% in just the last three months, now exceeding 3 million users. Far as I know, none of the users who allegedly gathered “in 517 cities around the world” for a “Global Meetup Day” earlier this week voiced any sort of discontent.
And so we bear witness again to platform politricks at work — once more with chilling implications for everyday musical practice, global popular culture, “fair use,” and the public domain.
So what are those of us who want a better platform to do?
I’d say there are two main options, which we might think in terms of tactics vs. strategy: 1) continue to support and invest in SoundCloud while pushing for a more robust defense of fair use there; or 2) build something else, something more able to resist the corporate enclosure produced by overzealous, automatic, and often erroneous copyright litigation.
Here, I’m going to propose a little bit of both.
Amidst all the SoundClowning last month screenshots like the one above hardly seemed to present a reasonable set of choices for people who’d like to defend ordinary DJ/remix practice. All the assumptions are clearly running in the wrong direction. (“Recognized as”? “By mistake”? “Explicit permission”?)
Honestly, how is one supposed to respond? And how is one supposed to respond honestly? It’s not that the detection of the Blake track is a “mistake” exactly, but the assertion that the Blake track is tantamount to the whole of the upload is wrong. Moreover, implying that one must have “explicit permission” to use the Blake track presents a false and dangerous picture of the scope of fair use, radically restricting the realm of the legally permissible. Because this is how things are structured — as captured in the form above — there exist few practical alternatives for someone like gregb. He could file a counter notice and fight it, perhaps all the way to a costly and potentially bankrupting trial. (Is this really a practical alternative?) Or he can sit by and watch his mixes disappear one by one. C’est la net.
These issues aside, the screenshot invites us to reflect on how SoundCloud, and mixes like gregb’s, contributed to the rise of James Blake. (Is it just me, or is it extra ironic that Blake’s aesthetic push toward conventionality accompanies a rejection of experimentation at the level of music industry?) Or we might think about how SoundCloud served as a launching pad for someone like Munchi, who really did exploit the site as a kind of launching pad, now garnering thousands of hits on his uploads. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before astounding efforts like Munchi’s breakout year in 2010 — aided and abetted by a great many samples used without permission — become an impossibility on SoundCloud, as the company is brought to heel under 20th-century copyright law while attempting to host 21st-century audio culture.
Of additional worry, as highlighted in this TechDirt post, is the question of whether we should assent to automated processes adjudicating the various downstream uses that our constitution protects by granting a “limited monopoly” to copyright holders. The author of the post, Mike Masnick, calls this the “Automated Diminishment Of Fair Use,” and I hope that sounds as scary to you as it does to me. Despite that the audio-detection algorithms have already proven error-prone and predictably grabby, we’re letting bots decide what is fair — or more to the point, what is not.
Should we really cede that ground? Is that a good trade-off for the network effects of a massive socially-networked media-sharing site? Plenty seem to think so, and act accordingly, even if their concession is implicit.
Ah, sample-based music in the age of algorithmic detection! Won’t this be fun. We can play it like the 1990s all over again, when torch-bearing “underground” sample-based hip-hop producers like Primo, in the wake of chilling litigation, managed to stay one step ahead of the system, taunting catalog companies with dusty samples that weren’t easily recognizable even by hired-gun sample-sniffing snitches. Here’s an open letter from 1998’s Moment of Truth that still resonates:
In that vein, I present to you a remix (or two) of the very James Blake track responsible for some recent disappearances on SoundCloud, as mashed-up with its source of inspiration, Feist’s original, in a couple different ways. (As it happens, I opened a SoundCloud account two years ago this month, but this is the first time I’m uploading something.)
In a gesture of fairness, if you will, I decided to make two versions of the Blake-Feist mashup, one that keeps intact the cover and bends the original toward it, and another that performs the opposite procedure. I like the idea of “honoring” both versions in this way. (They get to have their integrity and we get to eat them too!) I myself have a preference for slowed-down female voices over sped-up males, but I’ll be curious to hear if anyone prefers the Feisty, chipmunky Blake version.
Without further ago, here are a couple of those trademark orange waveform widgets:
A few technical notes, as always, about what I’ve done here:
1) the two versions are several semitones apart, but more or less the same tempo, so all it took was some pitching up of the Blake to meet the Feist, on the one hand, and some pitching down of the Feist to meet the Blake, on the other
2) as you can see in their Vimeo instantiations (Blakey | Feisty), I have, in each instance, left one of the tracks completely whole while applying as few cuts as possible to the other; this required relatively minimal surgery, as the only real difference, time-wise, was Blake’s inclination to stretch things out, as in the intro
3) the Feist track actually has a long-ish intro that I, following Blake, completely bypass on each mashup; I saw no reason to begin the Feisty version with a Blake-free minute of music, though I did, in a departure from my generally hands-off approach here, suture some of the Feist intro to the long, almost silent section of the Blake version (as you’ll see/hear)
I hope both mashups do the job of drawing the listener into the questions of form, interpretation, and affect raised by these subtly divergent but simultaneously-sounding renditions. Let me be clear: I’m not pretending that these remixes are necessarily aesthetic triumphs; indeed, I think they both get a little muddy half-way through, especially once Blake starts getting freaky with the bass — but that sort of disjuncture is precisely the sort of thing that mashups like these are so good at highlighting. As I’ve argued elsewhere, mashups can offer poignant, useful resources for classroom discussions of form and content, not to mention re-use and fair use, self and other, etc., and it is in the twin spirit of education and critical commentary that I defend these tracks if they happen to be sniffed out by some clumsy algorithmic audio-sleuth.
It may go without saying, but I want to note that I’ve been posting mashups just like these — almost always of songs and their kindred “cover” versions — for many years now, first at (the now defunct) Riddim Meth0d, then on my own site and more recently at Vimeo (where I can show the two tracks playing concurrently in Ableton).
I’ll be curious to see whether my remixes can weather the sample-sniffing. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Feel free to join me in a little bit of digital civil disobedience / remixxy fun!
Pro-tip: parodies are almost always a safe bet —
If I still have your attention, please allow me to briefly discuss plan B: i.e., rather than working from within SoundCloud — tactically, if you will — to resist spurious copyright policing, we instead seek a new way forward, a strategy for ensuring a certain sustainability and resilience for collective, interactive musical practice, for our peer-to-peer industry. Given the direction the White House appears to be heading with regard to “IP” and the increasingly pernicious and vicious legal tactics of the content industry, there is a clear and present need for better platforms on which to stage our shared culture.
Decentralization seems key. And it’s telling that much of the discussion in the wake of December’s SoundClownings came around to the obvious limits (despite the advantages) of massive corporate media-sharing sites. Channeling hip-hop in his own way, Timeblind reminded that “only toys buy their paint” and, hence, “pirates need to keep it on the D/L.” I hear him on that, but at the same time, I’m not comfortable ceding the high ground to the vested interests who have decided what is “piracy” and what is not.
what are other ways of having platforms of these kinds, which place their control in the hands of the folks who use them? and, more importantly, perhaps, what are ways of propagandizing these autonomous platforms, and of spreading the analysis that works against the continued use of the current corporate ones?
Her sentiment was echoed very closely in a comment Jace “/Rupture” Clayton left on Ripley’s post:
I’m wondering what it would require, technically, to start building decentralized control of our resources/platforms/online communities. What was the best, more successful aspects of an Imeem or Soundcloud + how can we start assembling + using alternatives?
In the week or two following the SoundClowned episode, a few of us were chatting about the different pieces necessary to the puzzle. Tim “Tones” Jones proposed some ideas over here, and we chatted a bit in the comments, but I’m sorry to say that, once again, the conversation has since tapered off.
I wonder, is it already too late to move from this moment? Has the iron cooled too much? That would be disappointing. As Rozele put it in a follow-up, “before some other corporate pseudo-solution starts lying to our friends,” we really need to answer some concrete questions, e.g.:
how many folks who’re being evicted from SoundCloud will put up some cash to kick things off? and, more importantly, how many music-makers will commit to making this new space the only place to find their work online (or at least the primary one)?
There are, of course, major tradeoffs between scale and resiliency, and these same questions we’re asking of each other open into broader, current, critical debates about resiliency on the net. In this regard, we might see something like Wikileaks suggest some options for music culture in the embrace of an “alternative control structure.”
The comparison is not so far-fetched. See, for example, a recent piece by Clay Shirky, who trots it out:
Like the music industry, the government is witnessing the million-fold expansion of edge points capable of acting on their own, without needing to ask anyone for help or permission, and, like the music industry, they are looking at various strategies for adding control at intermediary points that were previously left alone, under the old model.
With dovetailing interests like these, maybe Somali pirate servers are our best bet after all.
Seriously, though, who’s gonna step up and build something? Are 4shared or Hulkshare the best we can do for scaling our (free) distro? Are pop-up ads and malware a necessary reality for the sort of peer-level music industry that seeks to evade capture? Do we really want to operate in a world where our own ideals, and values, and best practices must be compromised if we wish to continue making and sharing art on a global scale, in a public way? Must we be forced (back) underground, and coerced back into adopting practices that cut against our ethics, our desires to acknowledge as we build on the work of other musicians and artists and producers?
To return to Ripley (in a great follow-up post), there are deep implications for this sort of retreat-by-design:
Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don’t have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives.
Again, the big question is: will we rise to the occasion, and finally find a way to give the drummers some (and protect their legion interpreters), or will we continue to get clowned, and pawned, and toyed with?
The choice is ours.