Aram Sinnreich - Strange Historical Reverberations
Dr. Aram Sinnreich is a media professor, author, and musician. He’s currently chair of Communication Studies at American University’s School of Communication in Washington DC, where his work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on subjects such as emerging media and music. Aram’s the author of three books, Mashed Up (2010), The Piracy Crusade (2013), and The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property (2019).
As a bassist and composer, Aram has played with groups and artists including reggae soul band Dubistry, jazz and R&B band Brave New Girl, punk chanteuse Vivien Goldman, hard bop trio The Rooftoppers, and Ari-Up, lead singer of The Slits.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. I think I first came across the work of Aram Sinnreich in 2013. I’d already come on board as part of Music Tech Fest by then, but my day job was still as Professor of Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University. I was researching, writing, teaching, blogging, and speaking about music online, the digital music industries, digital copyright, and all the ways in which music culture and music commerce were changing as a result of the internet, and vice versa, and so Aram’s book ‘The Piracy Crusade’ was required reading. I think I even assigned it to my MA class. I certainly recommended it to a whole bunch of people.
So just a few months later, as we were running MTF in Wellington, New Zealand and simultaneously organising MTF Boston, in a year where we had five Music Tech Fests in as many countries, Aram’s name popped up again. He was going to be joining us thanks to the brilliant Nancy Baym. See episode nineteen of this podcast for more on her. As part of the after-party, as we called it - a one-day academic symposium that followed a full-on three day Music Tech Fest at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, MA - Aram was one of just over twenty hand-picked international high-level thinkers who brainstormed and contributed to what became MTF’s manifesto, which says, among other things, “Music technologies make worlds. Let us make better worlds. Let music technology do good, serve public interest, foster belonging, justice, collaboration, and sharing, enable greater access to positive musical experiences and personal connections, and create durable objects and practices.”. That was from the MTF ‘Musictechifesto’, collaboratively written in 2014.
And while we’ve exchanged tweets on occasion since then, and maybe an email or two as part of the day-to-day work, I hadn’t really sat down and had a proper talk with Aram since then, which is a shame because, as you’ll hear, there’s a fairly significant overlap in the Venn diagram of our respective interests. And these days, I have a podcast, so I thought I’d give him a shout.
Dubber So, Aram Sinnreich, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Labs Podcast. How are you doing?
Aram I’m doing great. Splendidly. How are you, Andrew?
Dubber I’m very well. You’re looking exactly as I last saw you, which I just calculated was pretty much, to the day, seven years ago at MTF in… Well, we called it MTF Boston. Strictly speaking, it was Cambridge.
Aram It was. It was on the ground floor of the Microsoft complex.
Dubber Yeah, absolutely. And I remember one of the things that you were central to was what became known as the ‘Manifesto for Music Technologists’ or the ‘Musictechifesto’. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that came about and your role in that?
Aram Sure. I was not an organiser, I don’t think. It was the brilliance of Nancy Baym and a couple of other people. Basically, there is this weird nexus which you live at the juncture of between people who think musically and understand tech and care about civil liberties, and that tribe includes technologists, academics, artists, writers, everyday people. And Nancy essentially pulled us all together and said “Look. There is this insipient problem which is that music is always at the bleeding edge of new technological… Not only innovations, but epistemologies, ways of thinking about the role of tech in our lives, for a variety of reasons. And we can see problems coming down the pike as our society becomes more technologised, as data becomes a more vital commodity, as we spend more and more of our days and intimate hours in the embrace of Silicon. What can we learn from the ways in which we have and haven’t adapted to digital music in order to make sense of this world that’s coming down the pike at us? And furthermore, how can we develop a set of basic principles for a more ethical life from our understanding of how we’ve failed to do so in the music world?”. And I thought that was a great call to action, and we ended up having a day-long conversation and a lot of arguments and debates. And I’m not sure that we solved any of the problems, but we certainly put them out in the open.
Dubber Do you think that music serves as a canary in the coal mine for all of industry or all sectors for this sort of thing?
Aram Oh, yeah. More than industry. When I started out as an internet industry analyst in the ‘90s, we would routinely talk about music as the canary in the coal mine. And part of that was just the tech affordances. An MP3 was three megabytes, and a movie file was half a gig, so obviously people were doing things like file sharing and streaming with music long before they were doing it with video.
But more than that, the more that I’ve researched musical culture and musical history over the past twenty years as an academic, the more I realise that the reason for that is intimately tied to the history of our species and the fact that - if you believe certain archaeo-anthropologists - we were a musical species before we were a linguistic one, and that the sonic entrainment of our nervous systems was the germ that led to the creation of organised human society. And because of that, music continues to play this really unique, foundational role in creating consciousness and culture and social organisation. If you know how to read the tea leaves, or how to listen to the tea boiling, I guess, it becomes this really incredible carrier wave for very subtle changes in our social architecture that end up manifesting into much larger changes that are totalising.
That was part of the argument that I made in my book ‘Mashed Up’, which started as my doctoral dissertation, was that this new architecture of music which was emblematised by the mash-up was really the operating system for a new social architecture that would tear down traditional binaries - gender binaries, political binaries - that would also erase lines between work and leisure, between war and peace, between public and private, and that if we looked closely at the ways that people at the front lines of those tensions - namely DJs and mash-up producers - were navigating that and trying to make sense of this newly blurred world that they were living in, we would be able to do a lot to prepare ourselves for these broader social changes.
Dubber The world has become more split, though. It’s become more diverse, clearly, but it’s also become more split into polarities. Do you think that’s reconcilable?
Aram I’m not sure I believe that. I think that’s true politically, but that is an artefact of basically a two-party system that was put in place in the US in the 18th century. I don’t see that happening culturally. I have two children. One of them is non-binary - an eleven-year-old - and the other one’s best friend just came out to their parents as non-binary, and this is a normative subculture for people my children’s age. And I think that tendency to explore these spaces between binaries is much more the hallmark of the era that we’re living in than the political polarities that you see written about in the weekly news tabloids.
Dubber And as a significant part of our culture, music plays a role in… Whether it’s the shaping of that - whether it’s cause and effect - or reflecting that. Which do you think it is?
Aram I think it’s a feedback loop. So music is, like I said before, the operating system for human culture and human consciousness. And, literally, the reason that we’re conscious is because of these synaptic signals that travel through the different subregions of our brains and correspond to these cultural signals that travel between us via media, from air to the internet. And so when there’s a change in the music… Plato very famously said “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”, or something to that effect. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand whether that’s true, and I think the answer is almost always yes, and if so - exactly what you ask - what’s the cause and what’s the effect? And it’s neither, because music is not separate from the human experience. Music is the audible dimension of that experience. And so the changes that we hear in music are always not symptomatic of or causal of, but rather the perceptible leading edge of social change.
Dubber We should probably talk a little bit about your job and why that’s something that leads you to think about these sorts of things in this way. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you do and where you do it?
Aram Yeah, sure. I’m a Professor of Media Studies at American University in Washington, DC.
Dubber And communication studies department.
Aram Correct, yeah. I’m the chair of the communication studies department. Comms studies and media studies are flip sides to the same coin. The nice thing about the comms studies framing is that you can include things like policy and industry studies in the mix, whereas media studies tends to look more just at the social role of media. But I call myself a media studies person because that’s my home base.
Dubber Sure. And being a media studies person in the 21st century means you very much look at digital technologies. Is there a continuum from communication and media studies from radio, from newspapers, from television that has continued, or is there a distinctive break when the internet comes along?
Aram There’s no short way for me to answer that question because I’ve done a lot of theory building recently about what I see as this five-step endless cycle between technology and markets and culture and laws and basically social imaginaries, and I’ve published some research recently that shows one example of how the past five hundred years of musical and cultural history can be understood through this never-ending cycle. But, yeah, of course it’s a continuum. The commonality between all of these platforms and all of these techno-social moments is the human spirit. We have certain psycho-social needs. We have certain inbuilt affordances as a species. And all of our tools reflect those needs and those capacities in various ways.
This week, the social-tech de jure is Clubhouse. And so I just did an interview with The Hill a few days ago where they were saying “Tell us. Does Clubhouse change everything?”, and I was like “No. Of course Clubhouse doesn’t change everything.”. I’m old enough to remember when telephone party lines were a hot thing for people to do. It’s essentially an identical technology because human beings like to get together in rooms and talk with each other. That’s part of what we like to do, so of course we build tools using whatever technologies are available to us at the time to do that. And during COVID, when we’re all locked down in our houses, of course we’re going to look for a way to do that remotely and as frictionlessly as possible.
So one of the cool things about working in comms studies is that you get a sense of the history of the interactions between these cultural behaviours, technological platforms, and legal environments and economic environments, and so we’re always thinking in terms of historical metaphor. You get somebody like Tim Wu or Nancy Baym or Victor Pickard, and they’re always trying to understand emerging technological behaviours through the lens of “How does this correspond to the birth of radio or to the printing press?”. And the interesting thing isn’t how those metaphors fit. You see a lot of Buzzfeed article headlines like “This exact thing happened in 1922 with the Federal Radio Commission.”, and while there’s some truth in that and I appreciate that publicly accessible media historiography, what I think is really interesting to those of us who study this is those moments where it breaks.
So, again, going back to when I was an internet industry analyst before I figured out that academia would be a fun place to play, I was fascinated in digital music - we’re talking about 1998, 1999 - because it broke the techno-historical distinctions between broadcasting and retail. “Is music on the internet more like a radio broadcast or is it more like a record sale?”. That question took the music industry fifteen years to figure out, and there were a handful of us back then, at the turn of the century, going “It’s neither! It’s both! Here’s what you have to do about it.”. Arguably, the ‘what to do about it’ was about half settled by the birth of the modern streaming services ten years ago, but is still highly contentious.
Dubber Yeah. Well, ’99 would have been an interesting year to be having that conversation.
Aram It was amazing. All of my clients were the major record labels, the major movie studios, the major software publishers. And I actually remember going to my boss circa summer of ’98 and saying “I think music on the internet is going to be really interesting.” - and this was the age of Liquid Audio and RealNetworks, back when it was called Progressive Networks. Those were the dominant players - and saying “I think this is going to be super transformative.”, and I remember my boss saying to me in a very kind way “Don’t get your hopes up. This is not a thing that’s going to happen.”. And then, I think it was June of 1999, Napster hit, and the way that people thought about the internet’s capacity to serve musical culture and to break musical industrial economies just [click] overnight changed. It was the greatest thing that ever happened but also the most terrifying to certain people.
Dubber Yeah. A technology like Napster, to what extent is that something that happens to us as a society, and to what extent is that something that we can negotiate?
Aram We’re always negotiating. A technology like Napster doesn’t take off the way that it did if there’s not a latent social need among people for what the platform allows you to do. And of course, platforms never end up being used exclusively the way that their designers imagine them to be used. Facebook was supposed to be used to find hot girls on campus, and now look at what it is. It’s the surveillance capitalism infrastructure on a global basis.
At that moment in time, the music industry had become very ossified because of deregulation in the 1990s. And I’m talking about the US here. Obviously, things are very different elsewhere around the world. But in the US, you’d had this deregulation which allowed companies like Clear Channel to go on a buying spree, and every radio station in the world was playing exactly the same thirty songs every single week because they all had the same corporate owner who were getting the same payola from the same handful of record labels, which dwindled from six majors in 1997 to three in 2002, or thereabouts. I don’t remember exactly the year. So the music had this stultifying sameness to it. This is the era of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. And I know that everyone’s nostalgic for that now because the millennials grew up on that stuff, but, god, it was really boring. For those of us who were real music heads… It was the first era in which you could turn on the radio and just never hear something that was remotely unexpected, and that’s painful to people who are really invested in their sonic environments. So I think there was this building, unrecognised resistance to that ossification and a need to diversify our sonic landscapes.
And the brilliance of Shawn Fanning and the Napster platform was that it compelled you to share as you were listening. Previously to that, you had websites like www.mp3.com, which were great, but on sites like that, you would upload an MP3 and then someone else could download the MP3. Those were two separate actions. With Napster, for the first time, the act of participating in the musical network was simultaneously giving and getting, which much more mimics the way that we experience music in our social lives, I think. It’s never a one-way transaction. So I think that that made intuitive sense to a sufficient number of people that it became massively adopted in a very short time. And of course, that had ripple effects in terms of economics and law and public perception, and ultimately, I think, helped to deossify music. It started to make music interesting again.
Dubber Right. So shortly before we met, you put out a book called ‘The Piracy Crusade’. Two things. One, define ‘piracy’, and, two, is it still a thing?
Aram Well, I have to be very careful because I have certain obligations to certain parties who would prefer that I speak circumspectly about this subject in certain fora. Piracy… I think, actually, the best thing on piracy I’ve ever read was Adrian Johns’ book that came out… I don’t know. Maybe a decade ago. It’s just called ‘Piracy’. The subtitle is something like ‘A Short History’, or something like that. But the basic insight of Adrian Johns - and I’ve certainly found this in my own research, not only on P2P but on pirate radio and on piratical behaviours by early publishers in Scotland and everything in between - is that piracy is the frame, a rhetorical device employed by legacy stakeholders in order to delegitimise new entrants and threats in their marketplace, and the accusation of piracy always precedes changes in the laws that structurally exclude certain new ideas from the marketplace.
So, for instance, famously, the very first proto copyright law was The Stationers’ Company charter in the mid 16th century in London. And part of the way that the publishers in London petitioned the Crown at the time to create this proto copyright law, which gave them a monopoly over the permission to decide who published what, was by accusing these Scottish publishers who were underselling them of piracy. You can go back even further, as Adrian Johns does, and point out that ostensible piracy in the Ancient Mediterranean wasn’t even really piracy. It was a framework that if the Genoese accused the Tunisians of piracy, that meant that they didn’t view Tunisian profiteering as being politically legitimate. It was a way of saying “This person does not have official sanction.”.
The second half of your question was “Does piracy still exist?”. Yes. Of course piracy still exists because the framework that allows existing players in a marketplace to say “This new person, this new company with this new idea is threatening us. Let’s make them illegal.”, that’s never going to go away. It’s such an effective framework. And we’ve seen a lot of interesting new copyright law come out in the US in the last two years - the Music Modernization Act, the CASE Act which just got passed in this huge omnibus bill in December after failing several times on its own - that basically erect new boundaries to the flow of information on the internet, and in the case of the Modernization Act, specifically with music. And those are all based on the presumption that piracy is a thing and that it is bad and that it can be stopped, but that’s an ever-receding goal line. You’re never going to stop piracy because people are never going to stop having new ideas, and people who are threatened by those new ideas are never going to stop accusing them of being pirates.
Dubber If there’s a more culturally loaded word than ‘piracy’, ‘crusade’ would be up there. Do you want to talk about that choice of word in the book title?
Aram Yeah. It’s interesting. I ended up doing a lot of reading about the original Crusades when I was working on this book because I thought it was more than just a useful metaphor. I thought there were strange historical reverberations between the two. The Ancient Mediterranean - which is where the concept of piracy originates and where the Crusades took place - during the entire four millennia of maritime global trade was the crux of… The place where East and West met. Overland, you had the Silk Road, but you can carry a lot more in ships than you can on the back of a horse or on a cart. And so the Mediterranean was this essential thoroughfare between the Middle East and the eastern markets that it served, and northern Africa and southern Europe and the markets north and south that they served.
So if you actually look at the history of the Mediterranean, the battles between empires - including the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire and various other empires that controlled portions of the Mediterranean for periods of centuries between ancient times and modernity - most of the wars that were fought in the name of religion were actually trade wars and were gussied up in the dress of religion in order to legitimise them in the minds of citizens, soldiers, and leadership.
So in the beginning of ‘The Piracy Crusade’, I talk about one specific one. One of the last crusades. It was called the siege of Mahdia. I think it was 1390. And basically, there were two European states that had serious political problems internally. One of them was France, where they had basically taken a break in this hundred-year war with Britain, and so all the soldiers had come home, and the soldiers were hungry for glory and power and money and were running rampant. And the king couldn’t do anything with them, and they were just destroying… Imagine if the US recalled every soldier stationed around the world to Washington, DC. It would just be a nightmare. That’s basically what France was like at the time. And then in Genoa, which was an independent state in what’s now Italy, you had this long-standing political battle. And basically, all of their wealth was based on them being a port city that brought goods into Europe from the Mediterranean, but they were getting their lunch eaten by Venice which was on the other side of the country and had much better access to the Eastern Mediterranean. So the Genoese needed basically to clear out the North African profiteers from the Mediterranean, and France needed someplace to send its soldiers. So the heads of both countries were like “Hey. Chocolate, peanut butter. Let’s find a really good excuse to send these soldiers to clear out the Mediterranean. How about Jesus?”.
And they actually went, and they laid siege to this city in North Africa called Mahdia. This walled city. And they completely fucked it up, strategically. Walled city. They didn’t bring any battering rams. Hundred-degree heat. They laid siege in the middle of summer in full body armour, and a double-digit percentage of them died from thirst and getting bitten by flies and… It was just horrible. And it lasted for months and months and months. And when they sent their negotiators out to talk, the Mahdians’ leaders were like “Why are you laying siege to us? Sure, we go after your ships, but you go after our ships. Game recognise game.”, and they were like “Oh, no. It’s not about that. It’s because of what you did to Jesus.”. And the Mahdians were like “What are you talking about? That was the Jews.”, because, obviously, Islam didn’t even exist in Nazareth in the 1st century. And so despite the biblical accuracy of that claim, the siegers didn’t back off, and they ended up just losing everything on that.
Then they went home, and they told their constituencies that they had won, despite the fact that they had lost. And based on that, Europe went into what turned out to be its last crusade in Constantinople, I think, and it ended up just basically losing control over the Middle East more or less permanently. Losing control over Turkey and the rest of it. And because of that - I know this is a way longer answer than you wanted, but this is fascinating to me - Europe lost control of the access to the Orient, and so that’s when they started funding colonisation and the African slave trade and the discovery of the Americas by Europe.
So the entire history of the West is based on this one lie based on this one failed crusade based on political needs that were gussied up as religious beliefs. And I think that that is such a great metaphor for the ham-fisted ways in which we’re trying to regulate these new and emerging digital spaces, is that the internet… Do you remember being optimistic about the internet in the 1990s? This notion that…
Dubber Very much so. In fact, I remember being optimistic in the early days of Twitter.
Aram Truly. Actually, I just posted on Twitter today. I said something along the lines of “‘What I had for lunch Twitter’ was the best Twitter. Don’t @ me. I miss that.”. There’s no question that if we somehow avoid global climate catastrophe, we are going to be entering into an era of AI-augmented humanity that is qualitatively so different from what human beings have experienced since the birth of civilisation that it’ll be virtually unrecognisable, and in relatively short order. This stuff is happening really, really quickly. More quickly, I think, even than those of us who pay attention to it for a living can wrap our heads around. And that world could look like anything. It doesn’t have to be dystopian. It doesn’t have to be ‘The Matrix’. It doesn’t have to be ‘eXistenZ’. It doesn’t have to be ‘Black Mirror’. We can literally build whatever we want with it.
Dubber We tend not to, though, right?
Aram No. We get caught in these cycles. That’s what I’m saying, is that we’re creating the conditions for permanent techno-fascism based on the flimsiest of excuses in the same way that Europe ended up having to create… Not having to. That Europe ended up seeing a necessity to create the Atlantic slave trade based on their own failures based on these flimsy premises. And that’s what I’m worried about. It’s not just that person X is going to get sued for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars and go bankrupt or that person Y would really like to participate in the music economy and is going to get excluded from it. Those are bad, but the first-order consequences are the least of it. To answer your question… I don’t know if you can use any of this. I’m just rambling.
Dubber No, no. I like a long answer.
Aram But the reason that I put this in terms of the Crusade is precisely in order to point out that there are long term, tectonic consequences for the kinds of policies that we’re arguing for today. They end up building on themselves and getting embedded into techno-social systems in a way that produces a dystopian outcome, and I would really like to avoid that. I would like to think that when my children are a hundred years old, they’re going to live in some kind of eutopia free from want and of perfect participation and equity and justice and creative expression, and not in some universe where you have to watch an ad before you’re allowed to release dopamine into your bloodstream.
Dubber So I guess, in a nutshell, while piracy might be seen to be antisocial, regulation against piracy took place in full body armour in the height of summer against some very high walls and led to slavery.
Aram That is a shorter TL;DR version of what I said, yes.
Dubber But you have a stake in this. As well as being an accomplished, acclaimed academic on these matters, you’re also a musician. And not just a dabbler. You’re somebody who does it for real. So what is your experience, and how has that changed as digital technologies have progressed?
Aram Well, let me push back against that for a second because I don’t like the framing of dabbling and amateurism. I think that that frame is a kind of self-hatred that humans inflict on themselves. And I meet people all the time who are like “Well, I play guitar, but I’m not a musician.”, and like “Well, what the fuck do you think a musician is? Of course you’re a musician.”. If you make music, you’re a musician. If you listen to music and clap along, you’re a musician. So, yes, I participate in the music economy as a performer and a composer and a recording artist, but that doesn’t make me more ‘real’ than somebody who doesn’t. Music belongs to them just as much as it belongs to me.
I’ll tell you, I think the internet is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened in music. I fucking love it. I’ve been locked down… I married my lead singer. She hired me back in 1995 to play in the band, and…
Dubber “She married her bassist.” is what you mean to say.
Aram I do mean to say that. “I married my boss.” is really what I’m saying. She hired me back in 1995 in New York to play in what was then a very popular downtown band called Agent 99, and we ended up outlasting the band by several decades. And the two of us have been in several groups together and, of course, have had separate projects as well over the years.
And it’s been so wonderful to be locked down… If you’re going to be locked down, be locked down with your creative partners, because she and I have had the opportunity to do all kinds of songwriting and online live-streaming together, and we are also doing a tonne of recording. And our collaborators are in South Korea, they’re in Europe, they’re in New York and California. We’re playing with people all over the world and developing really wonderful music in a way that twenty years ago, we’d all have to be in the same studio together at the same time. And the ability to connect to people on that basis… I don’t think I would have survived this past year with a shred of sanity if I had not been able to do that. So technology, to my mind, has been great for that.
The danger of it, of course, is that we come to see the simulation as being the thing that’s simulated and that we lose track of the somatic, geographic qualities of music as well. There’s no substitute for playing music in a room full of people.
Dubber Is that a latency thing, or is that just a physicality thing?
Aram That is such a smart question. It’s not just latency because music is not just one signal, and it’s not just physicality because those signals are not merely physical. To me, the most compelling and meaningful musical experiences are multimodal. You can smell it when people are excited by the music that you’re playing.
I’m a rhythm instrumentalist. I play the bass. I love to see people dance while I’m playing dance music. Not all the music I play is dance music, but when I’m playing dance music, I like to see people’s bodies because I learn things about the music from watching people move, and I integrate that into the way that I’m playing. Not in a super over-the-top corny and obvious way, but in a subtle way, like the way that you feel an eighth note or the way that you feel the relationship between the bass and the drums, which is out in front of the other. Those kinds of issues.
So my favourite definition of music comes from Jacques Attali, who I’m sure you’ve read inside and out many times through. But in his book ‘Noise’, he calls it a dialectical confrontation with time, and I really think that plus sociality is the best definition of music that I can think of because it is… There’s this trope about living in the moment. And I’ve meditated and done all kinds of things to try to be in the moment, but I’ve never been more in the moment than when I am actively playing music with other human beings, in a room full of even more human beings. I am paying attention to every single microsecond and every fluctuation, not just of sound, but visually, olfactorily, conceptually, and that… I think the reason why it’s so satisfying is because it allows you to be the most of yourself. You’re inhabiting the most of the human experience simultaneously. And not only are you inhabiting all of your own senses and paying attention to them at a super granular temporal level, but you’re also inhabiting other people’s subjectivities simultaneously and doing the work that your nervous system was made to do to reconcile other people’s subjectivities with your own and to achieve a kind of collective consciousness.
To go back to what we were talking about before - the million years of music framework - we are hardwired to connect to other people that way. And I don’t care if it’s a trick of evolution. I’m not a big believer in intelligent design because I know people who are much less intelligent than a god who would have designed things a lot better. But we’re hardwired by evolution to respond well to these kinds of stimuli and to take pleasure in those kinds of connection.
So is it possible that some kind of technological mediation that had no latency, that was multimodal, that had smell-o-vision baked into it, that that could serve the same function? Sure. I’m not saying it’s impossible. But I wonder whether it’s just squaring the circle. Let me put it in a different way. To me, the most exciting uses of technology aren’t to reproduce what we have in our organic lives, but to provide options that don’t exist in our organic lives. That’s why I like mash-ups or dub reggae. I spend so much time trying to explain this to my students when I teach my musical cultures and industries class.
The brilliance of a dub reggae producer like Scientist or Lee “Scratch” Perry is that they make impossible spaces. So the snare drum might be in this little echo chamber, but the hi-hat is in this giant room that’s reverberating all around you and panning at the same time. And your brain, which evolved in order to use sound to create a map of the world that you’re in, for evolutionary reasons, can’t help but try to reconcile these impossible spaces into one coherent understanding of the world that your body is in. And your higher mind, your capacity for abstraction, recognises that your ears are failing to do that and takes pleasure in the game of it.
And so playing with the limits of embodied organic experience through exploiting the unique affordances of technology, to me, that’s where tech adds something to music, not putting us in the Matrix where we can’t tell the machine apart from real life. Take the machine to augment real life. Create new spaces to explore that you can’t explore in your physical life.
Dubber Is this an argument for art plus science, and therefore music is at the apex of human experience?
Aram Man, I don’t know what any of those words mean. I have no idea what the apex of human experience is. All I can say is that music and sex are the two experiences that I am aware of that bring me closest to a totalistic, integral experience of being a human being, but I know that that’s not true for everybody. For some people, it’s food. For some people, it’s… Who knows what? People are into all kinds of stuff. So I won’t get into superlatives like ‘apex’. As to art and science, I’m not even sure what your question is. What is it exactly that you’re asking me?
Dubber Is it the case… A lot of people talk about music as being this really ideal place at which art and science coalesce, at which, for instance, musicians are great mathematicians or that the brain does something that brings together not just the cerebral and the visceral but also the left and right brain metaphor, if you like, and that being the… All of the bits of being human come together in one place.
Aram Yeah. I think that’s true. Art and science are these categories that we’ve created for social and economic reasons that are not, to me, very valuable. I hate the concept of art. I fucking hate it. Larry Gross, a comms scholar who was my doctoral advisor when I was a grad student, wrote this great article where he talked about the concept of art being like a reservation. In the same way that a reservation that Native Americans are sequestered on by the federal government in the US, that artists get shunted off to this little side place that’s ancillary to human experience, and that the very concept of art is really intimately tied to that process of sequestration. That resonated with me so much. Really helped me to think through what I had been sensing inchoately for my whole life when I read Larry’s work on that.
But the broader point that you’re making that we have these dual epistemologies, one of which is very intuitive and integral and the other of which is very analytical and logical, and that music can unite those things, I think is very true.
I listen to a lot of Indian classical music. I’ve been on a real Carnatic flute kick lately for some reason - Carnatic flute and mridangam and sometimes violin - and that’s a great example of music that does that, that’s so mathematical, but it’s not like prog rock in that it’s just being mathematical for the sake of it. It’s more like John Coltrane. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that amazing… It’s this heuristic that Coltrane drew of the relationships between all of the different…
Dubber The ‘Giant Steps’?
Aram Yeah. Well, he uses it in ‘Giant Steps’ when he goes through that cycle of fourths all the way through, but it’s basically like the roadmap for ‘Giant Steps’. So it’s all of the chromatic tones arrayed in this circle and then these lines between them showing different kinds of relationships between different tones in the chromatic sequence.
What I love about John Coltrane’s music, as well as about certain kinds of Indian classical music and other styles too, is the sense that… I don’t know about you, but I get so… I don’t like most music visualisers that I see. If you have iTunes on and you press ‘visualiser’, it just goes “Woo, it’s music!”. But when I hear music, I hear it as these concentric rainbows. It’s a spectrum. And it’s not a two-dimensional space. It’s like a four-dimensional space where you can create shapes that evolve within these concentric rainbows. I know I sound like a total hippy, but I’m actually just trying to be accurately descriptive.
So I do think there’s truth in that. It’s not that it’s art meets science. It is more the recognition and the experience of an epistemology that is large enough to encompass both intuitive and deductive forms of knowing. It’s a larger space in which to think and feel in a way that does not require you to distinguish between those terms.
Dubber Interesting. The way that I would articulate that would be that I like it when the music that I enjoy does something clever.
Aram For sure. I don’t know if you ever read Leonard B. Meyer, the music theorist.
Dubber No, I don’t think I have.
Aram He’s a mid 20th century music theorist who’s really thinking about classical music, the way that most ‘serious’ music theorists did in the West at that period of time. But his whole schtick is that meaning in music comes from… It’s almost like humour, like stand up comedy. It comes from establishing expectations based on convention and style and then defying those expectations.
The most playful composer of the Classical era was Mozart. Mozart’s like [imitating music] “We’re going to go over here. No! We’re over here now.”. And it’s not romantic like Beethoven, like “I have to express my pain at being in the world.”. It’s more just like “Come on this journey with me. We can play. You think I’m going to resolve here, but I’m actually resolving to this totally different key.”.
And I agree with you. I think all the music that - in any style, in any genre, from any place and any time - really excites me is the music that defies my expectations and plays. Acknowledges that there’s a listener and creates this dialogue with the imagined listener through its playfulness, in a way of saying “Hey, I’m not just doing this for me. I’m not just expressing myself or saying something that is true or putting something out there. I am playing for you, Andrew. I’m going to make this music and set up expectations in your mind, in your body, and then I’m going to fuck with them. And you’re going to recognise that I’m doing that, and we’ll have some naches. It’ll be I and I.”, to use Martin Buber or Rastafarianism.
Dubber I have to ask, were you a mixtape kid, growing up?
Aram Oh, for sure. Are you kidding? I was born in 1972. I grew up during the peak years of tape culture, and all I ever wanted to do from the first moment I got my hands on a cassette recorder was to make home recordings of mixtapes. And all of us who were into music and sound did exactly the same thing. I still have mixtapes that my girlfriend made me in tenth grade. Not because I listen to them, but it was such an expression of… It was a way of telling somebody that you knew who they were, that you could curate a collection of music for them. And that power to re-record, within a techno-social environment that encouraged you just to be a passive consumer, was such a resistant and liberatory act. So it was like “We’re in this together. We’re actually taking the detritus of this industrial landscape that we were handed and we’re turning it into a playground where we can make things for each other.”.
Dubber Interesting. In the light of that, it’s interesting that we have gone on to be a generation of people who also get really interested in the sorts of things that you talk about. Piracy and Napster and… And your new, well, newer book ‘Intellectual Property’, or it’s an ‘Essential Guide to Intellectual Property’, what is… Let’s unpack that. What’s intellectual and what’s property, and how do those two things relate to each other?
Aram Oh, yeah. Well, that title was chosen by the publisher. In fact, that’s the book that they asked me to write. They were like “We need a book about intellectual property.”. I’m far from the first one to point out that that is a weighted term and an inaccurate term and a term that does a certain amount of historical damage, and the reason that it does damage is because the concept of property is a binary and totalising concept. I think it’s an idea that speaks to some of our oldest and most atavistic impulses. This mug - which has music on it - is my property. I own this. And you want this mug, but you can’t have it. And economists use these terms like ‘rivalrous’, which means that if I’m using the mug then you can’t use it at the same time, and ‘excludable’, like if I locked this mug in my private safe, you’ll never get access to it. So things that we think of as property tend to be rivalrous and excludable, but, of course, culture and the products of our intellection are not either rivalrous or excludable. And this was very famously pointed out in a letter that…
Oh, hold on a second. Hey. Doing a podcast interview. Can I call you back in a few minutes?
Aram Okay. That was my co-author, Jesse Gilbert, and sometime musical collaborator. You can snip that, I suppose.
Dubber I can, but I might not.
Aram Okay. That’s fine. Yeah, so Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter where he says, basically, “I think intellectual property is a very dangerous thing to build into our legal system because ideas don’t behave like coffee mugs. Ideas are more like the flames of candles. I can light your candle with my candle, and that doesn’t lessen the light on my candle. It just increases the amount of light.”. So that observation has been integral to the discussion of intellectual property as long as there’s been intellectual property.
What it does do is it allows the world of culture and expression to enter into the marketplace and to become commoditised. And so in practice, the statutes, the judicial decisions, the executive enforcement, and even the contracts and day-to-day interactions and business models built around IP are all these ongoing negotiations about “Under what circumstances can this thing that naturally wants to travel from person to person like a flame be frozen into a market-ready commodity and protected from competition and unlicensed use in the same way that a coffee mug or a car or a pair of shoes might be?”.
It’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, it’s a bait and switch operation. If you ask people how they use music in their lives, they’ll tell you about Spotify, but they won’t tell you about humming in the shower. So they’re thinking about their musical experience through the lens of commodities, which are defined by what can be propertised and what can’t. But on the other hand, of course, IP creates a kind of structure and predictability that allows industries to emerge around musical expression and other forms of cultural expression and basically creates confidence for powerful institutions that have money to invest in building tools for those of us who would like to share our ideas.
Dubber Right. I suppose you’d very quickly get into the weeds of how law works in this place at this time. It does seem to be as soon as you start talking about what intellectual property is, you do start to talk very quickly about “Well, it’s a legal thing, and the law works like this, and there are these cases. Here is the legislation.”, etc.
Aram Yeah. So legal categories, unless you believe in the God of Abraham who hands down truth on stone tablets to humanity… If you believe in any kind of version of the Rousseauian social contract, laws exist as this way of mediating social power between wealthy and poor, between aristocrats and peasants, between Global North and Global South, between any groups with disparate power that you can point to. The law is a system that circumscribes social behaviours in a way that permits certain kinds of actions without consequences and assigns dire consequences to other kinds of actions to keep people from doing them. There are laws against murderers. I probably would have killed ten people this year if there weren’t laws against… That’s a joke. But let’s just say, there would be a lot more murders if there were not laws against murder.
Dubber Sure. Not necessarily perpetrated by you.
Aram Probably not. I’m a lover, not a fighter. But I certainly would have slapped a couple of people, let’s put it that way. But when it comes to something like murder, at least there is a moral intuition that predates the law. I’m not going to murder anyone because I recognise myself in you, and I don’t want to kill myself, so I’m not going to kill you. I’m not interested in burning someone’s house down. I think that would make me sad, not happy. But laws like intellectual property don’t have the same kind of moral preconditions to them. We do have a moral intuition about property and a moral intuition about creative expression, but they don’t really match the contours of the law in a direct way, the way that, say, our feelings about murder match laws about murder. So what IP laws do is they basically say “These are the circumstances under which you are allowed to put creative ideas and expressions into the marketplace, and these are the circumstances under which other people can’t.”.
And in the US, there is a very specific reason for this social contract for this law, and it’s enshrined in Article One, Section Eight, Clause Eight of the US Constitution. Article One, Section Eight is a really interesting piece of the US Constitution. Basically, what it says is this: “All Americans”… And obviously, that was a very limited conception at the time. It did not include African Americans. It didn’t include women. Lots of other people. But the basic idea being “All Americans are free to do whatever they want without the government telling them not to, except for this list of things because we can’t have a functional democracy unless congress has the ability to make laws that limit people’s freedom in these specific ways.”. And it lists a bunch of different stuff, and one of them is even though we have free speech and everybody can say whatever they want and publish whatever they want - we have a free press. People can believe in whatever religion they want. First Amendment - Congress can still limit our First Amendment freedoms by creating a law that creates a copyright or a patent, but it can only do it for one reason, and that one reason is advancing the progress of science and art. And so to the extent that copyright is constitutional, to the extent that patent law is constitutional, in the United States system, they are only constitutional to the extent that they limit people’s free speech for the purpose of increasing the number and diversity of people speaking, that it incentivises authors to share their work with the public and incentivises inventors to share their innovations with the public.
Dubber And how effective is it at doing that?
Aram That’s the hundred trillion dollar question. Academics differ. It’s a question that I ask in this book, in ‘The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property’, and one of the ways that I address it is by looking and seeing… Well, to begin with, Jefferson himself pointed out “Listen. We just got through the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and before that, we had the Renaissance, and we did all of that without copyright. So you don’t need to propertise ideas in order for people to come up with new ones and share them with each other. That’s what we do.”, to which Madison said “Yes, but England’s been doing it since 1710 when we created the first real copyright law, the Statute of Anne, and they published a lot of stuff since then, so maybe we should do it also.”, because ‘money talks and bullshit walks’ was basically Madison’s approach to governance.
So when I look at creative industries, one of the things that I did in the book was I looked at “How good are they at actually incentivising creators with money?”, and the answer was really interesting to me. I got a bunch of government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and I got a bunch of industry-level data. What I wanted to know was “For every dollar that’s spent by consumers or advertisers on a form of creative expression, how much ends up in the pocket of the people who are actually doing the creative expressing?”, and the answers across a range of industries is about three percent, including the music industry. Three percent. Three cents on every dollar ends up incentivising us to create more music. That’s not a very efficient system. Ninety-seven percent of it burns off in the form of friction that goes into corporate profits. That’s bonkers. There’s got to be a better way than that.
And, for that matter, as you point out, I’m a real musician. I’m a musician who participates in the marketplace. I get royalty checks. I play gigs. I can tell you right now, I would be really incentivised if someone wanted to pay me a million dollars to write a song, but I’ve never written a song because I anticipated making money from it. I write songs because it gives me great pleasure, and it gives me an excuse to play music that I like with people that I like, and as a way of giving people things.
I have a friend who’s making a movie right now. She’s a professor where I work named Brigid Maher. She’s making a documentary about this woman, Sally Dixon, who’s the doyen of the independent documentary scene in the US in the late 20th century. And I wrote a couple of songs for her to use in her movie, soundtrack songs, and then my wife and I wrote a more elaborated vocal song for her to use over the closing credits. She’s going to pay us a couple hundred bucks for it, but we didn’t do it for the money. We did it for our friend, to make our friend’s movie better. If I have a friend who’s feeling down and out, I might write him or her a song to help them feel better.
So while I won’t deny that market mechanisms do incentivise people to create, I think that they do a pretty shit job of it, and I think they don’t account for most… Most of the dollars spent don’t incentivise, and most of the incentive doesn’t come from dollars.
Dubber That’s a nice way to put it. You were incentivised to write this book because this is a book that your publisher wanted you to write. What’s the book that you want to write?
Aram That is an interesting question. I’m tenured, and I’ve already got plenty of citations in publications, so I’m basically at the “Fuck it.” point of my career. So there are two kinds of books that I am excited about writing, and I’m doing both. One is my new non-fiction book which I’m writing with Jesse Gilbert, who just called me while we were talking a few minutes ago for our book meeting. It’s called ‘The Secret Life of Data’, and it uses some of the ideas that we’re talking about today, but it’s looking at all of the ways in which data can be extracted from cultural objects in ways that the people who created them didn’t expect. It could be tomorrow, ten feet away, or it could be a century from now around the globe, or it could be a millennium from now in a different galaxy, but we are constantly developing new technologies and epistemologies to extract knowledge from objects that people did not earlier understand was carried by those objects. And so what we’re interested in is “How can we think proactively about this when we’re creating new technologies, new laws, new cultural practices, and think not only about the first-order consequences of the media that we make but about those nth order consequences as well?”.
Like this conversation that you and I are having. Presumably, it’s going to be archived on some kind of website. Somebody could choose not to use the archive of this conversation to learn something from the words that we’re saying to each other, but they could do a histogram on all the words and all the books behind me and infer something about my interests and my perspective from that. They could do facial recognition on my children and see where else they’ve appeared in public photography archives. They could analyse the sound of your and my voice and establish whether we have any insipient medical conditions that we should be concerned about. Those are just the kinds of things that theoretically could be done right now with this piece of media that we’re producing. So what Jesse and I are thinking through is not only “What are the implications of knowing that as we rush to fill every cubic centimetre of the human experience with data?”, but “What would a supervillain do with that power? What’s the worst-case scenario, and how can we avert it?”.
So that’s the non-fiction, but also I’ve been writing fiction. And specifically, I wrote a novel about New York at the turn of the century, the 21st century. That was how I made it through the first year and a half of Trump, was by working on this novel and living in New York of summer of 2001. It’s very much about music and about technology, but other stuff too. Race and gentrification and sexuality and magic.
But this past year, my sister, who’s a historian, a history professor, she and I have written two speculative fiction books together. One is a time travel semi-romance about this software coder in 2045 who gets stuck in this glitch and starts going back in time, falls in love with somebody who’s going forward in time, and it’s so much fun. And we have an agent right now who’s trying to sell that. We’ve gotten some very encouraging rejections. Really praiseful rejections. It’s very frustrating. And then after we were done with that, we wrote a mid-grade young adult novel about a girl who lives in an unnamed city whose mother goes missing, and she goes to find her mother and discovers this underground magical world populated by talking crustaceans. And that has this ecological crisis happening, and she has to solve the ecological crisis, which she does - spoiler alert - with music. So I would love to be incentivised by enough dollars to be able to continue to write speculative fiction. That would be great.
Back when I was an internet industry analyst, back in the ‘90s, people would ask me what I did, and sometimes I would glibly say “I write science fiction.” because I’d be writing five-year projections. And I remember, I once met… Actually, I met this guy, Spalding Gray.
Dubber Oh, wow. ‘Monster in a Box’.
Aram ‘Monster in a Box’, yeah. ‘Swimming to Cambodia’. That’s me and my wife and him and his wife. And he asked me what I did for a living, and I tried to explain what being an internet analyst meant. And he looked at me puzzled for about five minutes, and then he went “Oh, you’re a futurist.”, and I was like “Yeah. I’m a futurist. That’s what I am.”. It’d never occurred to me to use that term. But I would like to find other creative ways to do futurism that’s not the kind of punditry and prognostication that I’ve done for a living before.
I’ve become a worse subject for interviews. I pity any journalist who calls me for a quote now because, just like with this Clubhouse story we were talking about before, I’ll launch into a diatribe. I’m not interested in short, easy answers right now. I’m not interested in telling you what’s going to happen. I’m interested in talking about what could happen and what we can do about it and with it and through it, and in trying to use what little foresight and juice I have to try to nudge the world away from the precipice of disaster and towards some kind of better future in which we live more fulfilling collective lives.
Dubber Right. Is there a metric that you could look at at which point you could say “And my work here is done.”?
Aram I know people who can’t wait to retire from their jobs, but I’ll never… I love being a professor. I love playing music. I love writing books. I’d like to travel more because COVID has got me cooped up, but what better way is there to spend life than just trying to learn and teach and make beautiful things and connect with people? What else is life for?
Dubber Living the dream.
Dubber Brilliant. Aram, thanks so much for your time. It’s been really, really fascinating.
Aram Thank you. It’s nice to have the opportunity to ramble with a smart person who cares about what I care about.
Dubber Fantastic. Cheers.
Dubber That’s Aram Sinnreich, and that’s the MTF Podcast. Aram is just @aram on Twitter, and I’m @dubber. That’s easy. Even easier, MTF Labs is @mtflabs across all the different social media bits and pieces and www.mtflabs.net on the web. Don’t forget, you can share, like, rate, review, follow, subscribe, download, comment, link, tweet, repost, and recommend. We appreciate and reward any and all of those sorts of behaviours. Thanks so much to the MTF team - Jen Kukucka, Sergio Castillo, and Mars Startin - Borrtex and airtone for the music, and Run Dreamer for the MTF audio logo. That’s us for this week. Stay safe. Talk soon. Cheers.