Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Musical Frontiers

A couple of days ago a message popped up in my Twitter timeline, a suggestion for a blog. It went like this: "Are there any musical frontiers left?"

I thought about this question and rolled it around in my mind. It wasn't a question I immediately liked or one I had any immediate, instinctive thoughts about and that bothered me because, usually, I will have some mental starting point to go from that comes immediately to mind. But not so with this question. So I went to sleep and let it slide for a while. Thoughts will come when they may and there's no use forcing them. The next day I thought about it some more but, still, I wasn't really overflowing with thoughts on the subject and it became clear to me that if I was going to have an answer to this question it probably wasn't going to be on the terms it was asked. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the answer to the question is to re-frame it and give, instead of a straight answer, a new angle of view from which to approach the subject. What follows is going to be my attempt to do this and my reasoning as to why I need to.

Another way to ask this same question is to ask if anything is really new. Clearly, at some points, the answer to this is yes. We do, for example, sometimes create new genres of music or new sounds. When human beings discovered electricity, for example, it opened a door to electronically amplified sound and, later, electronically engineered instruments. The electric guitar and the synthesizer are both 20th century developments. These instruments have opened up new musical frontiers. And yet, I assume, both of these instruments have their limitations. There is only so much you can do with them realistically. OK, maybe with a modular synthesizer with mixed modules (the more the better!) you maximise your potential for a wide and varied selection of sound creation. But music is not just sounds, its structure too. Even where that structure is a deliberate lack of it. My point here, though, is that technology is one thing that delivers musical possibility. Just as in former centuries manufacturing skill led to the creation of the instruments of the orchestra, giving birth to orchestra music, so the 20th century (and beyond) heralded music made by electronic means or even in new ways made possible by technology. Before the computer music had to be played. These days many people simply draw it and a machine renders it into a coherent whole.

So it seems clear there have been new forms of music, new tools to use and new ways to go about the whole process. Yet my question raises the prospect of this coming to an end. How do I feel about that? Personally, I must express ambivalence towards it. I have have no crystal ball and I cannot tell what someone might invent next. I'm much more of a reactive person here. When I make music I evaluate what resources I have and then I allow myself to be expressed through them. I am not trying to cross a musical frontier or break a boundary into some new musical uplands. My line of sight is not to where human music-making might go next. In fact, I don't see myself or music in such generalized, global terms at all. And this is why this question is somewhat annoying to me as a question. I don't like the way it is expressed and it grates somewhat on the person I am and the understandings I have about the world. These are not at all bad things! New insights, rubbing against opposing viewpoints and scenarios, is what should help the intelligent person to develop and grow themselves. But, even so, I want to answer the question a different way.

Music, in my understanding, is a matter of personal expression. Now I know that not everyone agrees with this. John Cage, for example, would vehemently disagree. But much as I have read, enjoyed and nodded along with much Cage has said, I just feel instinctively that when I make music it is a personal thing, a matter of personal expression. This is what I think and feel I am doing. I might even go as far as to say that my music is a personal statement or validation of self. For some, and I'd include myself, it is even a kind of therapy, a way to help ease our existence in the world. If this is even partly true, or true for you as a music maker, then I fail to see how this connects particularly with the idea of a generalized musical frontier. To go along with this type of understanding is to say that musical output is linked to individual people - as a necessity. So, in that case, even a desire to "cross musical frontiers" would be, at base, just the desire of a particular human being. It would be a personal mission. This in itself, of course, does not completely annihilate the idea of a generalized musical frontier and I've already agreed that our human history is one that includes opening up new kinds of music and new sounds. But, nevertheless, it does seem somewhat at odds with such an idea. It raises the question "What is your music about? What is it for?"

But concentrating on this idea of music as something inspired by and through particular human beings raises another possibility. This is that there might be music that wasn't made by human beings at all. Indeed, only yesterday I remember seeing a couple of references to some piece of music (which I now can't find!) that, so it seemed to suggest, had been entirely composed by a computer. And this seems to me to be a frontier: the human contemplation of music that humans did not make. But something else did. This raises lots of philosophical questions of course. I assume the computer that made the music did so without any feeling at all. It would not know what it felt like to make music and could have no feeling to put into the making of the music. This would be very different to the experience of many music makers. (As I sit here typing I hear a crow cawing outside, nature's music?) But it would still be music if appreciated as such by human listeners. Could one new frontier be, in a generalized sense, that in future music will be something technology generates for itself and we humans just listen to it? But if that were so it would also open up the possibility for humans to "jam" with machines, musically creative machines. In my random thinking I've gone and found a frontier! But is it a welcome one? I also seem to have offered a rider to my belief that music for some is personal. It need not be if an impersonal machine that doesn't even know it is making music can make it too.

But this raises an intriguing question: if machines could make their own music (totally undirected by any human impetus or prompting) then what music would they make? It would be silly and arrogant to think it might be anything like human music since we know that even humans make music in genres and sub-genres that are birthed from specific enculturated contexts. Indeed, I find it hard to theorize how we could even expect to understand machine music as music. Human music, for we must admit there could be non-human forms, is based on human experience of life. This primarily means our physical experience of the world which is limited to a narrow bandwidth of sound (generally taken as 20 Hz to 20 kHz). We know there are sounds that occur above and below these frequencies but they are not a part of our music because we cannot physically perceive them (but we can use them as modulation sources, for example, as an LFO in a synthesizer). This serves to set human music in context as human and to show that others forms would and could be possible. No doubt we will get entirely non-human music and it will be fascinating to hear (if we could hear!) what this sounds like should any of us live long enough to hear it. This would be genuinely new.

But yet I must come back to my own uneasiness with the original question. Although I have now found one possible new frontier I feel within myself that there is a more important point to make. When approaching the question in general we are aware of the broad scope of music, more than any one person has ever made themselves. And this, I think, is my point. For whilst the question of generalized human musical frontiers might be, for me, somewhat moot, when it comes to a personal application of the question it certainly is not. For any musician has only ever really scratched the surface of what they could achieve musically when compared with the whole of their species. There will be so many genres of music, styles of playing, instruments used, sound palettes worked with, that they have just never even tried. This is important because it means that any one musician, or group of musicians, will have what I perceive to be a vast array of possibilities to hand. Its as easy as setting a new course, entering a new musical landscape and saying "Let's see what I can make of this!" And that is tremendously exciting because not only does it mean you can put anxieties about new musical frontiers to one side but it also means that you don't need to worry about them because you personally are always going to have somewhere to go anyway. Have you tried making jazz music? Rock? Funk? Gabba? Electronic Body Music? Working with just percussion sounds? Just flute sounds? Just static noises? Just voices? How many different time signatures have you used? Etc. You can see the list will be endless and as large as your imagination.

I admit that these are the only musical frontiers that I am really interested in and this is because they are the only real ones that practically apply to any actual musician. It may be that in this experimental attitude to music, one I would actively promote, I create something that someone else regards as new. If so, then so be it. But I tend to think this will be achieved more by accident than deliberation. I tend to think you should worry about extending your own range and experience and let the rest take care of itself. It may be that you yourself operate within a fairly limited set of circumstances. Maybe you always use the same sounds or things and just reorganize them in different ways. Well don't!. Stop doing that. Think about new ways to use or apply old things. Determine that your next recording will use a completely different sound set. Even go so far as saying you want it to sound like something using sounds you have not yet made. Use only sounds that you made yourself so you know that each is unique. One thing I can agree with Cage on is that every new piece of music is an experiment, a personal experiment. And while this is so for you as a music maker then every day will be the breaking of a new personal boundary and the crossing of a new personal frontier.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Its Time To Talk About Synthesizers and Sound

A few things floating around in the atmosphere prompt me to write today's blog which is to be about synthesizers and sound. Within the community of folks interested in these subjects there are all kinds of people. Some of these people are worth listening to and many are not. Just as some simply want to be popular, others are more thoughtful and purely artistic. Now the website Sonicstate.com recently published an article called Synthesis Innovation: Are You Sure We Can Handle It? in which the writer made the point that its not actually that easy to design a new synth that breaks new ground. We are, so the point was made, trapped in our conventional understandings of sound and synthesis. And, then again, if someone did make something new we might not like it... because its new and unfamiliar. People, in general, like what they know. This is very true in music and very relevant to Sonicstate.com which publishes a lot of gear reviews (mostly synths) and often the opinions given of anything new or a bit different are critical seemingly, to my mind, because the reviewer is a bit set in his ways. He wants something he knows it seems to me. Yes Nick Batt, I do mean you.

But regardless of the trials and tribulations necessary to create a new, groundbreaking synthesizer, something most of us will never be involved in anyway, there is a further question about new sound. And in the comments under this article the discussion turned more towards that. This is something I'm very interested in both as a music maker myself and as the host of the Electronic Oddities Podcast in which I often purposefully look for music no one has ever heard before and make a podcast out of it. I am greatly satisfied by doing this because, first of all, its exactly about finding something I've not heard before. Its about the refreshment that comes from something new. And I love this feeling that this music I'm hearing is not familiar, not using all the hackneyed old tropes and not something that could be played on TV or radio outside a dedicated show called "alternative" or something like that. A lot of this music is never going to be popular and certainly not mainstream. But that is its attraction. Its the attraction of the different. Its a counter culture. It is here you go if you want new, different, other, wild, crazy, alternative or strange.

But yet when discussing this with regular folk such as one might find in public forums I become very frustrated because most people do not think this way. To most people music is a tune about 4 minutes long with singing involved if possible. This is the kind of music that is "commercial", the kind that "pays the bills". But, I ask myself, what has music got to do with paying bills? Well for some people, I admit, it has a lot to do with it. But this isn't necessarily so. Music is just arranged sound and silence at the end of the day and money has nothing to do with it. One respondent to the article I mentioned talked about the stock sounds that come with synthesizers and made the point that such sounds are used by "successful producers". But is being a "successful producer" a musical ambition or a commercial one? The two are not the same thing. Being a "successful producer" is what I would call setting the musical bar as low as humanly possible. There is a reason most successful musical acts are not known for their musical innovation. Of course, a few slip through the net. They manage to combine innovation and creativity with popularity. But mostly not. They are the front for a bank of producers and 15 song writers. In my view most really exciting and interesting music has barely even been heard. And you have to find it yourself.

Now synthesizers are merely devices for making sounds. But it seems that often they make the same or similar ones. Of course, this problem will get exponentially worse as time passes because people will have more opportunity to make noises with them and they will, inevitably, tend to go down similar paths. There is a whole conventionality about this that I have already referred to and this becomes an issue if you want something new or different. Its for this reason that I have been a fan of modular synthesis, especially the Eurorack format, because here the building blocks of sound are broken down into hundreds of possible individual modules. No one manufacturer has any idea to what use you will put their creation or with what other elements you will combine it. The very format itself is, thus, pregnant with sonic possibilities. So I tend to think that when a new or "groundbreaking" synth is being discussed or pined for on synth forums that maybe people are missing the point. This new synth you want is right in front of your eyes. You just need to build it. It can be made of whatever is out there and these elements can be combined in any way you please. The results will be, at best, a fantastically exciting world of possibility. You just need to make the effort to create it. Surely this is an area in which "new" sounds can be discovered?

           A custom modular synth made by Latvian company, Erica Synths

I don't know what kind of music you regularly listen to but in the music I listen to, so-called experimental, noise, various kinds of ambient, avant-garde, IDM, etc., (all electronic) I hear lots of new, different and interesting sounds all the time. I firmly believe its not that there are no new sounds left to find, its that most people are just conventional, boring and totally unimaginative (music makers and listeners). "New sounds" generally won't be found in pop songs, chart music or things for general consumption. So if this is your musical diet I suggest you look elsewhere. And let me say that here "noise" is only a tiny part of what I'm talking about. "Sound design" is what I'm really talking about, the creation of atmospheres, ambiences and textures. Such music, and it is music, is as old as commercial synthesizers. I can refer you to records from 1969-1970 using synthesis to do just this. Those who read this blog or listen to my podcasts will know of examples of it that I've referred to before. Some synthesists, those I would characterize as at the more artistic end of the spectrum, have always wanted to make such music. You will note, of course, that in synthesizer music history there are instrumental synth albums that have sold in 8 figures (such as Oxygene by J-M Jarre). But then we need to remember never to confuse "good music" with "popularity". I make a weekly podcast of electronic music that showcases lots of never heard artists happy to just make their own thing unconcerned by popularity, fame or "what music makers want from instruments" which is a shorthand for the needs of boring, gigging musicians who wouldn't know creativity or originality if it left teethmarks in their backsides. If you produce for a mass market then you are inevitably compromised by that same market. Popular artists who make their "experimental" record often experience a dip in popularity as a result. And then go back to their formula for popularity.

The problem here is that nearly everyone is happy to reproduce something that they heard before. Very few are unhappy with that and want to be completely different. I've lost count of the unsigned bands and artists who say they sound (and often advertise themselves as sounding) like somebody else you might have heard of. I sit there thinking "WHAT?" If you sound like somebody else then I might as well go and listen to them instead. Its fair to say that originality is not often in vogue with many. People are too conventional to be different. We see this also with the sounds that are put into synths, both the hardware and software varieties. These get used by multiple people so that the sounds become known. This is not necessarily all bad if you happen to like the particular sound but music is something, I think, which always needs to keep being refreshed. It is a human failing that it is all too easy to be lazy but in music it can also be rewarding to do everything yourself. Anyone who has a synthesizer has a device that can be used in multiple ways with the sole purpose of creating sounds. And these devices do not necessarily have to be used as intended either. The whole genre of Acid House comes from a use and abuse of the Roland TB-303, for example. This device was originally put out by Roland as a relatively tame accompaniment device for people who played other things. It allowed you to not have a bassist. But in the hands of inventive people it became the lead instrument for bass heavy dance music. These same inventive people, I think, are drawn to modular synthesis too because such people are driven by an artistic desire for the new or different. Their polar opposite, to my mind, are those who want to design a patch memory system for modular synths which, up until this point, have no way to save the sounds you make on them. Once the patch cords are removed your sound is gone. THAT IS A GOOD THING!! The problem is that even new things eventually become ossified over time. Roland itself now remakes its old instruments in digital format (including the TB-303 now reborn as the TB-03) and sells them as a standard.

You are probably getting my point here that this comes down to a matter of mentality. It comes down to what music is for you. If its to make a career or to appease people commissioning music well then you have to give them what they think they want. These are limitations and, depending on your attitude to these things, maybe ones that are too much for you. But if you have more artistic freedom and a mind to wander then you are free to roam wider, disconnected from the need to appease anybody or anything but your own desire to roam across sonic landscapes and textures. This is what I do when I make my podcasts. These are good because they are not reliant on one person or their creative impulses. You can mix and match the tastes of many. But I must warn you Spotify-infested hordes that finding something new or different takes effort. It can't just be served up to you by some commerce monkey in a playlist. A big problem with this is how music is heard in the first place. You can search for yourself, a time-consuming process, and you will certainly find new, different and interesting things. But the vast majority don't search at all. They want to be spoon-fed whatever the mainstream gives them. Then they complain there's nothing new. Well of course there isn't! Those who make money out of selling music do so by serving up the same, the safe things, what people know. They wouldn't offer you something new and avant-garde. So my point is its up to listeners to seek out new and interesting music. It is out there.

People, of course, have differing tastes. They always will. And none of this matters. We should know by now that there is no "good music" and no "bad music". There is only music I like now and music I don't. And even that may change for people's tastes can change. Those tastes are also not coherent or logical. I like glitchy IDM music but my childhood has also bequeathed me a love of some of the hits of Englebert Humperdinck (ask your parents or grandparents). I didn't choose to like any of this music. I just did. The fact is it doesn't matter what you like or why. There is nothing special and nothing to be gained by liking one thing over another. Its all just music. That said, the whole point of this blog has been that if you want new, as the original article I referred to was about, then you will only find new sounds as a music maker or new sounds as a music listener by either making them or searching to find them. There is no shortcut. You will get out in proportion to what you put in.

You have only yourself to blame.


One man who I think knew all this was the recently deceased synthesizer designer and engineer, Don Buchla. He created many instruments, beginning in the 1960s, which were aimed to create new types of electronic music. He did many unconventional things at the time, such as not attaching a musical keyboard to many of his instruments, which forced their users to go a different way about creating electronic sound. He was a man who refused to compromise design for popularity. (Bob Moog, who was also a pioneering synthesizer designer, did add keyboards to his instruments and received many more plaudits - and sales - as a result.) He inspired not only many electronic musicians but many electronics engineers who now incorporate designs he inspired into their own electronic devices and so his legacy of innovation continues today beyond his own life span. He will be much missed. RIP Don.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Music and Genre

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of genres in music. This is a silly statement. For I can say that I like ska music, the acid sound, EBM, kosmische music, sound art, and some other things and these are all genres of music. Genres are musical sub-cultures that share some recognizable features, helpful ways to group certain sounds together and hopefully in a descriptively useful way that cuts some ice and actually helps the users of the term to know what is being talked about. The problem, however, is that often this isn't the case at all and especially if you haven't experienced a musical genre from the inside. Another problem is that genres can become more narrowly and narrowly defined. What, for example, is Aggrotech and how is it different from EBM or electro-industrial? I admit to being completely at a loss. I recently read a comment talking about "Black Ambient". I have no idea what that is or how it might be different from "Dark Ambient" which is another genre label I have come across. I admit that I ask myself if any perceived difference matters. What use is a term that doesn't have wide currency anyway? Using it doesn't help because in order to understand its meaning you'd need to experience the difference yourself.

So there is an issue with increasingly narrow sub-genres. These operate more as identifiers for insiders than instantly recognizable labels for the masses. Such labels aren't always welcome either. Some musicians don't want to be nailed down to one label or genre. Recently I put up a podcast in my Electronic Oddities series formed around Electroclash music. When I do a genre show I always try to formulate in my head a compact description of what I think this genre is trying to encapsulate. I included Ladytron in that podcast even though Ladytron have, in the past, refused the Electroclash tag. But I noticed that some others regarded their sound as fitting within the genre and so I included them. The song I picked doesn't sound out of place so maybe it was a good decision. But I can understand Ladytron's point.

Of course, for some people identifying with a particular genre might be important to them. These people set out to fit in with a genre and its important to them they are recognized as this sound. One example here is Noise Music, especially Harsh Noise. This is just a noise wall with barely any variation between tracks or bands. But it is a distinctive and definable sound and some simply want to join in making it. Another example might be EDM. EDM is a very produced (some would say over produced) and polished form of dance music made with a computer. It has a recognizable sound that separates it out from rawer forms of dance music. EDM is very popular and lots of music makers who already have computers are very keen to make it. They all sound the same so its not hard to miss. But this is where my problem with genre starts to raise its head.

My problem with genre is that it is limiting. As a musician I would hate to think people can use one word to describe what it is I do. I'd regard it as an insult and myself as a failure if that was the case. I guess my own self-image is that, musically, I have more strings to my bow than just sounding one way. Now some people want to sound one way. That's up to them. I'd regard it as not overly interesting though as once you've heard a song or two what more is there really to listen to? You've heard what this person or people do and you aren't going to get anymore variety than that. This is a silly statement too. There are plenty of acts I've heard and liked in my life who really only sound one way and I have no problem with them at all. If you like a certain sound then you like it. But I'm trying to get at something more than this. There are also experimental groups that I like. These have more of an unpredictability about them and I like them for that fact. These groups avoid categorization, which is what putting musicians in genres really is, and I like that idea. I don't want to be categorized myself. "Experimental" is a good tag for this and some people use the term as a genre term too. But "experimental" tells you next to nothing about what someone is going to sound like. 

Recently I came across another genre discussion that revolved around "the modular sound". This, so it is assumed, is the sound made by modular synthesizers. This discussion was started off by the famous modular synth user, Richard Devine, when he commented in one of the first teaser videos for the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synth that it sounded "very modular". Hannes Pasqualini wrote an excellent piece about this comment and if "the modular sound" even exists and you can read that HERE! and you should read it for its an interesting discussion of if this sound even exists and, if so, what it is. In the article Devine himself was very clear that he thinks there is such a sound, its a sound that is "organic and changing constantly". I know exactly what he means by this. I myself would probably have mentioned a sound that involved constantly changing modulations, a sense of movement and a feeling of being a musical organism, you can hear all the parts working in their place but it somehow all feels as if it is a unified whole. I note, however, that in the Facebook discussion where I found reference to Pasqualini's article there were a few people quite adamant that there was no such thing as "the modular sound". They emphasized the possibilities of the machine and argued this meant there was no such sound. But if when I mentioned "the modular sound" ideas of what that might be came into your head then maybe the phrase denotes something after all. (I note that much "modular music" one may hear is brief jams that people make for videos they put online. This phenomenon itself contributes to a modular sound in that it is so-called "noodling".)

Of course, I turn all these genre discussions back upon myself for, like many musicians, I want to be able to describe what it is I do. In this connection "the modular sound" is interesting to me not least because, over the years, sometimes people have said to me that some of my music sounds very "modular" or "analog" (not the same thing of course!) when the truth has usually been that the songs they were hearing were made entirely in software. I often do set out to try and ape a certain sound though (or I just find one that reminds me of something) and so the comments that I got, quite innocently and honestly, confirmed in me some measure of success and that, yes, there are people out there who associate certain sounds with certain equipment. I often deliberately muddy these waters too because I've often lied to people who have asked me what I used to make something. This, please understand, was not from any malicious intent. It was more mischievous in that I have noticed people make judgments based on what they think you have used. I merely wanted to disrupt these, to me, invalid judgments and make the listener return once more to the sound they are hearing. Musicians, especially of the electronic variety, can be very snobbish or judgmental about equipment and I simply wish to not play that game. Comment on what you hear not what was used to make it when listening to music is the focus!

Now I think there's ample reason to say that my music is not one thing. I might sometimes call it "experimental" but this is a relative term. Experimental to who exactly? One person's experiment is another's "I've heard this before". I think what I'd actually like to be is a genre of one: "music that sounds like me". No one else can sound like me if I allow my personality to shine through what I do for no one else is me. This is my technique and I try to make music containing that spark of uniqueness, that brings that little bit of me to the fore. This, of course, will not tell you what I sound like. But, as I've tried to explain, part of me is resistant to genre labels in the first place. You get to know what I sound like by listening to me. And this is surely the point of music anyway. If it can be explained away by a genre label it removes the need to listen to it. So I try not to fit in with genre and I try to be varied so that what I do cannot be crammed into the same musical box. That said, my music has taken a turn this year in what, to date, doesn't seem like such a vintage year to me. My music often reflects the world I see around me and is, in some sense, an expression of this. Yesterday I lay trying to come up with words to describe it. I got

1. Noisy
2. Abstract
3. Atonal
4. Bricolage

Now this isn't a genre and that's good. In practice a lot of my output this year, which has increasingly used random sounds I have found online (a notable change in content from former years), has been unpleasant noise, messy and sterile. These are aesthetic judgments by me, its maker. But it has served a purpose for I have seen the world destroying itself, chaos rising and things politically, socially and culturally making less and less sense. Would not noisy, abstract, atonal bricolage be the music for a world that was like this? It seems that I have thought so. Of course, I have to be the kind of musician I am for this to be so. Some musicians, it seems, start off with an idea in their head. They then try to recreate this idea in sound. But I am not like that. I never start with an idea. Instead, I start with a musical situation. This compromises instruments, sounds and, primarily, thoughts and feelings about non-musical subjects. In effect, before I begin I collect a pool of things that I am going to use. The way I make music is then to filter the instruments and sounds through the thoughts and feelings. My music, however abstract, is always about some idea or feeling and success is articulating that in sound. So I regard my genre as sounding like me for my music is what I think and feel in sound.

I find this way of doing things much more authentic than following some genre. But there will be others who want to do exactly that and that is their choice. As I've already intimated, my thoughts on genre aren't consistent anyway - and nor need they be. There are good and bad things about genre and we aren't required to have merely one thought about the subject. What is much more important is finding your own way and finding a sound that you truly identify with (from a musician's point of view). 

The Electronic Oddities Podcast, which often features differing musical genres, can be found at https://www.mixcloud.com/DrExistenz/ 

My music, whatever it might be made with (and I'm not telling!), can be found at https://elektronischeexistenz.bandcamp.com/ 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Exploiting R2-D2

A big subject amongst creative people in the digital age is the subject of piracy and, more specifically, of stealing in general. Barely a day goes past without some example of artistic theft being brought to public attention whether this be someone lifting songs from a Soundcloud account and then blatantly passing them off as their own, photographs being used or modified in an uncredited way or people being asked to use their creative gifts for free. It can rightly be said, with little hyperbole, that the creative impulses of human beings are constantly and consistently being exploited by other people for their own gain and sometimes for their monetary profit. Indeed, so insidious and constant is this tendency these days that it has become thoroughly normalized. People see artistic work as something of little worth that can be had for free. Its often pointed out that artists suffer because of this due to their inability to support themselves from creative lifestyles. Its logically possible to take the view that every act of theft or expectation of something for free contributes to this mentality regardless of how trivial or inconsequential you may regard any individual example as being. I should point out, before I carry on, that I don't have clean hands here. I live in exactly the society I've described and am prey to the same dubious impulses. So today's blog is not holier than thou. I'm just as guilty as the next person. I've also been the victim of theft. On Soundcloud my entire set of music, over 60 tracks, was stolen and put up elsewhere for money in 2010. Last year I became aware that a Russian account was routinely downloading my Bandcamp tracks and making them available on a Russian website. This is routine and normal for many.

The reason I discuss all this is because last night whilst idling through my Twitter timeline I came across someone advertising a T shirt he had made. As I sometimes but certainly not always do (I expect like everyone else), I went to have a look at the product he was selling. It was a T shirt with the image of R2-D2 from Star Wars on it. R2-D2 had been coloured in. It wasn't a bad T shirt. I can imagine that some people would want to buy it. But the question that came into my head immediately and, I admit, not at first totally seriously was "Has this image been licensed from George Lucas/Disney?" Now, of course, R2-D2 is not this guy's artistic creation. Its someone else's and certainly held by some body or entity as their's to artistically license and exploit for profit as they see fit. Of course, neither this person nor the online record label he is attached to and selling this product through had even so much as broached this question in the process of their activities. The impression I got from their responses was that there was seemingly no problem here. The artist concerned gave me the argument that Lucas and Disney were rich enough (so this somehow makes it OK) and the online record label sent back a sarcastic picture apparently intimating I was getting my panties in a bunch over nothing. So, according to these two, both of whom are seemingly reluctant to even acknowledge that this is fairly obvious stealing, there's no problem here. Stealing someone else's design is fine. You don't even need to question yourself over what you are doing.

Now, as I said last night to the person concerned, this isn't my fight. It is, in the parlance of our times, no skin off my nose. George Lucas and Disney are both indeed staggeringly rich. I don't really care more than those involved here if they lose a few dollars they might have otherwise gotten if this had been done properly. And its also true that I'm no one's moral police. As I stated above, when I started this conversation I wasn't even doing so totally seriously. I suppose I raised the issue to find out the response. It was a heuristic question to attempt to find out the attitude at work here. The artist selling the T shirt gave the reply that the creators/owners of the property were rich enough already and the record label said they would stop if Lucas or Disney complained. Neither answer is good enough and anyone reading this as well as those concerned knows it. But apparently its difficult for some to admit this even with their hands in the till and their pants pulled down on camera for all to see. As I said at the start, such activity has become ingrained and normalized. The idea "I want to use something so I just will" is there in the midst of us and its not going away anytime soon. 

However, its not always universal. I'm aware of another artistic person on my Twitter timeline who recently wanted to use some music from the artist Moby. As I understand it he wanted to do some work on a set of ambient music he had put online, I think for free ironically enough, and then put it out on his own account. It transpired that this musician had gone so far as to contact Moby or his management directly to see if he was allowed and able to do this. I admit that, when I learned about this, I flinched inwardly a little. If Moby had dumped this online for free then why ask at all? Surely it could be taken as read it was OK to use the material? By highlighting the issue with those concerned it could only really go badly if they said no, right? And, besides, Moby would likely never find out anyway. My artist friend is not the most popular musician in the world, as he himself would admit, albeit he should probably be more popular than he is. If he went and did whatever he wanted with Moby's music the chances of Moby finding out in the vast jungle of the Internet is extremely negligible. I expect this latter belief is at the heart of what the person with the R2-D2 T shirt and his record label think too. They don't expect those who really own the image will find out. No harm, no foul, right?

So why did this become such as issue for me that I wrote a blog about it? I can't really say but I think its the exploitation at the heart of the issue that tweaks my moral nipples so that I can't ignore it. What I've discussed here is blatant stealing however those at the heart of the matter want to avoid, belittle or ignore the fact. They are both in the wrong and guilty of artistic theft and exploitation. So Lucas and Disney, or whoever actually owns the image if R2-D2, are probably mega-rich and its doubtful they will miss the few dollars they might have made. But that's not the issue. I'm certainly not raising this out of concern for their bank balance. I'm raising this as a way of asking if stealing is OK now. What do you think? Is stealing OK? Does it matter? Are there consequences from the idea that I can decide for myself on a case by case basis if I should be allowed to steal? The conventional attitude is certainly "No harm, no foul". But, like many conventions, is that valid? What are the ramifications for people just deciding for themselves whether they should steal or not? Is it OK in society if we just become laws unto ourselves? Sure, this is hardly the crime of the century but, as one supermarket chain here is fond of saying, "every little helps". Every little supposedly inconsequential act goes onto the fire and helps it burn that little bit brighter. It all contributes to the mentality "Stuff is free if I want it to be". I have asked the record label concerned if its OK if I download and sell their entire music catalog as my own now. I don't expect it is but that's exactly what hypocrisy is. As I reported above, apparently the problem with hypocrisy is that I'm in the wrong for getting my panties in a bunch about it.

Now this T shirt issue would still be wrong if they gave the T shirt away for free. But at least then those concerned wouldn't be openly seeking to profit from the skill, work and ideas of others. Currently, they are. That's their choice and their problem if, by some miracle, things ever went tits up. What I refuse to accept, however, is that it doesn't matter. Its not "a bit of fun" as the record label wrote back to me. Getting money for nothing surely might be fun for them but all it does for the rest of us, in its own tiny, barely measurable way, is corrupts public morality. Maybe that doesn't matter either.

But isn't that merely the thin end of a particularly nihilistic wedge?