When Information Production Meets the Computer Network

Last week I wrote an article trying to make sense out of the music industry, and a recent copyright board decision. In Montreal the conversation of music came up at the FACIL event, and I explained how I see the decline of the revenue and influence of the recording industry not as a threat to the interests of musicians, but as something positive that will benefit composers and performers both financially and otherwise. I truly believe we are in a market transition where industrial methods of production, distribution and funding of creativity will be de-emphasized in favour of alternative methods.

I am currently reading Yochai Benkler's book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, and I thought it might be interesting to offer his summary of the issue.

When Information Production Meets the Computer Network

Music in the nineteenth century was largely a relational good.

It was something people did in the physical presence of each other: in the folk way through hearing, repeating, and improvising; in the middle-class way of buying sheet music and playing for guests or attending public performances; or in the upper-class way of hiring musicians.

Capital was widely distributed among musicians in the form of instruments, or geographically dispersed in the hands of performance hall (and drawing room) owners.

Market-based production depended on performance through presence.

It provided opportunities for artists to live and perform locally, or to reach stardom in cultural centers, but without displacing the local performers.

With the introduction of the phonograph, a new, more passive relationship to played music was made possible in reliance on the high-capital requirements of recording, copying, and distributing specific instantiations of recorded music - records.

What developed was a concentrated, commercial industry, based on massive financial investments in advertising, or preference formation, aimed at getting ever-larger crowds to want those recordings that the recording executives had chosen.

In other words, the music industry took on a more industrial model of production, and many of the local venues - from the living room to the local dance hall - came to be occupied by mechanical recordings rather than amateur and professional local performances.

This model crowded out some, but not all, of the live-performance-based markets (for example, jazz clubs, piano bars, or weddings), and created new live-performance markets - the megastar concert tour.

The music industry shifted from a reliance on Scholarly Lawyer and Joe Einstein models to reliance on Romantic Maximizer and Mickey models.

As computers became more music-capable and digital networks became a ubiquitously available distribution medium, we saw the emergence of the present conflict over the regulation of cultural production - the law of copyright - between the twentieth-century, industrial model recording industry and the emerging amateur distribution systems coupled, at least according to its supporters, to a reemergence of decentralized, relation-based markets for professional performance artists.

This stylized story of the music industry typifies the mass media more generally.

Since the introduction of the mechanical press and the telegraph, followed by the phonograph, film, the high-powered radio transmitter, and through to the cable plant or satellite, the capital costs of fixing information and cultural goods in a transmission medium - a high-circulation newspaper, a record or movie, a radio or television program - have been high and increasing.

The high physical and financial capital costs involved in making a widely accessible information good and distributing it to the increasingly larger communities (brought together by better transportation systems and more interlinked economic and political systems) muted the relative role of nonmarket production, and emphasized the role of those firms that could muster the financial and physical capital necessary to communicate on a mass scale.

Just as these large, industrial-age machine requirements increased the capital costs involved in information and cultural production, thereby triggering commercialization and concentration of much of this sector, so too ubiquitously available cheap processors have dramatically reduced the capital input costs required to fix information and cultural expressions and communicate them globally.

By doing so, they have rendered feasible a radical reorganization of our information and cultural production system, away from heavy reliance on commercial, concentrated business models and toward greater reliance on nonproprietary appropriation strategies, in particular nonmarket strategies whose efficacy was dampened throughout the industrial period by the high capital costs of effective communication.

If you want to learn what the "Romantic Maximizer" or "Mickey" models are, check out Table 2-1.

The online version of his book has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license. While the text is liberally available online, I am reading from a purchased copy of the book. As Cory Doctorow often says, free online books increase the value of the commercially available paper copies, not replace them.