Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In The Embrace Of The Ledger: Art On The Blockchain


We've been hearing that the future of music is streaming. This may be so, it certainly looks that way. A future in which music is streamed and not owned looks to be here, but its current mode of delivery through central services that operate with heavy costs, from licensing to data storage to bandwidth is an animal that feeds off venture capital and music creators with a voracious appetite and has yet to prove profitable. Anyone who doesn't limit their listening habits to the Disney assembly line of future nervous breakdowns has been witness to much hand-wringing, rending of teeth and gnashing of garments or sommat over the economics of culture creation dissipating like a fog in the mid-day sun.

Observing the tense negotiations between indie labels and aggregators with Youtube, Pandora and Spotify many issues were brought up like a bad breakfast and chewed like a bitter, ever-repeating cud that couldn't be spat out. Politicians were lobbied, Youtube has yet to unveil their music subscription service and labels joined the streaming bandwagon, withdrew their releases from streaming and few of us would be surprised to see our finest artists show up as our roofer's apprentice or begging change downtown.

In the current mode of business there is no way artists could ever get a fair share of revenues created through music unless they have a proportionate ownership in all the companies involved. I had thoughts that perhaps what little cash we artists bring in should go directly into stock in Apple and Amazon, or establishing funds that invest in not-yet-public streaming startups to get a cut of the middle man's always disproportionate share of the still enormous amount of capital flow generated by music. Maybe one thing that prevents this is what music careers and startup tech companies have in common: the high early mortality rate of music careers and tech startups. You're taking the small gains from one high-risk endeavor and placing a bet on an uncertain proposition in another. But from the point of view of the middle men, maybe giving artists an equity stake would be a better position to negotiate lower rates. This would be a reversal of capitalist practice, though, for the hands that got dirty making the widgets have always gotten the smallest share of the value generated. And one may ask if what could happen to a successful cabal of small to mid-sized labels with ownership in delivery infrastructure be but another hegemonic gatekeeper.



Economic growth post-2008 is largely in capital. Production pays less and less for those with their hands on the tools and automation will leave more and more people out of the equation of production and consumption. Each entity operating within the economy is an input into the flow of capital, and some inputs are fed back with greater returns than others. Creating the cultural artifact can be lucrative, but the reward for the creative input will tend to be a fraction of that earned through the feedback from the distributor/disseminator's input and the overall digital delivery system, the ISP's and backbone providers are more profitable still. A solution may be in the nature of networking itself. The advent of Bitcoin, more specifically the blockchain, has the potential to do for value exchange that the internet has done for communication in the last couple decades. The potential for changing the human world is exponentially greater with cryptocurrencies, for being the only creature on earth that needs Social Acceptability Tokens (money) to be allowed to be left alive, there is no aspect of human life in late capitalism that isn't inextricably tied to money. The blockchain could be a model for a distributed internet, one that makes the issue of hegemonic ISP's, net neutrality and our loss of privacy a moot issue in the bargain.

While one could advocate artists and labels buying shares in distribution platforms and retailers, extensible networks of distributed businesses and platforms could have this equity baked in from the start. Content and media could be scraped by apps, websites and platforms keeping creators in the loop automatically. Which of these apps or services survive and thrive would depend on what value is added. This value could be in curation, contextualization or something not thought of yet that could only be thought of in a new ecosystem.Bitcoin miners are paid well to handle transactions, and people enjoying and sharing music and other media through the blockchain could serve s similar function. If services built on top of the invisible blockchain, which as the technology develops will become more and more invisible, could spread rewards in both directions through using creator/listener interactions to process and verify blockchain activity.


The mining of blockchain is could be viewed as an analog of the artist in process of hir most profound original creation. Our conception of ourselves, of the universe and our role with this universe is mined in the creative process, so to speak. Philosophical and aesthetic thoughts are broken down and reassembled in new configurations, and sometimes revealing new emerging properties of thought or experience, setting off a chain of tangents of thought that could not have been realized before the initial creative spark. Where futurists and central planners of government and big business try to make projections of the future, artists can invent the future without needing the force of law or capital behind them. According to film director Werner Herzog, this reinvention of forms is the primary duty of the artist:
We need images in accordance with our civilization and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate any film that searches for novelty, no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells… The struggle to find unprocessed imagery is never-ending, but it’s our duty to dig like archaeologists and search our violated landscapes. We live in an era when established values are no longer valid, when prodigious discoveries are being made every year, when catastrophes of unbelievable proportions occur weekly. In ancient Greek the word “chaos” means “gaping void” or “yawning emptiness.” The most effective response to the chaos in our lives is the creation of new forms of literature, music, poetry, art and cinema. (Quote found on BrainPickings)
There are many projects in the works, like the Bitshares music blockchain, and there is talk of using the blockchain as DRM. I can't really see people go back to downloading after becoming accustomed to the convenience and reduced need of storage offered by streaming. The thing is that crypto can behave in ways not possible for fiat. There could be something beyond the horizon that will transcend  transactional concepts. Bitshares with their DAC (Distributed Autonomous Companies) may open up new directions or not, but I'll be watching their development with interest. Perhaps it can be taken in a direction that is less transactional and more invisibly systemic. What may be useful would be that if every time one listens to or shares a track, the action contributed to the network, perhaps linking it to seeding the file on the network and receiving Satoshis in return. This could be a system that rewards creators and keeps the user engaged and rewarded. In fact there are projects working on placing any number of things on the blockchain, from DNS (Namecoin) to global governance (BitNation). People will not start buying music again, but a system that functions more like Popcorn Time, built on bittorrent that incorporates crypto could be a seamless way of distributing music and perhaps enable combining different media in engaging new and seamless ways. This is all speculation, but creators and programmers sharing ideas is what's needed.

We had the gold standard, we have the petrodollar and a huge geopolitical morass created to prop up the petrodollar. Currency in great concentration represents power, and how currency is distributed beyond the large concentrated clusters represents a topology of that of which power approves, or not, in varying degrees. Currency and the power it represents has distilled down to a reductive role, where previously in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, currency played a role of facilitation that opened possibilities and allowed for new ways of structuring society that for a while enabled social mobility, revolutions and new roles for every person in society within the framework of nation states.

The reductive power of fiat currency in late capitalism manifests in capital's ability to become attached to everything the human world touches. This looks like a calcification of a system that previously had greater potential to incorporate more dynamic movement in capital and cultural interactions. Nestle looking at water with a Bond villain's intent of monopoly and profit is perfectly natural, if not inevitable within this system as it petrifies into its final stage. It just took this long to get around to water as a resource for which capitalists can seek rent, and should this claim be secured and defended with military might, the natural progress of the system would leave room for no alternative but that air would follow. And to claim tolls on all classical elements would be to find a way to charge a price for access to the Aether, since we are already paying rent for Earth and Fire (fuel)... We're standing on a precipice economically and environmentally, but it is just at such moments history is most likely to turn in unexpected directions. We have a rare opportunity to reevaluate how currency behaves and even what human exchange of value means. This calls for taking thinking and creation beyond the vanguard of programming and art, in a direction that would by necessity leave any involvement or consideration for late capitalist reward and control systems out of the mix. Economics and society have already transcended the mode of fixed edifices and are more about movement and interactions. Nothing we do can take us back to a state where we are all part of a Cartesian machine of commerce.



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