Music, or the Triumph of Technics?

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In most fields of human endeavor, increasing computerization has been accompanied by some kind of critical evaluation of the possibilities that technology affords and those that it forecloses, of the potential good or harm that attends technological mediation. But in music, arguably the field of human experience most profoundly transformed by the new digital technologies, this type of examination has yet to take place. Rather, it seems that if the technology provides a specific capability, it is inherently good, or it must become the new standard. I am not suggesting that there is nothing worthwhile in the new musical situation – it would be difficult, having worked in the music business for many years, to mourn a system that limited the range of music possibilities that reached the market or that routinely denied creative artists the financial rewards of their work. But to claim that new developments are inherently democratic or that they constitute a form of freedom obscures, rather than illuminates, the underlying social conditions and aesthetic ramifications. Music’s material integration with the new technology has been largely accomplished. The question is whether or not technological mastery itself is becoming the dominant criterion of aesthetic value.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently appeared on CounterSpin (1/6/12) to talk about SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). In the course of her remarks, she made a concise statement of the prevailing common sense:

“… what’s also troubling is this claim that you hear over and over, that in our brave new world, artists can no longer survive. And that’s empirically untrue. In fact what we are seeing is that more people are more able to get their creative expression out to a broader public than ever before. And the artists that are taking advantage of new technologies are doing just fine. The folks that aren’t doing as well are the old media companies that are committed to an old business model…. that’s organized around finding the next Lady Gaga and the next Britney Spears. But if you are in fact an artist or if you’re a . . .

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