Category: Rants and Ruminations

So far I’ve seen fit only to let select Creative Commons music filter through onto the page, but the time has come now for me to promote my favorite resources. With these resources, a person could if they were so inclined begin their own exploration of what’s available for free out there.

A good first place to start is at the source. The Creative Commons website doesn’t just explain and promote the license, it also has a selection of links to help people start looking for works licensed under CC. This can help familiarize people with the culture, and the directions it’s taking.

Next up is a website responsible for the last two artists I reviewed, The Comfort Stand. This website is a small affair, essentially a browsing ground for a modest collective of artists. While the website appears stagnant, only offering new material when one of their preselected artists releases another album, The Comfort Stand is nevertheless stocked with several quality musicians, and I recommend giving them a once over.

Did I mention the direction the culture is taking? Then for a more in depth exploration I definitely recommend checcking out CCMixter. Harder to navigate for those not in the know, what CCMixter does best is promote samples for reuse. While the pure patron can find songs, even albums, to peruse here, the real target audience is for the up and coming sampler or mix artist, looking for open source sound and samples to work with. The result is that those looking for full albums (or even on occasion complete songs,) may have to wade through a bunch of strange samples, bleeps and bloops, but if the bleeps and bloops is what you were going for in the first place, then you’re set!

The sheer size of it may overwhelm many, but it never hurts to pay a visit to the Internet Archives. This vast library of public domain works stretching back for decades has a huge music and sound archive where all manner of unusual treasures can be unearthed, from the spoken word poetry of yesteryear to Grateful Dead live recordings. More of the information here falls simply under the “Free” as opposed to “Creative Commons” category, but that simply makes it all that much more accessible!

Finally, the resource of resources for the CC music patron, I present Jamendo. This massive and constantly expanding archive hosts thousands of artists of every genre and nationality, all putting out songs and in most cases full, extended play albums for anyone to delve through. Most of the artists I review come from or end up on Jamendo, and any music lover could lose weeks scrolling through their archives. Jamendo is a resource that helps legitimize the entire concept of free music.

Whether you’re a broke college student who can rarely afford to legally upgrade their music collection, a connoisseur on the lookout for some rare new taste, or an artist yourself looking for materials that might both inspire and provide substance for your own works, these resources will all put you well on the right track.

So how wide spread is Creative Commons use? Start digging around and many people might be surprised to find out just how much popular culture they explore is Creative Commons licensed. Beyond an increasing number of online blogs, people can find the Creative Commons logo aside flickr picture galleries, numerous musical archives and even well known collectives like Wikipedia. The popularity s growing, so what are the perceived benefits?

Some have already been explored here in prior rants, but others certainly exist, and perhaps none is more persuasive than the simple notion of self publishing. Self publishing is a phrase many people use, but there’s a difference between producing and publishing, creating and protecting. It is extremely easy to self produce artistic works, and even distribute them, in the modern age, especially if you’re willing to allow free access. Protecting them is another matter. A person can state that the work has been copyrighted under any trademark they like, but if they are allowing free access to the material then it’s extremely difficult to defend against any exploitation, a difficultly only compounded if the trademark in question isn’t protected by a pack of quality lawyers.

Creative Commons handles the legalese for people, with a variety of specific publishing licenses which can distinguish who can use what and under what conditions, thus allowing the work to be shared while still limiting exploitation. This means that people can truly self publish, not merely in the act of printing, but in the act of legally protecting their creations. Why a person might want this is cited over at Spreading Science:

“A difficulty with scientific presentations is that the copyrights of the graphs and figures are not even owned by the person who did the work. Scientists have historically turned over all copyrights to the publisher in order to get published in the first place. If you want to get published, you had to relinquish all rights. “

Scientific work is a good example of information which is more useful shared, and built upon, then hoarded for profit. But to receive any compensation or credit for work, scientists too often have to relinquish control of it. Creative Commons offers a chance for these people to retain both recognition and control, which means they can more easily allow other scientists to study, cite and reproduce their work. This has obvious benefits for the entire field, as well as any society that prospers from its findings.

Perhaps more importantly, Creative Commons, by encouraging people to reference an artist’s work, can aid in building a professional portfolio in the early stages of a career. Over at The Blog Herald this concept is discussed in relationship to the written word :

“Having a CC license offers encouragement for that kind of reuse and lets anyone interested in reusing some of your text that you are fine with it. Though the lack of a CC license may not stop many people from quoting you who was going to do so previously, it does encourage others to quote more from your site, talk more about it and link more to your work than they might have otherwise. “

This can be equally profound in other art forms. A friend and photographer, Clinton Steeds, licenses his work on On a few occasions, publishers have requested, and received, permission to use photographs of his for illustrations in or even as the cover of books going to press. While he has earned no money for this as of yet, his professional portfolio, not to mention his professional contacts, have both grown positively.

For the up and coming artist, professional scientist, motivated humanitarian, or collaborative collective, Creative Commons is a simple but effective means to publish and share information, promoting yourself in your profession while increasing the resources of that profession and society in general without the same risks of exploitation or plagiarism. The ease of its implementation and the benefits to the producer, not to mention its comparative legal potency compared to home brewed attempts, ensure that CC’s usage can only expect to become more widely spread in the near future.

Making an honest-to-god living as a musician isn’t just hard, it’s the kind of struggle that epic tails of heroism and tragedy are born from. Living off your music is so difficult that it’s become an archetype, the starving artist, the struggling house act, that band that ‘almost’ made it big. In the information age such success has only become harder as music suddenly saturates the very air around us, a swelling sea of digital broadcasts as every person with a Casio keyboard begins producing, producing producing.

Plenty of that flood is produced and distributed for free. Services like Youtube, Myspace or Jamendo, to name a few, offer up-and-coming artists a chance to display their potential in hopes of ‘going viral,’ that sudden, inexplicable wave of flash-in-the-pan popularity. Unfortunately, such artists are rare, and even among commercially sponsored artists, such fads rarely turn into sustainable riches. In the meantime all this new information makes finding the gems amidst the wreckage that much harder. It becomes increasingly difficult for musicians to generate the kind of patronage necessary to create art as a career, particularly those musicians who elect to forgo conventional profit and give their albums away for free.

At The Technium, Kevin Kelly explores the problems associated with musical success, coining the concept of what he refers to as the 1000 True Fans. The 1000 True Fans idea suggests that (more or less) 1000 true fans, which Kelly defines as, “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” will create a sufficient financial base for an artist to produce art for a living. At that stage, funding becomes reliable, and the artist need not produce hits, go viral, etc. to enjoy a respectable income. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

There are several recent examples of the 1000 True Fans hypothesis at work. In 2007 the band Radiohead released their album In Rainbows using a pay-what-you-want format, which lasted for three months before reverting to a more traditional sales method. Despite the majority of listeners acquiring the album for free, sufficient true fans existed to push the album’s sales beyond their prior release, Hail to the Thief. A year later Nine Inch Nails released The Slip, a Creative Commons licensed album which is still available for free today. Despite being free, the album has sold over 98,000 copies at retail value, as well as achieving top 50 rankings on a variety of popular charts, including 13th on the Billboard 200. (“In Rainbows.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. , “The Slip (album).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

Both bands subsequently expressed disappointment in the process, but as they are established bands these examples demonstrate the potential power of the 1000 True Fans. It’s also worth noting that these ‘comparative’ failures would, to most musicians, be considered unparalleled successes and would certainly constitute an ability to work as career musicians. The problem, of course, is developing that fan base in the first place, a problem especially difficult for artists which don’t manage to earn corporate sponsorship.

One big step in creating and maintaining such a base, Kelly points out, is finding a way to reach out and establish consistent contact with your fans. This is easy enough for those who have managed to find corporate sponsorship. At that point the industry does most of the work, work like setting up tours, advertising new albums and other kinds of public promotion. For the rest there is only the information waves, casting your works into the internet like a message in a bottle and hoping it washes up on a well populated shore. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

This is where the incentive to use a free-use license like Creative Commons can make a difference. Precious few are going to pay money to find out whether a random artist is worth listening to. Even a few free sample songs will rarely be sufficient to convince someone they should become a true fan. Downloading and listening to an album for free, however, is considerably easier and fiscally risk-free. A collection of well mastered albums, freely available, can quickly find their way into someone’s collection, and their heart.

And to be sure, there are artists that have made this a successful model. Some, like the previously reviewed Diablo Swing Orchestra, play both sides, releasing some albums for free via Creative Commons and others for purchase only. Other acts, like a band I’ll soon be reviewing, the excellent German group Jammin’ Inc., rely on live concerts, their free albums serving as kind of a heavy handed advertising to woe fans who will regularly attend (and pay for,) the shows.

Creative Commons licensing, then, offers an alternative method by which those artists unable, or disinterested in, retaining conventional corporate sponsorship may develop the kind of devoted fans needed to commit themselves to a career as artists. Concepts like Creative Commons may, in fact, be vital in allowing such artists to distribute and advertise their work in an affordable but effective manner without being at risk of having their works simply stolen by others. It also puts the artist in greater control, with more say in how their art is (or isn’t,) used, and enjoying a greater share of any foreseeable profit for the works they’ve created. The struggle to achieve financial success as an artist may not have gotten easier, but Creative Commons helps make the struggle, and the rewards, so much more the artist’s own.

Welcome to the Information Age. Moving from stone to iron and through a few possible goldens, humanity as a whole has now combined into the first truly universal age of man, one in which information, more than anything, defines us. Information serves not just as a commodity or a tool but as a standard for wealth, power, even cultural success. As the importance of information grows, so do the efforts to control it. Information wars wage in countless theaters, as we struggle to define concepts like intellectual property rights, fair use and public domain.

Many people see the battle as nothing greater than two factions of extremists, those who would attempt to hoard and dominate all information for personal profit, and those that will happily steal any information they can lay their hands on without thought to the consequences. Without wanting to go into the details of that debate, it’s important to understand that there is far more at stake, foremost being the potential for information to grow via collaboration and reinterpretation.

A brilliant example of the collaborative potential of the information age are the almost emergent remixes done by the artist Kutiman for his project Thru-YOU. This first mix, The Mother of All Funk Chords, was an instant internet success and the entire project has enjoyed over 20 million views.

As corporate industry pushes for stronger, longer and more rigid commercial licensing, collaborative concepts like thru-YOU become increasingly difficult. Information enjoys less use, and less development. The potential of information is diminished, and the benefits we as a society can derive from it are likewise diminished, at a necessarily exponential level. In short, the more information is hoarded, the less the amount or quality of information society will enjoy.

But rather than take the extremist approach and declare revolution on the information industries, (not to mention the laws that support them,) a third alternative has emerged. Creative Commons, an organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred with the support of the Center for the Public Domain, offers licensing resources which allow artists and designers to retain intellectual and even commercial control over their works while still allowing those works to be re-explored and used collaboratively by other creative minds. CC is growing increasingly popular among those who recognize the benefits, both personally and culturally, that can be derived through publicly shared information.

What such licensing freedom allows is much greater growth potential for information. But there are cons as well, things corporate licensing and control frankly do better. First and foremost is profit. Corporate sponsorship means distribution, advertisement and exposure. This makes it easier for creators to make careers out of their creations, especially when it comes to artistic endeavors. The second, which is to some degree an aspect of the first, is that it served as a filter. Industrial information control helps do the dirty work of narrowing down the pool of information we have to sift through to find what we want.

With free expression comes a lot of people expressing themselves, something that has only grown easier as the information age makes producing information, from software to music, literal child’s play. Filtering through the oceans of free information to find that tiny fraction that is quality can be a harrowing, fatiguing process most traditionally left up to for-profit organizations. Many people frankly don’t have the time or endurance to scour creative commons for, as an example, new musical arists to enjoy.

The purpose of atthecommons then, is to attempt to help shore up, in some small way, these two explicit weaknesses. The mission is to critically review Creative Commons licensed music, most specifically music that can be acquired and enjoyed by patrons for free. However this will not be done at random, and there will be no time devoted to negative reviews. Instead, I will be attempting to isolate and critique artists who have, as best I can determine, achieved some exceptional level of quality, artists who can be compared favorably to commercial artists in similar genres. In doing this I hope not only to help people more easily find artists they might enjoy, but also to increase the fan bases of these artists, which in turn might help increase the chances that they can make a living doing what they do so well, creating.