Collateral Damage

The Wire has been running an interesting series of columns called Collateral Damage in recent months — mostly in response to a provocative piece written by Kenneth Goldsmith celebrating the apparent triumph of quantity over quality in downloading cultures of the musical variety.  My own response to the issue is published in the latest issue of the magazine — you can read the column here.

The most important points I wanted to make in the column are: that copying in music didn’t begin with Napster, it’s essential to any musical culture or practice; that there’s something utopian about the current situation in which anyone with a computer has access to almost any sound recording made; that the resulting erosion of revenues from the sales of musical recordings isn’t in itself a valid reason to insist on more stringent intellectual property laws, which might in theory reduce the amount of copying of music, even if they (debatably) support indie music scenes.  Music scenes, indie or not are part of a broader economy and an economic crisis that affects most workers today. Music and sound are part of a global commons — they belong, or should belong, to everyone, and the challenge is to ensure that our economy and political systems support that commons.

Last paragraph: “One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to such questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.”

UPDATE: Kirkley has written a beautiful piece on his blog Sahel Sounds describing the details of a Saharan mp3 market.


  1. Very interesting, and much needed. Thank you for contextualizing not only “the culture of copying” in music and art but also the industries current woes within the broader economic landscape, and a much needed inclusion of a broader critique of capitalism and the commodity.

    I’d add that the quantity over quality aspect of Ken’s argument should be discussed in greater depth. I find it fascinating, and quite telling, that for many of us the impulse has become one of archiving. At just the moment in which we can store a relatively infinite amount of music on increasingly smaller devices, and in which the distribution of music has become relatively frictionless, the archive and the curator have begun to emerge as prominent archetypes. It seems to me that there is something more going on here than just the decline of an industry’s paradigm.

  2. marcus3001 says:

    I agree, Joseph, it’s almost as tho the collection now takes precedence over the individual object (song, record, performance etc.). And we don’t yet quite know how to inhabit a world with that kind of abundance … well, actually, post hip-hop musicians and other folks have figured out how to inhabit it … but our laws and economies haven’t.