Dissertation Draft: Copyright, Social Networking and Commissioning Music

When I started at Birmingham, I was in
the midst of a project where in I was soliciting commissions of
pieces of music around one minute in length. My plan was originally
to compose 45 of these in total and release an album at the end. I
intend to pick up where I left off and finish the project after

This project was an attempt to get a
bit of attention and to address some economic and political issues of
music distribution. The amount of music available to listeners only
continues to rise. Every day, somebody records something and makes
it available in a digital format. The cost of providing copies to
consumers is practically nil. Any composer can upload an mp3 to
last.fm or bandcamp at no cost. (“Bandcamp Pricing”)

Because copying and distribution is so
cheap and easy, consumers often share files without paying for them.
The Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA] struck back
against this by suing fans (“For Students Doing Reports”), an
idea which seemed poorly thought out and which has made them
extremely unpopular. (Reisinger) At the same time, the duration of
copyright keeps being extended, seemingly so that Mickey Mouse will
never fall into the public domain. (Springman) What used to be a
system to make sure that creators got their fair share is
increasingly perceived as a way for big companies to control culture.
(Lessig 61) Rather than adapt to new conditions, media companies are
lobbying for new laws to force the genie back in the bottle. (Lessig
48) Some of these, like the Digital Economy Act are fairly draconian
in that households may have their internet switched off if only one
member of the household breaks copyright law. (Digital Economy Act s.
10) Despite the severity of this crackdown, many are skeptical it
will make any difference. (“Q&A: The Digital Economy bill”)
Rather than adapt to changing conditions, powerful,
politically-connected media companies are abusing state power. Their
position is morally bankrupt and their claims of victimhood are
laughably overstated. The RIAA tells students that sharing an mp3 is
worse than maritime hostage-taking: “It’s commonly known as
‘piracy,’ but that’s too benign of a term to adequately describe
the toll that music theft takes . . ..” (“For Students Doing

It seems clear that copyright is in
crisis and in need of a major reform. However, the crisis of
copyright does not diminish the notion of authorship. Those engaged
in online music sharing still are deeply invested in who

created the work they’re copying. Artists that chose to
participate in Open Culture models, such as Creative Commons are not
ceding their work to the public domain, but instead protecting the
rights of their fans. (“Frequently Asked Questions”) An artist
choosing this model may be potentially sacrificing some forms of
revenue, but for most emerging artists, getting heard is far more
important than protecting rights which may
one day generate income. Even for successful artists like Bob
Ostertag, this income has failed to materialise. He writes,
“[S]elling recordings in whatever format has been a break-even
proposition at best.” (Ostertag)

However, artists
still need to eat and pay rent. Sustainability is a major concern,
but, economic support for non-mainstream composers will not be coming
from record labels. Indeed, they have historically worked against
the interests of composers. In 2001, composer Judy Dunaway wrote:

Of course, the recording industry does not care at all about
contemporary and experimental music. The sales figures on such CDs
are miniscule compared to popular music. In the words of Foster Reed
at the New Albion label, "The corporate recording industry lives
in a completely different world, of commodity and markets, than the
independents do, who make and publish work that is near and dear to
them." But accessibility to innovative music on the internet may
be blocked by the record industry’s rush to protect and maintain
total control of its own high-profit intellectual property.

Composers are thus
left to their own devices when it comes to both generating revenue
and attracting listeners. Without a budget for publicity, one of the
best ways to gather attention is by word of mouth “buzz.” Social
networking is one venue where this can happen, which has the
advantage of the possibility of fast transmission and direct links to
online content. I suspect people may be motivated to share music they
like or find interesting because it gains them cultural capital. They
would thus take on a curatorial role and hope to gain the respect of
their friends and social contacts. A musician interested in using
this as a path to wider recognition would need to create music that
works in an online context. For example he or she might want to
include video content, so it can be uploaded to YouTube or create
music that the sharer will identify with in some way. They may also
produce music with the goal of having it sound good in stereo mp3
format out of home speakers. The music should be engineered for the
playback environment in which it is expected to be heard. The music
created must also be accessible in some way, although, obviously an
artist wishes to remain interesting.

In my case, I chose
duration as my most accessible component. All of my pieces in this
project are around one minute long. I strongly suspect that if you
ask most people to listen to ten minutes of noise music, they would
refuse unless they were already fans of the genre or the composer.
However, in my experience, people are much more willing to sacrifice
a minute of their time. Many more people are going to be willing to
listen to very short pieces. However, just because people will
listen to something does not mean they will share it. I thought
sharing would be more likely to occur if listeners felt connected to
the music in some way. One way to get that feeling of connection was
to get a listener to commission me.

The commissioner
gets their name attached to a short piece of music, which becomes
integrally linked to them. The piece of music would not exist if it
were not for their financial involvement. This, in return gives them
cultural capital. They are the proprietor of a new piece of music.
This also solves the dilemma of sustainability. The commissioning
amount should cover costs, at least. The commissioner would be
motivated to share their new piece of music as far and wide as they
can, as every re-sharing increases their own cultural capital.
Instead of fighting the online sharing that people seem inclined to
do, this model requires it and does not require coercive action on
the part of the state.

I started by using
eBay as my sales platform. This allowed me to control how many
commissions I might sell at a time, handle the monetary transaction
and the platform itself made the commissioners feel engaged and
interested some music press. (“Music Commissioning on eBay”)
Much to my surprise, a bidding war erupted on one of my early
offerings, despite the promise of many more to come. However, before
that bidding war could conclude, eBay terminated my account, banning
me from the service. They refused to tell me why they had done this,
so I don’t know if it was because they suspected fraud or because
they objected to my business model. I moved to Etsy, a much less
exciting web store where users sell craft items and resumed.

the course of my project, several people did share their short pieces
via their blogs, facebook or another online medium. One person used
her piece as her ringtone. In 2008, I approached a popular blogger,
Josh Fruhlinger of The Comics Curmudgeon
and asked if he would trade me advertising space for a free
commission. His blog had been ranked #13 by PC Magazine’s “100
Favorite Blogs for 2007” (Heater) and won a Webby Award in 2008 for
Best Humor Blog. (“Best Humor Blog”) His blog was also popular
with composers and was mentioned on Kyle Gann’s blog (Gann) and
others. Fruhlinger agreed to this plan and I composed a short piece
related the the American comic strip Gil Thorp. In order to cope
with the expected server traffic, I created a very simple video of
the face of the titular character slowly zooming in with the piece as
soundtrack and uploaded it to YouTube.
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p__XzqnLDCQ) My small advertisement
ran for a week and then Fruhlinger made a post specifically about the
piece. He was very positive, using words like “stunning” and
“masterpiece.” (Fruhlinger) The video got 4000 views in a very
short period of time. However, despite how happy Fruhlinger was and
some positive comments from his readers such as, “I stand amazed,”
(commodorejohn) this got me no new

Does this mean that
the model fails? I had predicted that I would get some new
commissions out of such a high profile endorsement, but didn’t.
There are a few possible explanations. Consumers may be unused to the
idea of commissioning a composer. In my brief stint in marketing, I
was told that consumers do not absorb an idea until they encounter it
multiple times. This was just one post. Or, conversely, it could have
been their lack of familiarity with me. A better known composer may
have fared better. It may also have been the economy, which was not
doing well at the time and has since gotten worse. Commissioning
music is a luxury and one that might seem eccentric and easy to

Marketing this
project is actually quite difficult. I found I could do three
commissions in a week. There is no way I could cope with the volume
that mass-market success would imply. Therefore, going after
high-profile general subject bloggers is not the way to draw in new
customers, as success could be as much a disaster as failure.
However, it is a way to draw in new listeners. Most of the visitors
to the blog would not have heard my piece otherwise. My attempts at
an accessible duration did pay off, even if social media buzz didn’t
gain me new customers. Making a piece for one person motivates that
one person to share it, but it does not motivate his or her friends
to share it also.

Musically, I was
interested in very short pieces because of the 60×60 Project, in
which I had participated. I found it very frustrating to make a pice
so short. While my piece Clocker had been accepted, I did not
feel happy with it. I started listening to very short pieces, for
example, tracks from the albums Haikus Urbanis and Snakes
and Ladders
, to get into the right mindset.

When constructing
my very short pieces, I’ve found that it’s best to have three closely
related ideas, and three overdubbed mono tracks. A minute is too long
to only have one idea, but too short to go through a lot of material.
There is also not a lot of time for major density changes, unless
that is the focus of the piece. As I worked on this project, I found
that a minute began to seem longer and longer. A composer could
easily fit over a hundred discrete events in a minute.

In my portfolio, I
have included several of these pieces, listed here with their
programme notes:

Shorts #29: Raining Up

and titled by Autumn Looijen

This piece was created using a MOTM
synthesiser and mixed in Ardour.
There were several false starts. I had been doing field recordings of
storms and for a while, every artificial sound I made seemed to also
sound like weather. The title Autumn chose seems to indicate that I
didn’t quite get away from weather-related sounds.

Shorts #28: Untitled
by Cecile Moochnek

I wasn’t looking for a
commission when I walked into the Cecile
Moochnek Gallery
on 4th Street in Berkeley, California. I was
looking to do Christmas shopping. But I got talking to the gallery
owner about art and music and she asked me to write her a short
piece. This was in December of 2007. I wrote the piece in 2008.

I made this piece with a Evenfall MiniModular Synthesiser. This
was an all-in-one box modular synthesiser from the 1990′s. It’s a
great little synth.

Shorts #27:
Gil Thorp
and titled by Josh Fruhlinger

Josh gave me the title before I
started the piece. Gil Thorp is the name of a surreal American
newspaper comic which is supposed to be about high school sports.
Josh runs a blog discussing newspaper comics, called the Comics
I recorded (British) football from my TV, which included my
housemate clapping after a goal. Then, I decided to use white noise,
because it’s very similar to crowd sounds. I filtered it a lot to
make sort of screetchy sounds. The football announcers didn’t
exactly have the accent that I would expect Marty Moon to have, so I
kept them in the background. My girlfriend said that it struck her as
very Mark Trail-like, so I raised the volume of the background at the
end, to make the sports connection clearer.

Bird-like sounds remind me of high school sports, but that’s
probably because my high school had a terrible seagull infestation.

Shorts #26: Ecstatic Rivulet
and titled by Clyde Nielsen

For this piece, I wanted to use a
field recording that I made while camping over the summer. Visually,
the campground looked like it would make a suitable set for a horror
movie. The animals were correspondingly loud and screetchy at night
and so I made a recording with my cell phone.
I listened to the recording a few times and it made me think of
a project that I had intended to abandon. Everything I do with this
always sounds kind of rough and unpolished, which is why I stopped
working with it. But it seems to fit well with my memory of that

Shorts #25: Untitled
by Scott Wilson

approached for a title for this piece, Scott
noted that the piece has a “flatulent quality,” but it would be
better to resist referencing that in a title.
To make this piece, I recorded myself playing a bovine signaling
horn and a didjeridu, both of which I ran through a Sherman
filterbank to use as FX. There’s also a little bit of feedback,
especially the very last sounds. Processing a didgeridu turns out to
be much more straightforward and easy than processing a cow horn.

Shorts #24: College Promo

and titled by Jean Sirius

wanted to something that started out serious, but got more playful
further in. The opening is square waves, which are pulse-width
modulated and slightly frequency modulated. While I was recording
them, my dog was sleeping nearby. She started barking in her sleep.
The almost never barks when she’s awake, but when she’s asleep,
she barks quiet, air, high pitched barks which cause her snout to
slightly inflate, since she doesn’t open her mouth. Maybe she’s
actually dreaming of chasing pigeons? The sleep-barking sounded
really great with the music! I couldn’t record my dog without
accidentally waking her, so instead I tried to mimic the sound with a
Sherman filterbank. I failed miserably, but I like the sounds that I
got. Every time I use this instrument, I have a little more fun with
it and like it a little bit more. It’s frustrating at first, but
the effort is paying off.

Shorts #23: Gamut
and titled by Devin Hurd

piece was made with a MOTM analogue synthesiser.


“Bandcamp Pricing.” Bandcamp.
Web. 12 August 2011. <https://bandcamp.com/pricing>

“Best Humor Blog.” The 2008
Weblog Awards.
31 December 2008.
Web. 11 August 2011.


comment on “Metapost: I sing the body beefy.” The
Comics Curmudgeon
. 15 April
2008. Web. 11 August 2011.

Digital Economy Act 2010 s. 10. UK.
Web. 11 August 2011.

Dunaway, Judy. “The MP3 Phenomena and
Innovative Music.” ZKM. 9
April 2001. Web. 11 August 2001.


“For Students Doing Reports.” RIAA-
Recording Industry Association of America
Web. 11 August 2011. <http://www.riaa.com/faq.php>

Asked Questions.” Creative Commons. 28
July 2011. Web. 11 August 2011.

Fruhlinger, Josh.
“Metapost: I sing the body beefy.” The Comics Curmudgeon.
15 April 2008. Web. 11 August 2011. <http://joshreads.com/?p=1519>

Kyle. “Seriously Off-Topic.” PostClassical: Kyle Gann
on music after the fact
. Arts
Journal. 29 April 2007. Web. 11 August 2011.

Haikus Ubranis.
Cavel2Disks, 1997. CD.

Brain. “Our 100 Favorite Blogs.” PC Magazine.
15 October 2007. Web. 11 August 2011.

Lawrence. “Free Culture – How Big Media Uses Technology and the
Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.” SiSU
information Structuring Universe
University of Oslo: The Faculty of Law. 2004. Web. 11 August 2011.

Commissioning on eBay.” PodComplex.

14 April 2007. Web. 11 August 2011.

Ostertag, Bob. “The
Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician.”
QuestionCopyright.org. 9 April 2007. Web. 11 August 2001.

The Digital Economy bill.” BBC News.

9 April 2010. Web. 11 August 2011.

Don. “The RIAA speaks – and it gets worse.” Cnet.
14 January 2008. Web. 11 August 2011.

Rubin, Neal and Whigham, Rod. Gil
. GoComics.com. Web. 11
August 2011. <http://www.gocomics.com/gilthorp/>

Slaw. Snakes and Ladders.
Doubtful Palace, 2002. CD.

Springman, Chris. “The Mouse that Ate
the Public Domain: Disney, The Copyright Term Extension Act, and
Eldred v. Ashcroft.”
FindLaw. 5 March 2002.
Web. 11 August 2001.

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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