The future of online art? YouTube, the Kaiser Chiefs and Imogen Heap redefine the meaning of ‘audience’

Two new exciting pieces of music-related news which seem somehow connected.

On 2 June, YouTube introduced the option for uploaders and remixers to use the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY).

Read more on Boingboing who says:

At launch, YouTube reps told me over the phone earlier today, only the one license optionwill be available (as opposed to, say, a choice from multiple license classes which include options to disallow commercial re-use). The thinking, they said, is to start simple. M multiple license classes might be overwhelmingly complex for casual users for whom this may be a first introduction to Creative Commons, the logic goes. The folks at Youtube behind the project consulted with people at Creative Commons. Not sure I agree, but it’s a step in a good direction, and I applaud that.

As I am not at all an expert on new media, I don’t offer you my commentary but instead selections from two polar comments from  the article. David Pescovitz thinks YouTube is doing the wrong thing:

I think it’s ridiculous that YouTube offers only one CC license, specifically one that permits others to make commercial use of your work. The whole purpose of CC is to provide a very simple framework for a spectrum of “some rights reserved” licenses. IMO, YouTube’s approach defeats the purpose of CC. Flickr’s CC integration is a good example of what YouTube could have done.

…while radicalbytes summarises a positive view:

[…] the non-commercial option ends up being very useful because it gives me some small amount of leverage to discourage or challenge people trying to leech off my videos in non-derivative, non-critical and non-educational ways. While fair use (or fair dealing) still allows for many of the tangentially commercial uses you mention.

The second piece of news was about the Kaiser Chiefs (by the way, for some unknown reason, their website does not come up in a Google search).

Kaiser Chiefs

They have just released their new album, The Future is Medieval (sic.), without any prior publicity whatsoever, and using an entirely new marketing concept.  Buyers can listen to snippets of 20 songs on the website, compile their own selection of 10 songs, and choose the artwork for the album cover.  They also get their own page on the Kaiser Chiefs’ website on which they can share their customised versions with other fans and get £1 for each one they sell.  I do not find it surprising that a band wants to give its fans choice, or to sell more albums using a new approach.  What is interesting is that fans are encouraged to exercise choice, and they are encouraged to do so using a combination of monetary gain and the opportunity to participate in the production: not only can you shape your album, but you also have the potential (although not overly likely) opportunity to sell it to other fans who do not wish to divert themselves with jigsaw puzzles, but simply want the music here, now.  One result is that fans are thus automatically divided into two categories: the active builders and the passive perceivers. Admittedly (even the Kaiser Chiefs admit this in an interview on one of the BBC radio stations yesterday), most probably fewer people will buy ready-made albums.  But they don’t know this for sure, and it will be exciting to find out.

Of course, many other artists have already been involving their fans in the creation of their art.  British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap is a notable example:

Imogen Heap at Birmingham Academy 2006. Photo: Lee Jordan (Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Imogen Heap at Birmingham Academy 2006. Photo: Lee Jordan (Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Imogen communicates with her fans through numerous online channels and shares publicly minute details of the writing and recording of her songs; and in March this year she began preparing a new record based on 900 “sound seeds”, or samples of everyday sounds such as a “dishwasher door”, a “bicycle” or a “burning match”, all sent to her by fans.

YouTube, the Chiefs, Imogen Heap and many other artists are thus, to my mind, contributing to a subtle but powerful shift in the meaning of the concept of “audience”.  They are not inventing or imposing new responsibilities on the “consumers’ of music” * – but recognising the already existing drive towards audience activation through listener’s involvement in its creation.  On a larger scale, this is also a shift back to syncretic art which has always been around, but was somewhat muted during the industrial peak of the XX century and the rise of the mass-produced culture industry.

I am pretty sure that Adorno and Horkheimer (who wrote that awesome article unveiling the ugly skeleton behind the pretty face of the culture industry) would have bought the Kaiser Chiefs’ album. Even I am tempted.

Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor W. Adorno, notable members of the Frankfurt School of Sociology

Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor W. Adorno, notable members of the Frankfurt School of Sociology

* While I personally disagree with the pervasive use of `empowering’ words such as `consumers’ or `users’ for anything these days, I use it because music here is clearly a market, as well as art.

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