Forfeiting Rights in Exchange for Access

A recent study showed that a majority of Americans polled believed it was “not acceptable” to forfeit personal information in return for free access to a social media platform which then uses that same personal information to create targeted advertising. So why is it that a nearly equal majority of Americans use Facebook, perhaps the leading entity in the commodification of personal information? Simply, we have allowed invasive technologies to permeate our lives without much regard for how or to what ends they work. But that’s not to say it’s incumbent on us to seek this knowledge. Rather, it is the responsibility of powerful companies like Facebook and Google to provide us with accessible resources which elucidate their practices, especially when they rely on us to provide their business model. Admittedly, Facebook does provide a pretty walkthrough on its privacy guidelines (prettily buried in the site), but one would be remiss to trust that as an ultimate source. For instance, in 2010, an Austrian law student discovered that the depth of the data Facebook had compiled on him exceeded 1,000 pages, which even included deleted content.

Collage by Charlotte Forbes

Consider that every node of your activity on the internet can be monetized by the arbiters of the infrastructures which facilitate this interactivity. This monetization, whether of communications metadata or your Liked pages, exists solely to entrench these modes of interaction, thereby empowering those who oversee the interaction. As Astra Taylor advises in her 2014 book, The People’s Platform, “Many of the Silicon Valley enterprises that have been variously presented as technologically innovative and exciting — not just Google but also Yahoo!, AOL, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Tumblr, Pandora, and so on — depend almost entirely on the advertising dollar, if only by commodifying and monetizing the attention of their users and their personal information.” All of your activity which takes place within this infrastructure (i.e. that of the major social media players) directly contributes to the hegemony thereof, precisely because the activity itself is the commodity from which the aforementioned corporations draw the majority of their profits.

This prevailing model takes obvious cues from abusers of copyright, such as major record labels and publishers. Both contexts require some sort of personal forfeiture while acquiring access to some form of service or potential benefit. Where Facebook requires your personal information, you gain access to a network. Where a record label holds the rights to the recordings of your music, you (hopefully) gain access to money, or perhaps a wider audience, as well as ostensible protection from plagiarism. In both situations, the forfeiture of personal works or information is effectively an exchange of rights for permissions, ultimately bolstering the power that facilitated the exchange.

Given the exploitative nature of this framework, our intention is to transparently sample copyrighted material that we may demonstrate the cultural malleability, corporate futility, and artistically stifling nature of capitalist machinations such as fair use, while simultaneously offering what equates to a free and open source project. Ideas such as fair use, while permitting a degree of “fair” access to a work, only serve to acquiesce to the greater power structures here in play. Likewise, operating and existing in a space such as Facebook only serves the ends which prevent the democratization of cyberspace(s), especially when we, for example, pay Facebook to boost our posts, which is increasingly the only reliable way to have your content seen. As such, we aim to limit our dependence on Facebook with respect to the dissemination of this interactive experiment. Of course, once the project is copied and pasted into the ether, this limited interaction with Facebook is out of our hands. Although flooding Facebook with even more content is hardly a means to the end of its democratization, we will nevertheless attempt this reclamation of certain media to serve the greater end of democratization of the cyberspace(s) where they reside. At the least, we can symbolically subvert those infrastructures by encouraging engagement through them rather than simple consumption. It would be well to remember that companies like Facebook do not always have our best interests at heart, so we encourage you to experience our work outside of those realms and to use it as a way to question the power structures which reign over the social media, data commodification, and copyright landscapes. These predominant systems of power are not some boon of the 21st century, rather they are extensions of systems of exclusion and exploitation that existed before the advent of current technologies and media. Of course, we would be remiss to overlook the importance of services such as bandcamp. With its unique “Fair Trade Music Policy” unheard of in the commercial realms of music, bandcamp currently leads the pack in music publishing.

Collage by Charlotte Forbes

So how does transparent sampling work to dismantle and/or subvert these systems? Let’s turn back to Astra Taylor: “A more democratic culture means supporting creative work not because it is viral but because it is important, focusing on serving needs as well as desires, and making sure marginalized people are given not just a chance to speak but to be heard. A more democratic culture is one where previously excluded populations are given the material means to fully engage. To create a culture that is more diverse and inclusive, we have to pioneer ways of addressing discrimination and bias head-on, despite the difficulties of applying traditional methods of mitigating prejudice to digital networks. We have to shape our tools of discovery, the recommendation engines and personalization filters, so they do more than reinforce our prior choices and private bubbles. Finally, if we want a culture that is more resistant to the short-term expectations of corporate shareholders and the whims of marketers, we have to invest in noncommercial enterprises.” (ibid, p. 231, emphases ours) If we embrace noncommercial open source ideology in all spheres of our lives, we put ourselves in a position to reclaim the mechanisms of our day-to-day activities. As author and academic Gabriella Coleman concludes in her book, Coding Freedom (.pdf), the domain of free software “has without doubt shifted the axis of intellectual property law, providing a model that has inspired others to build similar endeavors in various fields stretching from journalism to science. Thus, one of the most profound political effects of free software has been to weaken the hegemonic status of intellectual property law; copyright and patents now have company.” (p. 64)

We intend to employ transparent sampling as a means of recycling, repurposing, and redeveloping already-existing material while also offering full attribution to the original author of the sampled material. Apart from applying these qualities of an open source project, it acts as a critique of sampling tropes in electronic music, where there exists a dearth of attribution and diversity. Why should it remain fashionable to sample other artists but conceal your sources? What end does that serve? Being two white cis male producers, it is our responsibility to ask these questions, as well as to acknowledge our use of the work of marginalized people and how they have shaped and allowed the production of our own work. Additionally, our self-removal from commercial spaces serves to democratize those spaces by decreasing the overwhelming representation of white males which those spaces are known for. Because this work is situated within a multitude of contexts, it is our responsibility to attempt to shift the disadvantageous axes that position it.

To reflect the uncontrollable nature of interaction with and consumption of our experiment, and to present the material means to fully engage, we are offering the full collection of project files for each song in order to facilitate whatever you may seek to do with them. Additionally, all of the source images behind the artwork, by Charlotte Forbes, will be completely available. Charlotte’s contribution to Sent from my iPad is comprised of eleven visual compositions, one corresponding to the whole, with the remaining ten corresponding to the constituent pieces, each composed from her own photographs. Let the access to all of our source material act as our attempt to encourage a deeper intimacy with the technologies that surround us, especially to the end of reclaiming them. As well, you will have access to our sample guide, what essentially amounts to an aural bibliography. Please do let us know if and how you engage with our work, as it is this engagement which best completes what we here present. Finally, any donations made via our bandcamp page will be forwarded to our label, Stack Your Roster, for further investment in noncommercial enterprises, and the development and promotion of our artists.

Epilogue:

So where does all that leave us? Currently, Bas Relief as a project is still too unknown to have any tangible impact, but we can conclude that our efforts with Sent from my iPad were not undertaken with full consideration of the question, who is it made for? For example, choosing Ableton Live as our standard software medium presents immense problems in terms of providing the material means to fully engage. These considerations will be more elaborately explored in tandem with the release of our next album, Inconditional, later this year.

And what of emerging digital divides? With 54% of American adults saying it would be difficult to enhance their privacy online, we are clearly at odds with accessible, user-friendly technology. Until an accessible, efficient, decentralized platform surfaces, Bas Relief must continue to remain self aware about how it communicates with its audience.

Fortunately, however, intriguing initiatives are constantly blossoming, many of them centered around blockchain technology, known for powering Bitcoin. In many ways, building on these technologies encourages platform cooperativism, producing new and exciting decentralized platforms like Resonate. Of course, no one is to say these new technologies will replace industry giants like Spotify in good faith, but we can never know if we do not experiment with them duly, even if they are as yet inaccessible to a broader public. Excitingly, Resonate offers the dream of a decentralized music streaming service that does not merely exist as a corporate churn of inaccessible capital. It’s collectively owned, so everyone gets exactly one share. It’s built on a blockchain, so all exchange is transparent. Musicians and non-musicians alike can learn more about the service and sign up here.

Note: This essay originally appeared on our website, here.

Note of context: In February 2016, Bas Relief (David Mitchell, myself, and a revolving cast of co-conspirators) released a work consisting of ten songs, Ableton Live project files for each song, eleven visual collages, source images for each of those collages, a Sample Guide that serves the purpose of attributing the referenced (or reworked) musical works, and an essay meant to position the work culturally and politically.