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Art Will Not Disappear

Ramblings on piracy, culture, manufacturing, profit, and the demo scene

Spring 2021

It's not uncommon for progress in technology to spur debates about how bad things are going to become. Maybe a certain profession will become superfluous just because some geek somewhere came up with a way to make music travel invisibly through air, or cracked the copy protection scheme of a computer game.

Many of these claims are completely true, of course. We don't see a lot of travelling theater troupes roaming the countryside anymore since the advent of cinema and television, and most restaurants rely on recordings and loudspeakers for musical entertainment, rather than keeping a pianist on staff. Heck, if machine learning continues in the direction it's going, my programming job might well be history long before I am. Hardly a an attractive prospect, and of course people will react with negative sentiment in such situations.

Viewing things purely through the lens of modern capitalism, we can easily refute the claim that technology has been detrimental to the economy related to art, culture and entertainment at large: music, movies, TV, computer games and newer variants, such as Youtube and Twitch streaming, are all highly profitable, while other forms and professions, such as pulp novels and street organists, have taken a considerable dive. I personally dislike this approach to things not because it isn't true in some sense, but because viewing the hardships of unemployment and the disappearance of skilled craftsmen as mere collateral in a process of "creative destruction" strikes me as cold and elitist. There are aspects of life that can not be explained solely by modern capitalism.

Incidentally, large swaths of the elite that's been the most vocal proponents of such creative destruction in other fields - manufacturing, farming, transport - are now fighting tooth and nail for their own livelihood from the editorial pages of their crumbling newspapers, demanding government intervention while labelling other, newer content platforms and creators as opportunist, biased, unskilled and unreliable.

This is important to remember because they are - still - part of an elite. Their friends in that elite are in many ways still dependent on being able to control the flow, consumption, availability and pricing of art, culture, entertainment - whatever you want to call it - in some way.

This elite is largely the source of the argument (or at least the reasoning behind it) that if nobody is willing to pay for culture, culture will cease to exist. Imagine a world without art! Pretty damn grim, huh?

Cargo Cult Economics

Unlike voodoo economics, cargo cult economics (which I just made up) are founded on the same post hoc reasoning that seems common among the upper echelons of culture profiteers these days: If the retail price of an album is $10, every single time that album is pirated, their profit diminishes by $10. This is of course preposterous (and most likely originated as a highly contrived courtroom argument), because many of those who pirate an album would simply not listen to it at all if piracy magically disappeared overnight. Them listening to the album isn't some kind of zero sum externality: they didn't spend their $10 on pumpkin spice latte instead - they simply didn't have $10 to spend at all. I know this, because I'm a living example of it.

Software piracy helped build a global home computer market

At some point during the late 1980:s, I saw an Amiga computer for the very first time. I immediately knew I had to have one. The problem was of course that I, like most presumptive Amiga 500 users, was just a kid - not even a teenager yet. My parents prioritized boring things like mortgage payments, transportation, food and clothes and simply couldn't afford to buy me one. I had to wait several years until I - by no small amount of luck - was given the opportunity to perform actual, taxable work. The payment I received for it was immediately spent on an Amiga.

I opted for the Amiga not because it was the best or cheapest option around (though it was, at the time, a good price/performance tradeoff), but because I knew that I would be able to copy games and software from friends. I could've gotten a PC or an Atari or Mac instead and done the same kind of things as I did on the Amiga, but I didn't, because then I'd have to pay for software and the money for software simply didn't exist in my life at that point. I certainly couldn't expect any from my parents: my total yearly allowance was enough for one or maybe two commercial game titles.

In short, I bought an Amiga because I knew I wouldn't have to pay for software and I wouldn't have bought it at all if there hadn't been such an abundance of "free" programs and games for it. This was true for most of my Amiga owning friends, too. A computer was a strange and expensive luxury in those days and regularly spending even more money on it was both unthinkable and impossible. We weren't evil or out to hurt anyone, of course - it was just completely rational reasoning, especially for a bunch of kids in their tweens and teens.

Where all these pirated games came from originally, I'm not sure. Well, from the cracker groups, of course - but how they found their way from them to us beats me. It was some kind of trickle down system - maybe a friend of a friend of a friend had enough money for a modem - and we engaged in the classic school yard trading: borrowing floppies from each other, copying their pirated contents and then bringing them back the next day.

On the whole, the piracy thing was in those early days very innocent. There was no criminal mastermind organizing a bunch of shady dudes profiting from cracked games, no mobsters running illicit floppy transports. Later in life, I've met many of the famous Amiga and C64 crackers in person. They all invariably cracked games because it was a challenge, not because some crime lord paid them money to do so. I'm not saying some entrepreneurially-minded youngster didn't seize the opportunity if there was talk of money changing hands at some point, but the people involved were young, scrawny middle class nerds, completely disinterested in fraternizing with real criminals. They were cracking and spreading games for fun and in-group status. Today, they work as lawyers, engineers, physicians and - ironically - game developers.

The point here is that, as far as "creative destruction" goes, software piracy helped spread home computers to large groups of European youth who then, like me, grew up to become obedient consumers, often leveraging the skills gained from the Amiga days in their jobs. More importantly, they helped normalize the use of home computers and created a market for such machines - a market that otherwise would've been substantially smaller.

Music for rich folks and rich folk musicians

Without digressing into a long and boring discussion about what art is, I hope we can settle on this basic definition for the sake of my argument: art is a perceptible artefact (see what I did there?), at its core stemming from the human desire to tell and be told stories.

As such, art can be for example a musical composition, a recording of that composition or a performance of that composition, live or recorded. In the very beginnings of music, recordings were of course not available and we can almost surely assume that composing and performing were one and the same: singing, whistling, clapping hands, banging sticks - primitive music following certain rules but surely also ad-libbed to suit the occasion at which it was performed. Perhaps at a funeral, or perhaps just a rainy night spent around a campfire in a cave, hoping to keep the sabre-toothed cats at bay. I'm not an expert at prehistoric life, as you have surely worked out already, but my argument is this: when people wanted to hear music, they had to reproduce it themselves.

Such reproduction was the norm for a very long time, commonplace well into the early 1900s. Travelling musicians might show up for special occasions, but it was even more likely that a musically proficient farmer or craftsman in the area brought a fiddle. Payment, if any, was what could be expected from the audience: sincere, but not very substantial. These performers didn't become rich from their performances, nor did they expect to. The melodies were passed from musician to musician, sometimes as sheet music but just as likely by simply learning how to repeat it. And even when printed sheet music was, for a time, the main means of spreading music, no composer received any royalties when a song was played.

There were some who could get rich from their music, of course. Much like today, it was as much about luck and knowing the right people as it was about talent: a handful of musicians and composers ended up enjoying the patronage of the very small and very rich elite, employed by royal courts and other wealthy nobility. This was true of other artists as well. Most painters weren't commissioned for the Sistine Chapel or to immortalize kings on a canvas, but practiced their art when decorating the furniture and homes of farmers, craftsmen and laborers - their peers. As for literature, most storytellers weren't partners in the Globe Theatre - they probably never even learned how to read and write, but passed their tales on through oral tradition.

For musicians, this all changed with the recording industry, which for a long time really was an industry. Someone had to produce the physical media and apart from recording studios, this involved actual factories. Some recordings became very popular and sold very large numbers and certain recording artists gained a following of loyal customers. To keep profitable artists happy, the industrialists paid them handsomely: the artists could now also get rich.

Similar disruptive technologies have appeared within all art forms, and most of them, at first, contributed to formalizing art production as gainful employment. To keep the gears of production grinding, radio broadcasters and record producers couldn't wait for farmers to return from the fields to play their instruments and suddenly there was demand for musicians to work outside the traditional entertainment venues, where music was otherwise reproduced for public consumption. Literate and devoted storytellers, photographers and illustrators had to work full time to keep the printing presses churning. They were artists, yes, but they were also skilled laborers - albeit with the rare but alluring possibility of "making it big".

Art Is Common

This is, systemically, where we still are today. Powerful people who have amassed great wealth from distributing culture are working very hard to create and enforce various laws to maintain artificial scarcity. This is completely rational - from their point of view - and thus expected.

Of course, this elite doesn't just consist of executives in suits. Rich artists are increasingly feeling that their way of life is threatened, which is why Taylor Swift can sit in what can only be described as a private castle and write things like "It's my opinion that music should not be free," and "Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable." (Wall Street Journal)

Though she is in fact a highly paid laborer, a mere tourist among the real elite, it is of course natural for her to defend her way of making large amounts of money. In doing so, she feeds the notion that creating art should almost automatically lead to securing an income large enough for a comfortable - nay, luxurious - way of life. This is problematic because while Swift and her pals in the industry's board rooms are defending the interests of their elite clique (or class, since we're basically into Marxist analysis at this point), they also inspire others to accept the ill-fated belief that basic rules of economy do not apply to art (artificial scarcity is hardly scarcity at all) and - more importantly - that art is rare.

This is wrong. Art is common. Art has existed for so much longer than the means of industrial reproduction that the proportion of time is staggering, and it will continue to exist long after the current civilization has succumbed to whatever it is that will take its place.

We have caves and rocks and houses and furniture and mountains and fields with art on and in them, some as old as humanity itself, some made just recently. We have cars and roads and telephones and washing machines and tea cosies with art on them. We have stories and myths told and retold through thousands of years. We have bodies that can tell those stories and make music without the need for any tools whatsoever, we have piles upon piles upon piles of existing works and now we have a global network of computers that allows us to produce and share and duplicate all of this at almost no cost at all, unhindered by any borders or artificial scarcity laws.

Art is everywhere, all the time. It's human nature. In fact, humans will quite literally risk their lives just to be able to create art.

What is rare, on the other hand, is the infinitesimal period of time during which people have gotten very rich from making and distributing art. And yes, this creative destruction of, for example, the recording industry does bring real personal tragedies in its wake. While it might seem like a popular victory over pompous, detached celebrities like Swift, it also affects those who have bought into the massive propaganda orchestrated by a now dying industry. The people affected haven't made their decisions because they're stupid or gullible, but because the misinformation has been so skillful, so common, so expertly deceptive and so ingrained in society that it might be hard to imagine anything else: if you create art, you should be able to make money from it.

The Suffering Artist

Just to clear things up: I don't think it's wrong for people to make money off art, or even getting rich off it, as long as they can do so within acceptable societal and moral frameworks (which goes for any kind of profit, really). I just think it's wrong that we should expect to make money off it, and I certainly think it's ludicrous to write laws just to ensure a bunch of suits can keep getting rich off dead people's talent.

This is a classic example of a conflict between the people and an elite, and in this case the elite have been exceedingly competent at depicting their actions as reasonable and natural. This is in part because they've had some of our most skilled storytellers at their beck and call, but also because their story always contains the small but very real chance of anyone, anywhere becoming a part of said elite through something vague and intangible, such as "talent" or "luck". If it didn't happen, you must've lacked it!

In the end though, the argument always boils down to "an honest buck for an honest job." Making art takes time, and people want the art. Shouldn't they pay for the time it took to make it? If art is a job, then yes, we should expect an income from it. A job is usually an abstraction of the hardships of survival: It's a task deemed boring or even dangerous, something we need essential compensation to perform, which results in something someone else finds useful and is willing to pay for. In other words, Taylor Swift must really hate making music, considering how much money she expects to earn from it.

But, argues the cunning record exec, do we really want to go back to the times of the suffering artist, when painters and composers starved to death in their drafty attic dwellings?

Well, of course we don't. But to claim that as the only option is as silly as the myth of the starving artist itself. There's a lot of suffering and poverty in the world to be sure, and some suffering artists have become famous as much for their suffering as for their art - a trend that seems to hold up to this day.

In reality, however, plenty of art has been created by people otherwise working with something else. Apart from the previously mentioned peasant fiddlers, painters and storytellers, literary giants like Franz Kafka (insurance investigator), Ernest Hemingway (journalist) and Selma Lagerlöf (school teacher) financed some or all of their writing through other employment.

But, retorts our clever record exec, how poor wouldn't life be without music? Isn't music and art in fact priceless?

To which I simply reply: Yes, so why should you of all people dictate its cost?

The Demo Scene

There are plenty more famous examples of artists with normal day jobs, but instead of tedious namedropping, I'd like to focus on the people who mostly remain unknown and who, in some cases, even deliberately make their art hard to access for the general public, as opposed to nurturing a fantasy about one day becoming rich and famous.

Having grown up in Scandinavia during the golden era of home computers, the demo scene has had a major impact on my life. To anyone not familiar with it, it can best be described as a subculture of people who use their computers to create art, culture and tools - music, paintings, animations, movies, productivity software, short stories, journalism, and audiovisual real time programs ("code as art") - and share this with each other (and the world) for free. It all started as a way for teenagers and twenty-somethings to express themselves and explore creativity roughly ten years before the Internet boom.

The scene is founded on a bunch of unwritten rules which more or less boils down to the following:

  1. Be creative.
  2. Only use some else's creation as part of your own with explicit permission.
  3. All works must be spread without profit.

The third point is of course crucial in forming my views on art and culture. Tens of thousands, if not millions, of scene productions have been created since the mid-1980:s - far too many for someone to watch in a lifetime, I'm sure. It's hard to even begin grasping, let alone estimating, the number of man-years poured into this pastime, always with the purpose of creating some kind of art. Some of the most beautiful paintings, some of the catchiest melodies and some of the most wonderful programming I've ever experienced anywhere are products of the demo scene - and it's all, always, been made for free.

Art is everywhere. Art is common. And on the demo scene, it's made by store clerks, social workers, teachers, physicians, forklift operators, software developers, lawyers, train conductors and construction workers - on their spare time, released free of charge for anyone to enjoy. In fact, most active sceners pay not only with their time to make art - they spend considerable amounts of actual money on the tools needed and the cost of travel involved in visiting demo parties, where they meet and show their work off to each other.

Some of the talented musicians, graphics artists and programmers of course also work professionally within those respective fields (and might disagree with the arguments put forth in this text) - but no matter how much money they earn from that, their contributions to the scene are always freely shared and enjoyed - and nobody expects to get rich or famous from their efforts. The knowledge that someone, somewhere is enjoying what they made is payment enough - plus, of course, life long friendships and all the fun shenanigans to be had at a demo party where hundreds of like minded individuals gather in a celebration of creativity.

In fact, some sceners will go to great lengths to release their productions only on arcane media such as 3.5" floppy disks - freely available and copyable, of course, but hardly an effort to join the ranks of a millionaire elite lobbying for ever stricter copyright and IP laws.

Locking Down The Means Of Production

We're in the middle of a great upheaval. This has been evident for quite some time, and discussed at length in many places. While this text presents no new arguments, I hope it has provided some new perspectives on the existing ones. In the case of art and culture, I believe the change we're seeing is beneficial to humankind and, as such, pointless (if not impossible) to stop. But, since their way of life is threatened, the elite will keep feeding us their propaganda - while simultaneously commiting the crimes they accuse others of, if they think they can get away with it.

Efforts like DRM, trusted computing and other means of copy protection will keep growing more refined and the stories about fame and fortune will become even more intricate and compelling, but it doesn't have to be like that. Not if we take a step back, stop listening to the ones who profit from the status quo and trust in that which is apparent to anyone who examines the abundant evidence:

Art will not disappear. Not even under threat of imminent death.