Issue #1 November 2004

Rocking in the Free World

It's one of the classic rock star maxims: Before the meteoric rise to fame. Before the betrayal of your friends and your third divorce. Before passing out into the laps of half a dozen groupies in the back of a limo after a Jim Beam bender — before all of that, it was all about the music.

The irony of popular music is that many of the great songs are about challenging the status quo. About sticking it to The Man and annoying the hell out of your parents. Yet much of the mainstream music we hear today is homogenized and shamelessly formulaic.

But good music is out there. Music created by artists who actually want you to hear it, trade it, sample it, remix it, mash it. The best part — it just might inspire you to make music of your own. And that's the whole idea. Music meets the open source model.

To paraphrase Picasso, good artists copy and great artists steal. But the best artists may be the ones who share.

There's no shortage of music that's legally shareable, culturally significant, and — thanks to the work of a few not-for-profit organizations like ibiblio.org and Creative Commons — free and accessible to everyone.

“It's ok for people to own things and exert those rights if they want to," says Paul Jones, director of ibiblio.org, one of the first and largest online digital libraries. "But there are a lot of people who want to share and want to share legally, or don't mind their stuff being shared. Our goal is to help the people who want to share their work share it.”

Created in 1992 as a repository for free software, ibiblio played a major role in digital music's history and will no doubt continue to shape its future.

This month ibiblio is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the very first radio webcast, which they achieved together with WXYC, the college radio station for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Ibiblio was also closely involved in another early technology critical to the digital music revolution. They hosted a project called Internet Underground Music Archives, which was using MPEG encoding, new at the time. MPEG encoding allowed music to be saved, shared, and distributed, retaining much of the quality of the original recording. When it became easy for people to encode music, it spawned a host of file sharing technologies such as Napster, Gnutella, LimeWire, and Kazaa.

Jones describes ibiblio as an information commons, an archive for content with cultural value. He and their staff of two full-time employees and several student volunteers are always looking for projects that take risks, involve interesting technologies, and match their education mission.

Today ibiblio handles more than 10 million transactions per day — in addition to webcasts for six not-for-profit radio stations. Their collections include more than 1500 different projects of an overwhelming variety. From organic gardening tips to Millennial cults to aluminum foil balls. They also host more serious projects like Groklaw, a definitive site dedicated to teaching people how law works; Project Gutenberg, which includes a vast repository of texts that have entered the public domain; and Documenting the American South, a collection of North American slave narratives and other first-person stories from the Civil War era.

Among the many ibiblio projects, those dedicated to music include the Newkular Family Electronic Media Library, etree.org, and Roger McGuinn's Folkden. McGuinn was an original members of '60s folkrock group The Byrds.

The folk tradition is alive and well at ibiblio.

"Folk music is the original rip, blend, mash, and burn. It's music that's out there that people know," Jones says. “They change the lyrics, or they change the music, or they take the lyrics from one and put it to the music of the other. Or they write a parody or a new song. Sometimes it's obvious that they're borrowed verses from different songs. They stuck them together because they were popular.”

The folk music tradition is now being ushered into a new era, where songs are mixed and mashed and the lines of fair use are not always so black and white.

Earlier this year a DJ named Brian Burton, more popularly known as Danger Mouse, mixed the Beatles' “White Album” with the vocals from hip-hop artist Jay-Z's “The Black Album,” and called it, appropriately, the “Grey Album.”

Danger Mouse produced only 3,000 demo copies, but there was one problem: The album was great. Once it found its way onto the Web, the cease-and-desist letters started flying immediately. On February 24, more than 300 websites launched a protest called “Grey Tuesday” against EMI, owners of the White Album recording, and Sony/ATM owners of the Beatles compositions, who tried to pressure ISPs into halting downloads of the album. Danger Mouse pulled the album from his website, but sites like bannedmusic.org continue to allow downloads.

The label that released Jay-Z's album, Roc-a-Fella Records, were less likely to object. After all, Jay-Z released a vocals-only version of the "The Black Album" — which many would see as encouraging hip-hop artists to remix it. Hip-hop has always had a tradition of sampling, though artists usually get permission first.

Groups representing Danger Mouse have been able to build a solid argument for fair use, given that the new work was a transformed version of the original albums and didn't substitute for the purchase of either of them. The record companies have since backed off. But it has started the discussion.

“It's a poster for the movement." says Fred Stutzman, one of ibiblio's full-time staffers and free information advocate. “It creates a vector point for the message of going outside the bounds of copyright to create content that is in some way original," he says. "It takes the better parts of two and brings them together into one to make something that a lot of us would consider original.”

Although rarely this overt, musical alchemy has always existed.

Musicians often wear their influences proudly. Bands like The Velvet Underground and The Who spawned a thousand bands in a thousand garages across the country. It's no surprise that the most successful artists are those who are able to mix a variety of influences until the music takes on a style of its own. You are what you listen to.

Sharing music didn't start with MP3s and Napster. It didn't start with recordable cassette tapes traded among friends. Or printed sheet music. Music has always been passed down, borrowed, stolen, ripped, and ripped off. Technology is just speeding up the process.

As technology changes, it becomes even more important to separate sharing from stealing. People have shown that they are willing to download legally. Witness the growing success of iTunes. That doesn't necessarily mean it's cheap. Especially when you start laying down cash for full albums, or when it's 3 a.m. and you decide you must have every song on Fred Durst's celebrity playlist.

Creative Commons is another non-profit organization that offers unique ways of licensing and protecting creative work and their authors. As they describe it, the concept changes from “all rights reserved” of traditional licensing to “some rights reserved.”

The Creative Commons license is specifically designed for artists who want to get their music out there and let people download it, hear it, and share it — but if a company wants to use it for a television commercial and make money from it, the artist will still be paid.

Special preferences can also specify that you may use the work as long as the author is credited, or that you may use the work as long as it's a verbatim copy and in its original form. Other artists remove all restrictions to how their music is used. Free and in the public domain. “No rights reserved.”

The question often on many people's minds — and the same question asked by those new to the open source model of software development — is why would an artist create something of value only to give it away for free?

"If you look at even a small town, there's a chamber of commerce doing good work to make the town a better place. The Jaycees aren't getting paid to raise money for burn victims. People see a greater good they can contribute to and that's a normal social thing," Jones says. "But there's also a self interest. You gain and you give back."

The next step for ibiblio: To make music, texts, and other creative works more accessible.

“One of the things we hope to bring is more legitimate content distributed via peer-to-peer,“ says John Reuning, another of ibiblio's full-time staffers.

Reuning is currently developing an application called Osprey, which is a peer-to-peer enabled content distribution system designed to make content easier to search and browse. It uses a protocol called BitTorrent, which was created by Bram Cohen. For example, Etree.org uses BitTorrent applications to share taped concert files from "trade-friendly" artists.

What's nice about Osprey is that it attaches metadata to the files to be traded. Who recorded it, when, and anything else you want listeners to know about that media is distributed with the music. Artists who want to share their music can easily do it, their fans can find it, and the artists get all of the glory they deserve.

Ok, so it's not always all about the music.

About the Author

Jonathan Opp, Editorial Manager, Red Hatter for five years, veteran of Road Tour 2002 and World Tour 2004 — both of which required extensive psychotherapy and boiling of clothes afterward. Interests: Music, writing, photography, travel. Turn-ons: Getting to do all of those things for Red Hat.