Beyond Derivative Music

Pop music elitists and pessimists often bemoan that “everything has already been done” with a certain futile resignation. As a maker of music myself I’ve found through process that honest and deliberate imitation often yields new and fresh results.

I drafted this essay in pen about a month ago on a long bus ride in South America. In the wake of Lady Gaga’s blatant copycat song “Born This Way” and just after the Grammy Awards (which I barely watched) I think it’s more prescient than it was when I first wrote it.

Pop music elitists and pessimists often bemoan that “everything has already been done” with a certain futile resignation. The most astute of these often go on to make derivative music in the spirit of their well-cultivated tastes. MGMT, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire come to mind but you could take nearly any popular music of the day as a case study and begin to isolate influences. In fact, you could say that about music from any time. I used to think in a narrow-minded way that imitation was indicative of a lack of imagination. As a maker of music myself I’ve found through process that honest and deliberate imitation often yields new and fresh results.

An example I can give is a song I wrote to the lyrics of DaVe Lipp called “Weird World” when I was fronting a band called Japan Seoul. In the course of my search for inspiration for DaVe’s lyrics I had been listening to Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl.”

I found the building nature of the melody moving and appealing. I began to half self-consciously graft DaVe’s lyrics over that melody. Very quickly the nature of the lyrics revealed new melodic directions and the finished song probably doesn’t resemble “Mother of Pearl” to most. I think “Weird World” is important to my work because it points the way to how I’ll make music in the future.

Is there something wrong with the device I used to write the song? The producer/engineer was just a little horrified when I revealed my method to him. You don’t hear much about the outright theft artists employ in the process to create consciously or not. Some artists do embrace this direct influence process such as Mark Ronson and Cut Copy (the name says it all). Other artists pay a high premium to sample works directly for commercial use (Diddy, Kanye West). Beyond DJ and hip hop groups many artists don’t discuss the imitative part of the song writing process. Perhaps it’s because of a fear of copyright infringement in our lawsuit infested system. Lawrence Lessig wrote a book about the paralysis current copyright law is having on art and business called “Remix.”

I would like to suggest to the “everything new is old” camp (a song lyric from “Rock And Roll“, my old band Music For Girls, written by Wendy Chin and myself) that the reason why music progress seems slow, stale, bland and unoriginal is because of the stigma an artist gets internal and externally for being derivative. No one would dispute that an artist needs to make music they are moved by. Music composed solely of ground breaking sounds and concepts just will not stick. It will be too oblique and will require special effort from the listener beyond what is reasonable. “Pushing the envelope” in music is a special dialectic which is a dance between coupling the familiar in a Trojan horse with the groundbreaking to subtly take the listener out of bounds.

If we look at the history of rock all the greatest started as unselfconscious imitators. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin etc. This uninhibited impulse to steal directly pointed the way for them to create the greatest works of the 20th century. The irony is that we, the artists of the present, are actually discouraged from borrowing directly from these greats in the way that they did to build their careers. Kirby Ferguson makes this point incredibly well in his documentary series “Remix“. Here’s Part 1 of the series (be sure to view Part 2 here).

In an interesting and ironic twist, the music technology of today beckons the artist to sample, remake remodel (note the homage to The Beatles in the middle of that Roxy Music song). The conclusion I’ve come to for my own creativity is to simply forget all about the dinosaur music industry and just MAKE. Don’t censor. Forget selling. We’re at the edge of an avalanche of fresh music that is liberated from the requirements of industry. Groups like Girl Talk are a primitive indication of what’s to be unleashed by uninhibited musicians. Artronica, a movement in which I’m a ‘founder’, represents this liberated music. Our intellectual device is to classify the music we make as fine art. It is not a necessary classification for all liberated music, just the niche we choose to occupy because of the purpose it lends to the music we create. I’m advocating a music process that freely borrows from the past without concern for the pretense of originality. This is the way out of the pop music doldrums taking us to a new era of fresh and original music.

What do I have to say about Lady Gaga’s latest hyper-derivative song? Well, plenty, but I’ll leave you with this great article which articulates it best by Tris McCall titled “Lazy Gaga.” Here’s a quote from Gianni, someone who commented on that article:

It would be more Gaga-honest if she simply sampled “express yourself ” to create something new altogether rather than present this single as if it was born this way -new and original, for apparently it wasn’t. Despite the artist’s best and let’s hope earnest intentions.

That about sums up my own position on the controversy. If you’re going to steal, STEAL. Go all the way with it, don’t tip toe around it. Dive in. Only with that clarity and boldness (and audacity) is when you may just make something new. Let us close now with The Staple Singers hit from 1972, Respect Yourself (brought to my attention by my friend Steven Roberts).

Your Own Personal Cloud

This personal cloud idea makes me question a lot of other cloud platforms. Truth be told, all these cloud offerings leave me feeling fragmented once again. How many accounts must we use to store pieces of ourselves? Google has useful document apps, Dropbox and Yousendit for moving files around, Soundcloud for audio, Amazon AWS for media, Flickr for photos, Tumblr and Wordpress.com for blog content, not to mention Twitter and Facebook…I’ve just mentioned a fraction of services I have accounts with and use. DOES ANYONE ELSE THINK THIS IS CRAZY? Whatever happened to the good old fashioned web host?

“The Cloud” is big right now. On some level it’s necessary. Our hard drives can’t be trusted to protect our data in perpetuity. I read an article on TechCrunch about how a Cloud Storage provider called Mozy created an uproar because it needed to raise it’s prices when it realized it couldn’t keep offering customers unlimited data. I was a bit surprised at the tone the author John Biggs took in which he writes that most people should just keep using inexpensive storage devices because the majority of data they save is worthless. Hard to argue with that. However I do like to keep all of my data. It’s like going through an album of my life. I create digital things so it’s really important, at least to me, to have access to things I was making ten plus years ago. So I do see real value in this Cloud fad even though I haven’t signed up with a serious Cloud storage provider. Writing as an average citizen susceptible to the persuasions of mass branding I have not been convinced that there is even a provider out there that will have the kind of longevity necessary for me to make a cloud storage investment. Perhaps Amazon AWS has the clout and reliability to convince me to invest my dollar but it seems more geared toward developer needs than general consumer backup needs. This need to save and preserve has got me thinking of an alternative to all these Cloud services. It’s rooted in an older, preexisting model. Web hosting services.

I’ve used Dreamhost for nearly a decade. It’s something I don’t even think about anymore. I’ve used it to host a multitude of websites but also to FTP and share files. I have even used it to backup my regular data at times. With hosting I’m just renting raw space. I can put whatever I want on it. And I get quite a bit of storage as well. It does require some light web development knowledge such as FTP but not much more. This process has remained the same or similar to when I first signed up for webhosting. The explosion of new Cloud, the reliability of web hosting (old cloud?) and Open Source technologies have got me thinking of an alternative path to preserving our data.

I’ve gotten very deep into WordPress this past year. This site is a self-hosted WordPress site. What I’ve found spectacular about using WordPress is that there are literally thousands of free plugins I can browse for that cover almost any web-related functionality I could dream of (and more often ones I would have never thought of). Not that WordPress is the proper conduit for facilitating cloud data backup…but it could be. Imagine having every piece of data you’ve ever generated backed up and indexed into a database instead of just loosely organized in self-made directories. That data would be searchable within a regular browser on the web. I can only hope a developer reads this post and decides to take this idea and run with it. For me, this option of storing my data, using my own web hosting and WordPress or some other Open Source CMS to index and organize my data is the most favorable. It makes me 100% responsible. Which means if I can’t afford the $100/yr it takes to pay for my hosting service then it’s up to me to rescue all the data I’ve preserved in my own personal cloud. The one flaw of course is if Dreamhost ever shuts down then we’re back to the same problem I’d have with a cloud provider…but the one advantage is that it’s all in one place. So I can literally just dump the whole thing somewhere else (although possibly a severe undertaking if you factor in Terabytes of data needing to be transfered).

This personal cloud idea makes me question a lot of other cloud platforms. Truth be told, all these cloud offerings leave me feeling fragmented once again (See this essay on Singular Login). How many accounts must we use to store pieces of ourselves? Google has useful document apps, Dropbox and Yousendit for moving files around, Soundcloud for audio, Amazon AWS for media, Flickr for photos, Tumblr and WordPress.com for blog content, not to mention Twitter and Facebook…I’ve just mentioned a fraction of services I have accounts with and use. DOES ANYONE ELSE THINK THIS IS CRAZY? This is severe fragmentation of self. I want/need everything in one place (just like I could use one login to rule them all). I need it in a place I own, or at least I feel like I own. Paying for web hosting is like renting. It’s your space and you can do whatever you want with it. If things get really out of control like you accidentally delete crucial data you can ask the hosting company to restore your site to where it was a few days ago. Certainly not something to take for granted but comforting to know it’s there.

In this time of increasing connectivity it seems very plausible to me that if there was a large movement towards users maintaining separate personal clouds the natural progression would be to connect them socially in ways that still preserved their privacy and autonomy. Perhaps that’s where the still in beta Diaspora social network could succeed. The personal cloud is probably not that different than the regular cloud in the long run. It’s just that the personal cloud is totally comprehensive. It is the online receptacle of a life digitized. Maybe Dreamhost will hear my plea for broader data backup tools. If you read my essay Oven vs. Closed Apps I’m suggesting that the future of all computing is entirely done online because of the internet horsepower that can be harnessed even through a tiny iPhone if you’re working remotely. I’ve had a taste of this while managing my WordPress database all from the phone. Powerful stuff happens on the server.

To take the idea of a personal cloud even further, once you have your own hosting you actually could bypass Youtube, Gmail, Soundcloud, Myspace, Tumblr…the list goes on. I won’t go so far as to include Facebook and Twitter in that list yet. As of now Facebook and, to a much lesser degree, Twitter have created a social pipeline that can be used to connect millions of otherwise disconnected websites (Google is still the place to start but it does not facilitate meaningful interactions between users and websites like Facebook).

The Proposal for the Personal Cloud

The personal cloud can work as open source. Benevolent developers could create an Open Graph which differs from Facebook’s. Perhaps the power of multiple computers can be harnessed as the database engine. Webhosting companies could expand their initiatives to market to consumers who are seeking Cloud storage solutions. In an Open Graph users could have a plethora of Social Networking sites to choose from and still be connected to their friends instead of the “walled Facebook model” (I got that phrase from @joygarnett on Twitter). We would use this pipeline to share content we’ve created on our own personal cloud servers. An advantage for many is that this open source Personal Cloud network would change the ad game in that ads would need to be placed on User’s personal cloud networks with their permission. It’s truly cutting out the middleman here (Youtube, Myspace). There could be an entire password protected layer of the Personal Cloud which is used for archiving and storage. Sharing files with others through Personal Cloud networks could be as simple Google Documents as long as there is some site-to-site open source permission network in place.

Can Open Source really create this type of infastructure? The answer is yes. We only need to look as far as WordPress to see how successful and robust Open Source can become. There’s a lot of convergence of technology that would need to happen for a Personal Cloud to overtake the very efficient Clouds we have right now. But I think it’s worth it. In my own experience, with all my stored backup on my own equipment, I have a pretty good idea how to find old files going back years. If you rely on Cloud networks for storage these start-up businesses are often so transient that the insurance you’re paying for is actually just an illusion. The only entities I can trust to secure my data are myself and my webhost. Why do I trust the webhost? Because I kind of have to. Without all these webhosts there really is not much of an internet to speak of. It’s the lesser of two evils in my mind. I don’t want to buy the building, just rent the apartment.

What can we do now in anticipation of the Personal Cloud?

We can start small. I see the value in all these services like Youtube, Soundcloud, Amazon, Flickr but when you have your own hosting you don’t actually need these services. The advantage for many is that they are their own social networks so if you’re after more visibility for the media and content you’ve uploaded it could help to be inside the network community. But guess what, Twitter and Facebook are the most effective ways to share content at least today. Both networks don’t require you to host any of your big media you’d like to share, you can simple pass around links to direct people back to your web host, your personal cloud. No doubt the metrics become convoluted if it’s something you’re worried about. Facebook and Twitter actually interface quite well with many cloud media services. But with Facebook I could have just as many people or more see my self hosted videos or mp3s. In my opinion Youtube, Soundcloud and Flickr just aren’t that great at being social networks and their true value to people is as repositories to get their stuff out on the public web in a sharable place. With this in mind, why not just use your own hosting. There’s a plethora of WordPress plugins for media management which render much of these cloud sharing/storage services useless. We’ve been doing this since the inception of the web and it still works really well. I still have the data I FTP’d to my Dreamhost server 8 years ago (even if I’ve let the DNS registered names expire!). I don’t have anything from AOL, Yahoo, Geocities…all gone. Why? Because those proto-clouds weren’t ‘mine’. They were over commercialized entities that always went out of their way to ensure that those spaces weren’t really mine through shear mega-branding and ad saturation. The same can be said about many of today’s cloud content services like Youtube, Google, Facebook or just insert your service here.

There’s a great post and thread at Zeldman.com about owning your content. It deals with a whole scope of issues regarding data preservation, many of which I haven’t even touched upon.