Cult Of The Amateur and Netlabels: Mediocrity Will Kill Us

For those of us closely interested in the future of internet and culture in general, the book The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen is riveting reading most of the way through. Keen tackles how the democratization of the Net is producing tons of crap on a daily basis and slowly killing off the production of meaningful art. He cites digital piracy, the production of meaningless “noise” instead of art, and the corruption of values such as respect for intellectual property rights, as culprits in this age of the amateur cut-n-paste videographer and mash-up remixer.

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I’ve seen and heard it myself, having been an avid MP3 downloader since 1999, how the levelling of the playing field and the easy availability of every digital tool ever made (via piracy) has ended up making mediocre media producers out of all of us consumers. In fact, the term consumers almost loses meaning, because all participants in ‘the Great Conversation of the Internet’ are consumers and simultaneously content producers — whether you’re commenting on a blog, micro-blogging on Plurk, leaving video responses on YouTube, or posting photos on Zooomr.

One of my major areas of interest is electronic music. I’ve been producing electronic music and releasing it freely on the web via my netlabel QED Records since 2004. And I’ve seen the community of netlabels grow a hundredfold in only a few years.

Just looking at the number of extant netlabels today (July 2 2008) there are 925 free netlabels who house their music files on Archive.org. And each of these netlabels releases something at least once a month, if not more. Some of that output is extraordinary and exquisite stuff you’d never hear over the radio, however the majority is mediocre mush, simply taking up space.

In general, we now all have the tools at our disposal and so we are all now producing much more mediocrity than if those tools were more difficult to avail of. Don’t believe me? Look at YouTube.

And the ease with which digital media can be copied and shared is bringing intellectual property to a dangerous impasse. Old school media producers aren’t making much from their intellectual property rights, so less truly talented people are making meaningful art as full-time jobs. End result? A dangerous slowdown of culture. A slowdown that may one day become a standstill.

Keen asks the poignant question in his book: who makes the decision that something is art or not? In the end, if no one is making any art anyway and simply engaging in the frivolous production of noise in the form of inane mash-ups and blog commentary, then the question is rendered moot.

Something to think about.

5 thoughts on “Cult Of The Amateur and Netlabels: Mediocrity Will Kill Us

  1. While I agree with the premise of the negative impact of the internet on our culture, I also have to view things without blinders, too. The late American advant garde composer John Cage forced us to rethink our preconceptions of the definition of music and the definition of noise. He managed to blur those lines. I remember attending a concert of his works (boy some people left angrily) and his work was really out there. He had one piece which involved four radios playing different stations simultaneously. As much as I really thought it too contrived for the sake of novelty, the cacophonic blend was mesmerizing. I didn’t like it but I tried to understand its musical underpinnings.

  2. “Old school media producers aren’t making much from their intellectual property rights, so less truly talented people are making meaningful art as full-time jobs. End result? A dangerous slowdown of culture. A slowdown that may one day become a standstill.”

    Baloney. There will always be art because that’s what people do. The idea that only an elite can create true art is hogwash.

    The real problem is that art has become just another commodity in the capitalist system – it is worth only what people with money are willing to pay for it.

    Bach didn’t have any copyright protection for his work and he never published. Yet his art stands at the top of the list, IMHO. It is the system of compensation for musicians that is broken, not the system for electronically distributing music.

  3. Paul,
    That’s a pretty good point, compensation. Early artists were supported by rich patrons mostly. Current musicians are supported by a lot of things: gigs, merchandise sales, album sales, endorsements. But what about royalties? They may get something but perhaps not as much as if the system were really working.

    You’re right, there will always be art. But I fear the lack of a working system of compensation for artists will hinder more people from turning to creative work as their livelihood.

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