Commission Music

Commission Music
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Friday, 12 August 2011

Dissertation Draft: Copyright, Social Networking and Commissioning Music

When I started at Birmingham, I was in the midst of a project where in I was soliciting commissions of pieces of music around one minute in length. My plan was originally to compose 45 of these in total and release an album at the end. I intend to pick up where I left off and finish the project after graduating.

This project was an attempt to get a bit of attention and to address some economic and political issues of music distribution. The amount of music available to listeners only continues to rise. Every day, somebody records something and makes it available in a digital format. The cost of providing copies to consumers is practically nil. Any composer can upload an mp3 to or bandcamp at no cost. (“Bandcamp Pricing”)

Because copying and distribution is so cheap and easy, consumers often share files without paying for them. The Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA] struck back against this by suing fans (“For Students Doing Reports”), an idea which seemed poorly thought out and which has made them extremely unpopular. (Reisinger) At the same time, the duration of copyright keeps being extended, seemingly so that Mickey Mouse will never fall into the public domain. (Springman) What used to be a system to make sure that creators got their fair share is increasingly perceived as a way for big companies to control culture. (Lessig 61) Rather than adapt to new conditions, media companies are lobbying for new laws to force the genie back in the bottle. (Lessig 48) Some of these, like the Digital Economy Act are fairly draconian in that households may have their internet switched off if only one member of the household breaks copyright law. (Digital Economy Act s. 10) Despite the severity of this crackdown, many are skeptical it will make any difference. (“Q&A: The Digital Economy bill”) Rather than adapt to changing conditions, powerful, politically-connected media companies are abusing state power. Their position is morally bankrupt and their claims of victimhood are laughably overstated. The RIAA tells students that sharing an mp3 is worse than maritime hostage-taking: “It’s commonly known as 'piracy,' but that’s too benign of a term to adequately describe the toll that music theft takes . . ..” (“For Students Doing Reports”)

It seems clear that copyright is in crisis and in need of a major reform. However, the crisis of copyright does not diminish the notion of authorship. Those engaged in online music sharing still are deeply invested in who created the work they're copying. Artists that chose to participate in Open Culture models, such as Creative Commons are not ceding their work to the public domain, but instead protecting the rights of their fans. (“Frequently Asked Questions”) An artist choosing this model may be potentially sacrificing some forms of revenue, but for most emerging artists, getting heard is far more important than protecting rights which may one day generate income. Even for successful artists like Bob Ostertag, this income has failed to materialise. He writes, “[S]elling recordings in whatever format has been a break-even proposition at best.” (Ostertag)

However, artists still need to eat and pay rent. Sustainability is a major concern, but, economic support for non-mainstream composers will not be coming from record labels. Indeed, they have historically worked against the interests of composers. In 2001, composer Judy Dunaway wrote:

Of course, the recording industry does not care at all about contemporary and experimental music. The sales figures on such CDs are miniscule compared to popular music. In the words of Foster Reed at the New Albion label, "The corporate recording industry lives in a completely different world, of commodity and markets, than the independents do, who make and publish work that is near and dear to them." But accessibility to innovative music on the internet may be blocked by the record industry’s rush to protect and maintain total control of its own high-profit intellectual property. (Dunaway)

Composers are thus left to their own devices when it comes to both generating revenue and attracting listeners. Without a budget for publicity, one of the best ways to gather attention is by word of mouth “buzz.” Social networking is one venue where this can happen, which has the advantage of the possibility of fast transmission and direct links to online content. I suspect people may be motivated to share music they like or find interesting because it gains them cultural capital. They would thus take on a curatorial role and hope to gain the respect of their friends and social contacts. A musician interested in using this as a path to wider recognition would need to create music that works in an online context. For example he or she might want to include video content, so it can be uploaded to YouTube or create music that the sharer will identify with in some way. They may also produce music with the goal of having it sound good in stereo mp3 format out of home speakers. The music should be engineered for the playback environment in which it is expected to be heard. The music created must also be accessible in some way, although, obviously an artist wishes to remain interesting.

In my case, I chose duration as my most accessible component. All of my pieces in this project are around one minute long. I strongly suspect that if you ask most people to listen to ten minutes of noise music, they would refuse unless they were already fans of the genre or the composer. However, in my experience, people are much more willing to sacrifice a minute of their time. Many more people are going to be willing to listen to very short pieces. However, just because people will listen to something does not mean they will share it. I thought sharing would be more likely to occur if listeners felt connected to the music in some way. One way to get that feeling of connection was to get a listener to commission me.

The commissioner gets their name attached to a short piece of music, which becomes integrally linked to them. The piece of music would not exist if it were not for their financial involvement. This, in return gives them cultural capital. They are the proprietor of a new piece of music. This also solves the dilemma of sustainability. The commissioning amount should cover costs, at least. The commissioner would be motivated to share their new piece of music as far and wide as they can, as every re-sharing increases their own cultural capital. Instead of fighting the online sharing that people seem inclined to do, this model requires it and does not require coercive action on the part of the state.

I started by using eBay as my sales platform. This allowed me to control how many commissions I might sell at a time, handle the monetary transaction and the platform itself made the commissioners feel engaged and interested some music press. (“Music Commissioning on eBay”) Much to my surprise, a bidding war erupted on one of my early offerings, despite the promise of many more to come. However, before that bidding war could conclude, eBay terminated my account, banning me from the service. They refused to tell me why they had done this, so I don't know if it was because they suspected fraud or because they objected to my business model. I moved to Etsy, a much less exciting web store where users sell craft items and resumed.

During the course of my project, several people did share their short pieces via their blogs, facebook or another online medium. One person used her piece as her ringtone. In 2008, I approached a popular blogger, Josh Fruhlinger of The Comics Curmudgeon and asked if he would trade me advertising space for a free commission. His blog had been ranked #13 by PC Magazine's “100 Favorite Blogs for 2007” (Heater) and won a Webby Award in 2008 for Best Humor Blog. (“Best Humor Blog”) His blog was also popular with composers and was mentioned on Kyle Gann's blog (Gann) and others. Fruhlinger agreed to this plan and I composed a short piece related the the American comic strip Gil Thorp. In order to cope with the expected server traffic, I created a very simple video of the face of the titular character slowly zooming in with the piece as soundtrack and uploaded it to YouTube. ( My small advertisement ran for a week and then Fruhlinger made a post specifically about the piece. He was very positive, using words like “stunning” and “masterpiece.” (Fruhlinger) The video got 4000 views in a very short period of time. However, despite how happy Fruhlinger was and some positive comments from his readers such as, “I stand amazed,” (commodorejohn) this got me no new commissions.

Does this mean that the model fails? I had predicted that I would get some new commissions out of such a high profile endorsement, but didn't. There are a few possible explanations. Consumers may be unused to the idea of commissioning a composer. In my brief stint in marketing, I was told that consumers do not absorb an idea until they encounter it multiple times. This was just one post. Or, conversely, it could have been their lack of familiarity with me. A better known composer may have fared better. It may also have been the economy, which was not doing well at the time and has since gotten worse. Commissioning music is a luxury and one that might seem eccentric and easy to forego.

Marketing this project is actually quite difficult. I found I could do three commissions in a week. There is no way I could cope with the volume that mass-market success would imply. Therefore, going after high-profile general subject bloggers is not the way to draw in new customers, as success could be as much a disaster as failure. However, it is a way to draw in new listeners. Most of the visitors to the blog would not have heard my piece otherwise. My attempts at an accessible duration did pay off, even if social media buzz didn't gain me new customers. Making a piece for one person motivates that one person to share it, but it does not motivate his or her friends to share it also.

Musically, I was interested in very short pieces because of the 60x60 Project, in which I had participated. I found it very frustrating to make a pice so short. While my piece Clocker had been accepted, I did not feel happy with it. I started listening to very short pieces, for example, tracks from the albums Haikus Urbanis and Snakes and Ladders, to get into the right mindset.

When constructing my very short pieces, I've found that it's best to have three closely related ideas, and three overdubbed mono tracks. A minute is too long to only have one idea, but too short to go through a lot of material. There is also not a lot of time for major density changes, unless that is the focus of the piece. As I worked on this project, I found that a minute began to seem longer and longer. A composer could easily fit over a hundred discrete events in a minute.

In my portfolio, I have included several of these pieces, listed here with their programme notes:

Shorts #29: Raining Up

Commissioned and titled by Autumn Looijen

This piece was created using a MOTM synthesiser and mixed in Ardour. There were several false starts. I had been doing field recordings of storms and for a while, every artificial sound I made seemed to also sound like weather. The title Autumn chose seems to indicate that I didn’t quite get away from weather-related sounds.

Shorts #28: Untitled

Commissioned by Cecile Moochnek

I wasn’t looking for a commission when I walked into the Cecile Moochnek Gallery on 4th Street in Berkeley, California. I was looking to do Christmas shopping. But I got talking to the gallery owner about art and music and she asked me to write her a short piece. This was in December of 2007. I wrote the piece in 2008.

I made this piece with a Evenfall MiniModular Synthesiser. This was an all-in-one box modular synthesiser from the 1990′s. It’s a great little synth.

Shorts #27: Gil Thorp

Commissioned and titled by Josh Fruhlinger

Josh gave me the title before I started the piece. Gil Thorp is the name of a surreal American newspaper comic which is supposed to be about high school sports. Josh runs a blog discussing newspaper comics, called the Comics Curmudgeon.

I recorded (British) football from my TV, which included my housemate clapping after a goal. Then, I decided to use white noise, because it’s very similar to crowd sounds. I filtered it a lot to make sort of screetchy sounds. The football announcers didn’t exactly have the accent that I would expect Marty Moon to have, so I kept them in the background. My girlfriend said that it struck her as very Mark Trail-like, so I raised the volume of the background at the end, to make the sports connection clearer.

Bird-like sounds remind me of high school sports, but that’s probably because my high school had a terrible seagull infestation.

Shorts #26: Ecstatic Rivulet

Commissioned and titled by Clyde Nielsen

For this piece, I wanted to use a field recording that I made while camping over the summer. Visually, the campground looked like it would make a suitable set for a horror movie. The animals were correspondingly loud and screetchy at night and so I made a recording with my cell phone.

I listened to the recording a few times and it made me think of GrainPic, a project that I had intended to abandon. Everything I do with this always sounds kind of rough and unpolished, which is why I stopped working with it. But it seems to fit well with my memory of that campground.

Shorts #25: Untitled

Commissioned by Scott Wilson

When approached for a title for this piece, Scott noted that the piece has a “flatulent quality,” but it would be better to resist referencing that in a title.

To make this piece, I recorded myself playing a bovine signaling horn and a didjeridu, both of which I ran through a Sherman filterbank to use as FX. There’s also a little bit of feedback, especially the very last sounds. Processing a didgeridu turns out to be much more straightforward and easy than processing a cow horn.

Shorts #24: College Promo

Commissioned and titled by Jean Sirius

I wanted to something that started out serious, but got more playful further in. The opening is square waves, which are pulse-width modulated and slightly frequency modulated. While I was recording them, my dog was sleeping nearby. She started barking in her sleep. The almost never barks when she’s awake, but when she’s asleep, she barks quiet, air, high pitched barks which cause her snout to slightly inflate, since she doesn’t open her mouth. Maybe she’s actually dreaming of chasing pigeons? The sleep-barking sounded really great with the music! I couldn’t record my dog without accidentally waking her, so instead I tried to mimic the sound with a Sherman filterbank. I failed miserably, but I like the sounds that I got. Every time I use this instrument, I have a little more fun with it and like it a little bit more. It’s frustrating at first, but the effort is paying off.

Shorts #23: Gamut

Commissioned and titled by Devin Hurd

This piece was made with a MOTM analogue synthesiser.


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Slaw. Snakes and Ladders. Doubtful Palace, 2002. CD.

Springman, Chris. “The Mouse that Ate the Public Domain: Disney, The Copyright Term Extension Act, and Eldred v. Ashcroft.” FindLaw. 5 March 2002. Web. 11 August 2001. <>

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