cheap chinese food. how you feed a billion and a half people
My “colleague” at Tropics of Meta has published a new book, Democracy of Sound, which has been getting some play online. Much of the reception seems fairly positive, but I’d like to register a minority report. I’d hate to bite the hand that feeds me (what exactly? Purina and egoboo?), but here is a critical take on the book:
Democracy of Sound purports to tell us how we got to the world of Napster, Limewire, and YouTube, where allegedly overweaning enforcement of copyright threatens the development of artistic creativity and technological development in the early twentieth century. To do so, Cummings goes all the way back to the origins of sound recording and the music industry, with the copying of wax cylinders and sheet music in the late nineteenth century.
The rest of the book traces examples of piracy through the swing era of the 1930s and 40s to the heady days of rock and roll and the counterculture in the 1960s. Cummings goes on to chart how copyright was reformed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s at both the state and federal level to make protections last longer and the punishment of infringement more, well, punitive. Far be it from me to polish the knobs of the greedy scumbags of the music industry, whose greedy scumbagginess has been extensively documented in the literature and is widely known even among the illiterate general public, but it feels like Cummings is carrying water for the pirates most of the time and ignoring the obvious question of how industries who invest in a product upfront can survive when everyone else sells it for free.
Incredibly, Cummings doesn’t extend the book to the actual period of file-sharing post-Napster, which seems like an obvious and natural subject for a book about music piracy. Limewire and its ilk are briefly discussed in the conclusion, but this seems like a glaring oversight for a project of this nature.
As he discusses the metaphysical mechanics of the unfair competition doctrine and how many copyright holders can fit on the head of a needle, Cummings’s prose can be grindingly dull and bonecrushingly dense. It may be that these topics are just difficult to write about in an interesting way, but it would be interesting to try.
Ultimately, it’s like every history book that argues “it’s all very complicated and there were a variety of forces at work.” Is it technological determinism (tape=piracy)? Is it the decline of the New Deal coalition? Is it creeping neoliberalism? Is it the emergence of the post-industrial society? It’s all of the above, and/or who knows.