27 May 2011

Records on Ribs: A Machine of Loving Grace?

Posted by Dave at 9:52 pm

A while back I wrote a lengthy post at nomadic utopianism about hypnaogic pop, cyberpunk and utopia (I noted in the ‘get out clauses’ at the bottom that I’d rather shamefully failed to work Records on Ribs into my discussion, and reading it back now it seems strangely pessimistic- coloured by a more paternal Marxist bent than I would generally subscribe to, powerful though such arguments are). Anyway, I’m reminded of this because Rick Poynor’s post on Adam Curtis’ latest BBC documentary, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ (which is named after the poem below- image from Poynor- and which I’ve shamefully not yet seen)  joined up the dots for me between cyberpunk and the prefigurative utopianism of Records on Ribs which I discussed in today’s earlier blog post.

Of particular note in Poynor’s dissemination of Curtis’ documentary is the idea that the cybernetic dream of utopia- of a ‘cybernetic ecology’ is over. This seems to run contrary to the claims I made in yesterday’s post about seeing Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopian space, but I think we have to acknowledge that the web- whilst it might provide the model- does not provide all the means. Building a society beyond capitalism will mean far more than sharing stuff online: the basic substances of existence- food, shelter, clothing-  cannot be downloaded, no matter how fast your modem. We cannot pretend that Records on Ribs constitutes an adequate offering to the struggle. It is relatively easy to create communist spaces online; far less so in the physical world.

But we do not believe that we should abandon decentralised, nonhierarchical, self-organising modes of being. Whilst there is a similarity with much neoliberal thought (Hayek’s concept of catallaxy, for example, or even ‘The Big Society’), and whilst neoliberalism has co-opted this rhetoric, the world we live in fails to deliver on the promise of anarchistic cyberneticism because it is a system which is founded upon- and which perpetuates- inequality. Where there is inequality there is also hierarchy and where there is hierarchy there cannot be immanent self-organisation. Money buys access and control, and forms which threaten neoliberalism’s total domination are destroyed or co-opted. Where there is hegemony and police brutality there is not genuine, immanent, self-organisation. The system does everything it can to head off change. It might be internally dynamic (though even this is questionable), but it refuses to go beyond itself.

It’s time to wrestle back nonhierarchy and self-organisation from capitalism and to liberate it in the name of communism; in the name of commonly owned property. It’s not time to retreat from the utopian dream that networks and nonhierarchical organisation promise us.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pins and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


26 May 2011

To Free or not to Free?

Posted by Dave at 6:17 pm

The issue of distributing music for free rarely goes away, and it’s all kicked off in Wire magazine following UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith’s Epiphany in last month’s issue in which he stated that as a result of filesharing  ‘just like you I stopped buying music’. This month’s edition contains a strongly worded response by ReR boss Chris Cutler, which argues that the ‘all music should be free’ movement is an ‘idiot wave’. As a record label that gives away its music for free these are issues we’re naturally interested in. We’d like to think we’re not part of an idiot wave, but are aware of the complex ethical position we’re in. Hopefully this post will clarify our position a little more.

A New World in the Shell of the Old

Despite our manifesto claim that we are ‘not against anything’, Records on Ribs exists at least partly to protest capitalist modes of production and the monetary theories of value and the system of copyright that accompany  and support capitalism. But negative critique  contains- at least implicitly- a positive vision of how the world should be otherwise, and for us that positive vision is writ large in everything we do. We see Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopia: a space of commonly owned property which points to how the world might otherwise be. It is ‘a new world in the shell of the old‘, as Aaron Peters puts it. It is communism, decentralised: here and now.

Pop Will Eat Itself

Kenneth Goldsmith’s file-sharing inspired Epiphany is something quite different. I don’t know much about what his politics are, but the views he expresses are not in any sense anti-capitalist. Rather, they embody the eternally disatisfied greed of capitalism’s dream consumer. ‘The minute I get something’, he writes ‘I just crave more’. This is what capitalism demands of us: each purchase promising something it can’t possibly deliver and setting in chain a feeling of dispondancy and failure, which drives us on to consume more and more, even as we boast about what we do have (‘It’s all about quantity…I’m drowning in my riches. I’ve got more music on my drives than I’ll ever be able to listen to in the next ten lifetimes’). Goldsmith argues that this ‘is an inversion of consumption…in which we’ve come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring’, but there’s not really much inverting going on-for many decades capitalism has been about the thrill of the chase rather than the catch itself. After all, if we’re satisfied with the objects of our consumption we’ll cease to consume. Goldsmith sitting in his study feverishly downloading rarities from across the globe is experiencing the same thrill as Carrie, Samantha and co as they trawl the malls of Dubai for dresses they’ll probably forget they own. t’s an alienating existence marked by addiction to the chase rather than any enjoyment.

What’s interesting about Goldsmith’s column (and I should make it clear that I have no interest in passing judgement on him) is that his views represent the point at which the logics of capitalism overtake themselves. Promised the world, consumers suddenly realise that through the internet they can take it for free, and help themselves to whatever they can. Having for so long been told that greed is good, the subject of consumerism seizes that greed and uses it to bring down the system that helped to create them.

Where’s the free plumbers?

Except it doesn’t really threaten to bring down the system. The immediate result of thousands of people downloading music, films and television is that the people who make it suffer. We couldn’t give a flying fuck about Lily Allen or Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox, but we do care about our many friends who make brilliant music and struggle to make ends meet from day to day because hardly anyone pays them for their music, whilst capitalism carries on as usual in other spheres.

There are two answers to this. The first is to encourage people to pay for the music they listen to-  by calmly stating the damage that downloading music can do (as Cutler does) and by making the physical object worth spending money on, restoring the fetish for the object which Goldsmith says he has lost. The second is more long-term (although as a prefigurative movement it is also immediatist) and calls for a system of exchange beyond capitalism: gift economies, common ownership and mutual aid (and to be fair to Goldsmith, he touches on these issues here). Free music here works as a prefigurative movement heralding a complete shift in our relations. As Cutler notes, plumbers do not work for free. But capitalism is not the end of history and perhaps one day plumbers will work for free. Perhaps, perhaps by giving away our music for free we can play our part (a tiny part) in showing what can be done when we abandon capitalism’s modes of exchange.

A Cautious Revolution

It’s clear that these two strategies are almost mutually exclusive- and this clash between short term survival and long term radical change is a problem that those trying to go beyond capitalism often encounter. Discussing the plight of workers at car manufacturing plants in Oxford in the 90s, David Harvey noted that the short term aims of securing their jobs hampered many longer-term goals- better working conditions, higher pay and a cleaner local environment. And many sympathetic to the plight of workers would probably also crave a world without so many cars and their destructive impact on our health and our environment, which clearly wouldn’t do their job prospects much good.

There is, then, clearly a tricky balance to strike and in my own musical consumption I try and navigate both paths. On one hand I offer music for free through Records on Ribs, recognising that doing so is not just a way of ‘getting the music out there, man’, but a political act; a utopian act. And I download music for free too. On the other hand I spend as much as I can on music released by labels who care about their artists and support a whole microindustry of professionals and creatives- designers, lathe cutters, etc. These are all skills/trades we’d want to survive beyond the revolution so we must be cautious not to trample them in our greedy haste for a new world. And hey, Records On Ribs isn’t above accepting donations too.

It’s a tricky debate, and I think we should welcome both the honesty of Goldsmith and the clairty of Cutler. But as we think through what it means to acquire music, we should also think how we might be able to live beyond this shitty system that causes so much suffering and unhappiness.

All music should be free, but so should all plumbing.

I write from my own standpoint here, and not necessarily from those of our artists, who may have a diversity of opinions on this project and the need for free. I think I’m right in saying that ROR co-founder Alex agrees with me on much of this, so I’ll take the liberty of using the collective noun. If anything, Alex is perhaps a little more pro-free than I am, but I’ll let him speak for himself in future – Dave.

6 November 2009

Music for Free

Posted by Dave at 1:55 pm

With straw-men, insults and shoddy evidence flying around on either side, the recent debates on filesharing and free music (sparked by Lily Allen’s now infamous blog post) exlempify our inability to approach an issue with an open mind and a positive argument.

Free Music Can Be Good For Musicians

Our artists evidently think so, or they wouldn’t have allowed us to distribute it.

I still believe that the primary reason most artists choose to make music is to get their music heard. Buying a guitar, amplifier and a few pedals will cost about £1000.  Practice rooms are about a tenner an hour. Transport to and from practice and gigs is expensive.

It takes time, too.  Months writing music; weeks practicing it; days playing it live and recording it. Hours of burning CD-Rs, printing labels, folding, stapling and assembling. For what? 100 CD-Rs sold (eventually) at £5 a pop? A profit of £300-£400, split between the band. There are easier ways to make money. Lily Allen says free music damages these ‘up and coming artists’. How? They each lose £80 after spending £2000-£3000?

Against that, you can distribute your music for free. EL Heath would not have sold almost 5,000 CD-Rs; but he’s had that number of downloads from RoR and our uploads on Legal Torrents. Indeed, he probably wouldn’t sell that many CDs/LPs if he had a deal with a reasonably sized indie label and some nice reviews in  The Wire. The musician has lost their £80, but they have gained 4,900 listeners.

Releasing music for free can be good for musicians.

Free Music Can Be Bad For Musicians

There are limits on what you can do if you release your music for free.

You can never quit your job to become a full-time musician. You cannot use expensive studios unless you are already rich. You will not even make back the money you spend making your music. It is financially exclusive. Whilst new technology means anyone can make a decent sounding album for not a lot of cash, it’s always going to be beyond the financial means of some people. Yet given that any cash injection from sales or a label would only come after some initial recording, it is difficult to see how people financially excluded from making music are included in the present system.

Furthermore, we don’t believe it is the fault of free music that some people cannot afford to make music. It is a fault of the system. Our economics dictate that people are excluded from a number of activities. Free downloads can only be blamed for damaging DIY musicians from within the capitalist system.

Nevertheless, it is in a capitalist system that we find ourselves and this makes it difficult. Many of our dearest friends struggle to make music within that system and are finding it an ever greater struggle as people stop paying for their records because they believe music should be free.

Yet it is precisely because we are in a capitalist system that we will fight for something else. A system where people are not excluded from making music because they have no money. A system where people are not excluded from buying enough music to satisfy their desires because they have no money. Free music is a utopia, in the present; on behalf of the future…

Free Music can be Good for the World

We believe in things for themselves, not as market commodities. Hakim Bey laments the fact that the internet did not bring about the revolution it promised: he cannot find free carrots online. No, but he can now find free music. Perhaps our example will inspire others to think that they would like to share what they have produced with passion and love for others, for free. Perhaps if enough people did that money would be less important. A gift economy: from each according to their ability to each according to their interests. The prize carrot grower wants all to share her produce, and offers her carrots for free. Furthermore, she takes great pride in sharing her knowledge of how to grow such carrots.

In our utopia, all will be the property of all. The power of the commons will be restored to the people, and from the commons there will be land to farm, carrots to grow and music to listen to.

Free music is good for the world.

21 December 2008

How We Run This Website – Ribcage

Posted by Alex at 11:48 pm


One of the things we say in our manifesto is that anyone could do what we are doing. This post (below the fold) describes the technical nuts and bolts of how this site works so you can maybe do the same. In particular it describes the genesis of the software that runs this site – Ribcage. We get a fair bit of e-mail about it, which I am always very pleased to answer.

Myself and The Fabulous Mr Eric Lee are going to host the first annual ROR hackathon in January – the intention being twofold. First to expand Ribcage beyond its current parameters – to interface with Last.fm and Musicbrainz properly, to add details of gigs for our various artists, to allow users to be informed of updates more easily. Secondly and more vitally, it is also to make Ribcage a WordPress plugin that anyone can install and use. The implication is, we hope, obvious: anyone who can run a blog will be able to run a download label. With the new WordPress 2.7 allowing plugins to be installed direct from the repository without messing around with FTP and the like, this means that you could go from a standard blog to a label blog in less than five minutes – imagine the possibilities!

Photo by flickring.

Read the rest of this entry »

24 January 2008

How We Release A Record Digitally

Posted by Alex at 7:40 pm

Some Records...I am proud to announce that we have almost, but not quite, reached the 300 downloads of our releases that I asked you to help with last week. One more push and we should be over that cliff!

In our manifesto we say that “Anyone could do what we are doing”. This is almost certainly the case, and like many labels before us, we are going to let you know, in the DIY spirit, precisely how we do what we do in a series of posts focused on technology and otherwise.

So how do we do it? First off, how do we get a record ready for digital release?

  1. We either receive CDs through the post from our artists, or our artists upload their albums as lossless FLAC files to their FTP accounts on our server. FLACs are, as you might be aware, the same as CD quality, but somewhat compressed. With a CD I carefully rip it to FLAC using Max. Max is a free and open source Mac OS X program that rips CD and converts audio files from format to format with the absolute minimum of fuss. The well regarded Windows equivalent is Exact Audio Copy. I use it instead of using iTunes as a ripper even for importing CDs normally to add to my library. But more of that in a second.With FTP I just grab ’em from the server. I use Cyberduck for FTP, which while not perfect, is very good, and quite acceptable in comparison to similar (but sexier) commercial applications like Transmit.
  2. I tag the FLAC files with a program called Tag! It’s also open source and free and from the same programmer as Max. I ensure the files are tagged correctly with track names and other details and then use Max to automatically convert them to the four different types of music file we use on this site and do neat filenames and tagging. On Records On Ribs we have high quality variable bit rate MP3 (-v 0 --vbr-new LAME for you MP3 snobs out there), FLAC and Ogg Vobris for downloading, 128 kbps constant bit rate MP3 for streaming. To set Max to produce very good quality and potentially transparent MP3s at -v 0 --vbr-new follow these instructions. Originally the plan was to do all this in Ribcage on the server-side using command-line tools (the *nix versions of FLAC, LAME and Ogg), which we did with a couple of records. But our artist’s often odd song titles prevented the script from working properly without an extensive re-write and debug, so I opted for this method.
  3. These files then wing their back over the internet via FTP to the site. To avoid too much carting huge files around around, I create the zip files in a SSH shell logged into our site rather than upload them. I just type in the command and bish bash bosh they are done.
  4. All the details of the release gets added into Musicbrainz and then into our own Ribcage database with relevant copy. Within the next few days I’ll update Ribcage so I’ll only have to enter it on Musicbrainz and it will be slurped into our database with a single click. Artwork is scaled to different sizes and FTPed to the site. Once we click go, it appears live on the site.

Potentially the time between receiving the files over FTP from the artist and having the release live on the site is under two hours, dependent only on internet connection speed. The thing which takes the longest is writing copy about the record, which can sometimes take days if one if having a spot of writers block.

For example, I am assured that a certain artist will be sending a record over to me, possibly even tonight. I’ve got to cook dinner and watch Torchwood, but if he does it should be probably around and about, ready for me to write some copy and post it tomorrow morning, all going well.

Photography by Dan Machold.