Cummings’s Democracy of Sound acknowledges the explosive financial success and social significance of the burgeoning Culture Industries; rather than recounting the history of these industries’ development, though, Cummings focuses on the shadowy counterpart to their supposed domination of the landscape: piracy. Cummings asks how American music fans, artists, and entrepreneurs (both “legitimate” and “criminal,” a distinction which changes over time) “deal with” the ability to duplicate sound throughout the last century (4). Specifically, Democracy of Sound traces the tradition of unauthorized duplication from its roots in the unsanctioned copying of sheet music and piano rolls, through the era of jazz aficionados’ project of “cultural preservation,” through the counterculture’s embrace of bootlegging as a means of spreading the cultish appeal and counter-hegemonic values of bands like the Grateful Dead, to more recent waves of piracy, bootlegging, and sampling represented by punk and hip-hop fans, musicians, and aspiring mini-moguls.
As the book’s title suggests, “sound” (music, specifically) has been democratized over the course of the century, as it became easier and easier to duplicate and distribute it (and sometimes exploit it) thanks to technological innovations (handmade, one at-a-time phonograph copies being replaced by LPs, magnetic tape formats, and ultimately “perfect” digitization) and growing social networks (jazz fans, “greatest hits” shoppers at truck stops, jam-band camp followers, and so on). On the other hand, though, the book traces the concomitant de-democratization of sound: attempts made by the increasingly powerful representatives of the music subsidiaries of the Culture Industry to restrict people’s access to musical duplication in order to protect their own investments and maximize profits. The industry’s enablers were legislators whose allegiance shifted during the course of the twentieth century, gradually moving towards embracing a pro-corporate, anti-copying agenda – or prohibition, to use a historical evocative term – that ultimately criminalized unauthorized duplication, regardless of what the citizenry wanted or what practices it might have already been engaged in.
One might have expected a history of piracy and copyright to highlight the details of technological advancements in recording, the chronological tracking of the changes in regulations and legal status of “copying” recorded sound, and the political-economic institutional history of the music-based culture industry, and Cummings’s hits upon each of these in the unfolding of his narrative. Instead of merely focusing on the Great Men who made that history, though, Cummings turns Hoftstadter on his head and focuses on a parade of not-so-great-men who have pushed the limits of notions of “intellectual property” itself, creating a history of entrepreneurs, hobbyists, fans, get-rich-quick schemers, hippies, self-made cultural curators, and the occasional scoundrel, limning an alternative genealogy that becomes a kind of American Piratical Tradition and the Men Who Made It. By examining the contributions of Dante Bollettino, Boris Rose, John Perry Barlow, and companies like Jolly Roger and the Hot Record Society, Cummings constructs a democratic approach that underscores his central opposition: the story of piracy – or its flipside (ahem), the story of an ever-strengthening, increasingly restrictive new set of property rights as expressed via state-created, business-provoked copyright – is the story of the desires of the people bumping up against the profit-drive of the Culture Industry.
Cummings demonstrates that the tool that corporate interests relied upon was copyright (both in re-shaping its meaning and in the eventual construction of the idea of “intellectual property” rights). The Copyright Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8) originally both protected the creators of ideas and established the importance of the public domain, which allows other creators to build on the original ideas (“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” see http://www.copyright.gov for more details). Thanks to the tireless lobbying persuasion of the Culture Industries, the jolts produced by economic recessions that were argued to have been driven, in part, by challenges to the entertainment industry, and, it must be noted, by the visibility and virality of the egregious excesses of some pirates and bootleggers too, Congress’ conception of Copyright changed drastically, increasingly protecting industry and curtailing the public domain. Congressional iterations of new laws (in 1909, 1956, and 1976, for instance; also in the Clinton-era Digital Millennium Copyright Act) recognized new “property rights” for intellectual and cultural creations, while simultaneously limiting citizens’ ability to copy them (and thus characterizing most copying as “stealing” something that had previously not even been recognized as property).
Did the criminalization of piracy – and a huge chunk of music’s listenership too – wind up destroying music, turning it wholly into corporatized “product”? Perhaps I am sensing Cummings’s faith in democracy in my reading of his conclusion, which strikes (it seems to me) an optimistic note for the future. Instead of wiping out popular music – and unplugging its systems of meaning, its power to create, speak to, and organize social groups, and its ultimate value as the people’s “authentic” cultural expression (and boy is that a throwaway phrase that needs unpacking, huh?) – copyright restriction did not end piracy at the end of the twentieth century at all. Cummings notes that music has proliferated instead, is “as abundant as ever” (218), and we currently live in a climate in which more music is available and in circulation than ever in the industry’s history. The democratic challenge to rigid copyright laws, or “home taping,” as the music business used to put it, did not “kill music” as the suits formerly warned, but allowed it instead to flourish; as Cummings approvingly notes, the history of piracy’s eventual triumph “may record that it killed the twentieth-century record industry” (218).
1) Assuming that there is an “air of optimism” running through Dr. C’s book – a debatable point of course, as the comments below and the class session may reveal – do you agree with it? Has the democratic, piratical challenge to the expansion of copyright succeeded; have the good, populist Davids won and the bad, corporate Goliaths lost? Has this been a good thing or a bad thing? Dr. C’s conclusion hints that one of the “fruits” of the work of the historical march of bootleggers and pirates has been the emergence of copyright-challenging “new businesses” (218; I’ll suggest examples like iTunes and Spotify). Has this development been beneficial for fans and artists (and the “cultural legacy” the early jazzbo fanboys were creating) alike? I’d love to take some time during class on Wednesday to hear about everybody’s own experience with the piracy/copyright dynamic: do we have music fans in the house for whom this is a pivotal issue? Has your relationship with music gotten better or worse under the watchful eyes of the RIAA?
2) Part of the “curious status of sound” (45) is its immateriality; while other cultural works may have either the aspects of a tangible good (books, paintings) or visuality (movies, tv), music has tended to float upon the ether. In the contemporary era, though, many cultural works have the same kind of immateriality – they’ve all been digitized into ones and zeros. Does the new non-materiality of all “new” media mean that books, movies, and television will follow the same piratical trajectory as music in the 21st C? Is file size the only thing that has forestalled the collapse of all of the culture industries? And how long will that advantage last?
3) The chapter “The Global War on Piracy” takes a different turn than the rest of Dr. C’s book, detouring into an international story that intersects with the American one most of the book tells. Why do you think he does that (Dr C: no telling until after we discuss!)? Put another way, how, why, when, and in which ways is the domestic narrative imbricated with the global one? To open the question up a little further: should all of the histories we’ve been reading so far tried to layer in a global perspective as well, or does it satisfy you to bracket our histories at the nation’s borders? (PS: Moreton’s essay is a very notable exception to the rule)
$) I don’t know if you agree that Dr C’s book functions, in part, as a kind of Not-So-Great Men narrative (both in the sense of just-plain-folks versus Popes and Presidents, but also in the sense of its description of some semi-scrupulous characters). What seems beyond debate, though, is that the book is a history of men; with very few exceptions (Patti Smith and Sylvia Robinson?), this is a story of male artists, male businessmen, male fans, and male pirates. Do you think that the phenomena of piracy and bootlegging is somehow gendered? (There’s a great passage about the “manly tinkering” of sound duplication and stereophonics during the ’50s on pages 71-3) I’d love to spend a few minutes of class-time picking apart this commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiJzLfxWooo – complete with Wagner!), but it might speak for itself. If so, has the gendering continued into the present? If so, any speculation as to why and how this might have happened?
5) As long as history books are material things that we hold between covers (see question 2 above!), they will be forced to omit some parts of the stories they tell (or they’ll never get published). Dr C’s book touches upon some parts of the piratical tradition very briefly (high culture “appropriation art,” Post-Modernism), omits some (the Clinton Era Digital Millennium Copyright Act), and missed out on more recent others due to the relentless march of history beyond the realities of writing deadlines and publication dates (Kim Dotcom, the rise and fall of MP3 blogs). How do you think that piracy-related phenomena that have occurred since the publication of Dr C’s book fit within the narrative he has built? Have recent events taken the twins of piracy and copyright into new, unanticipated directions , or have the dynamics Dr C describes still hold? Finally, to look at the question another way, are there parts of the story that you either expected or wanted to see in Democracy of Sound that you did not? Most broadly: if the history of the twentieth century led American culture and economics from Fordism to Post-Fordism – from a reliance on manufacturing things like light bulbs, in one of the text’s fascinating details, to relying on the light bulbs over people’s heads instead – what might be the ways in which this tension between copyright and piracy will shape our future?