Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: September 2007

28 September 2007

Transcending Possessiveness in Love and Music

Recently, I've been reading a lot about two things that seem unrelated: one is the clash over copyrights between labels, musicians, and listeners; the other is polyamory.

I've been researching the polyamory because after a few years of studying spirituality - and being in a wonderful, loving, incredibly difficult relationship - I had mixed feelings about sharing all of my love with a single person. On the one hand, discipline and depth. On the other hand, the liberation of not having to refuse other opportunities for genuine connection. Polyamory isn't about sleeping with whomever you want; it's about having mature, mutual loving relationships in a number of different forms, recognizing how unlikely it is that a single individual is going to fulfill all of your needs.

When we were more embedded in our communities and surrounded by the love of a giant extended family, we weren't making such incredible demands on our romantic partners. Now, in an era of emotional estrangement, we have this lunatic idea that we're supposed to get all of our love from, and give all of our love to, our "one and only." This is mixed up with monotheism and vestiges of our evolutionary history in ways too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that for many people, polyamorous relationships satisfy a multifaceted sense of intimacy that would be impossible with one person. They can also demand at least as much maturity and grace as monogamous relationships, in which the secure illusions of possessing the other person and of having one true lover are allowed to blossom - and bruise - unhindered.

The other topic is something I've been navigating because of my own identity as a songwriter trying to make a career in the midst of radical upheaval in the music business. I'm constantly poised to find a new synthesis, one that allows me to make a living at this while still honoring my conviction that the music I write should be freely available to anyone who would care to listen.

The usual dualistic debates strike me as ludicrous and naïve; it's not so cut and dry that we can say music should or should not be free. One of the rules of a network economy is that value is driven by ubiquity. The only remaining scarcity, in a world where the costs of information and production are swiftly approaching zero, is attention. Thus, the more people who know (or rely on) your product or service, the more it is worth - regardless of how much it costs to make. If nobody has heard of your music, a hundred-thousand dollar studio project is worth nothing. If you're a huge star, people scramble over each other for your bedroom demos.

This is why emerging artists are often so eager to give away their recordings (thus generating an audience), while so many established artists have been fighting p2p digital distribution as if it were a plague. We need to embrace a new understanding of economic value that I'm not sure our culture is willing to accept: after all, most people would agree that the majority of well-known music out there is worth a lot less, in an artistic sense, than the craft of relative unknowns.

(We can think of this as kinetic versus potential energy. At their best, A&R reps are cultural catalysts, doing for the realm of ideas what oil hunters do for the realm of industrial power supply. Likewise, record labels and oil magnates have a lot in common: both have lost sight of their empowering ideals and started to choke the flow of resources.)

Back to the matter at hand. These two issues - polyamory and copyright law - are operating on totally different scales, in different arenas of our lives. Or are they? After all, I've seen bumper stickers professing that "Music = Love." On some deep level, both of these are symptoms of a deep struggle that we as individuals and as a society are having with the concept of ownership.

Consequently, I find romance a very useful metaphor for the music scene: When major labels are saying, "You can't just release your album for free online!," I think what they mean is, "I thought I was special to you, and now you're sleeping with someone else!" The label is dependent on the exclusive relationship it has with its artists. As in many supposedly monogamous relationships, however, the deal is a double standard - the contract itself favors the interests of one partner over the interests of the other. Since one of them has something that the other cannot (or believes they cannot) provide for themselves, truly mutual negotiation is an illusion.

But of course, before you can love another person or really be loved, you must first love yourself. Without question, the most successful relationships are those in which both partners are involved out of choice, rather than necessity. The most satisfying partnerships are between people who enter them from a place of autonomy, as a gift, unafraid of standing on their own.

In the worst kind of relationship, your partner is sweet to you when you do as she likes, and makes your life a living hell when you don't. In the best kind of relationship, you are internally motivated to care for her out of your gratitude. In the best kind of relationship, musicians would be more than happy to sign a contract with a major label, because the label recognizes that happy artists make better music.

I wonder what this all will mean in the era toward which we seem to be headed: one in which audiences will have unlimited access to streaming music, but no real ownership of copyright to speak of. It'll sound like this: "You can have me whenever you like, but you will never own me."

I imagine the mature response would be: "That's okay; you're more enjoyable when I allow you to live as you desire, rather than under exacting specifications."

What is so precious about possessing a thing that we would rather pay dearly to own it than to have unobstructed use of it for free? Especially when dictated ownership, as has been demonstrated again and again through history, tends to squeeze the life out of land, the joy out of material goods, the exuberance out of a lover, and the soul out of music?

Music is more fun when the musicians are able to follow their muse, rather than the demands of some clueless middleman, enforced by contract and manipulation. I think we have lost faith that there is such a thing as gratitude for a job well done - that there are plenty with the willingness and the means to support good art.

Most traditional cultures take good care of their artists, who are often revered as healers and behave accordingly. It was patronage that enabled the renaissance. So it will be again.

Music and love are both like water; there is a sense in which they both "want" to flow free. We build dams and harness their energy - but destroy the local ecosystem in the process. What most of the music business can't seem to grasp is how to let a river to bend its natural course and call it irrigation. The passive abundance of the network economy is simply beyond the industrial assembly of music as big business knows it today.

Nonetheless, there are signs of change: as record sales plummet, licensing profits are higher than ever. The energy of commerce is following public attention in a much more fluid, natural way. Allow the artists to do what they will, and audiences to pay for what rings their bells.

When I imagine the future of artist-label relationship, the first company that comes to mind is Magnatune, out of Berkeley, California. Flying the motto, "We are not evil," Magnatune signs nonexclusive distribution agreements with its artists - and allows customers to pay what they think the music is worth, rather than arbitrarily assigning a market price. The result is that they have two charts: the best-selling music, and the music that has sold for the most money. For people who trust the voice of the crowd, the most valuable music is sifted into visibility - motivating artists to craft something evocative and enduring. What more, Magnatune offers three free copies of each download to all of its buyers:

"While other record labels are busy suing their customers for introducing their friends to great music... At Magnatune, we want you to copy our music for your friends."

Meanwhile, the label gains the trust of its customers and artists alike with the integrity of its value structure and the permissibility of its practices.

Leave it to Berkeley to prove free love as a business model! Magnatune's artist agreement basically says, "You are free to work with other distribution agencies if you wish, but you will be required to cancel our agreement if you sign an exclusive contract with any of them." In other words, "I don't mind you dating other people, but as soon as you start dating someone who does have a problem with, we're through." It's called being a responsible open lover, and it marks a sea change in how we conduct our business and romance.

The new role of the label is to do what it was always meant to do: sort through music for its audiences, get the right vibrations into the right ears, take a cut for the service, and do its job transparently enough that there is no suspicion on any side. It's easier than ever to make a professional recording without going into debt, or signing an "agreement" with someone whose interests conflict your own and who you can never completely trust. Labels can no longer legitimately position themselves as a necessity.

We're seeing something now akin to the emergence of the woman in the workforce: suddenly it's her decision to get married, rather than a requirement, because she can take care of herself. Of course teamwork is still easier, and marriage as an institution persists (even in polyamorous relationships). Likewise, the label will endure because it allows the artists to focus on what they do best - but there's no fooling anybody anymore. The future of love and music is choice and trust - stable agency and empowering communion. Action in consonance with passion, instead of fear.

What we have now, institutionalized in both our love and music, is an unhealthy focus on personal gain and securing turf. No one is exempt; musicians are just as much to blame for pretending to own their music as the labels are. (The most honest artists admit that the world wrote those songs through them, and so they cannot authentically lay claim to any of their work.)

But slowly, surely, we are learning about the benefit of complementarity, how to help, how to share (you get what you give). Sooner or later, music and love will both be restored to the throne, in their rightful place as sacred services to the community. Ask not what your culture can do for you...

Yoga instructor Seane Corn has said this about her own labor of love, teaching yoga to the impoverished:

“I’ve found that service is addictive. I’ve never been more confident. I’ve never felt better about myself, never been less interested in my wounds, my own drama, in my own small-minded crisis... Being in service, being an activist and looking at the world, has allowed me to live in absolute gratitude for every aspect of my life. That’s been the greatest gift I’ve ever experienced.”

Imagine the day when this is the attitude musicians and record labels bring to their work. When giving is a greater motivation in our intimate relationships than getting. When the love of song and the song of love are both entered with willingness and glee. When everyone recognizes the exceptional talent they have to offer the world, and the world sings back in gratitude.

It starts by loosening our fixation on owning the things we desire.

(Written for iggli.com)

19 September 2007

The Ear of the Beholder: Tantra and My "Desert Island" Playlist

"We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." - Anaïs Nin

Contemporary culture swims in lists. It has only gotten more intense since the advent of the internet; now we have blogs of blogs, the Billboard Top 40, the TV Guide Channel, tables of contents, dictionaries, phone books, baby name books, syllabi and mailing lists, an endless well of mail-order catalogs, the archived permutations of every internet "favorites" survey of every middle schooler as it has morphed from week to week, directories upon directories until the end of the world. Lists of lists. So much information, so little time. Our way of wrangling the overwhelming fecundity of it all into a digestible package.

The king of all lists for many of my friends is the infamous "desert island" playlist - the ten or so albums that, were we able to power our stereo with coconuts, we would hope would wash up next to our sorry shipwrecked asses on some remote archipelago. For years, I honed this list to reflect my refining tastes in music, winnowing away the chaff in a never-ending crusade to find ten recordings that would never grow old, no matter how many times I listened to them or how I changed as a person. Needless to say, this is a fool's crusade. Maybe two of those ten have stayed the same for the last five years. The Beatles' Revolver is probably the only one that will endure forever - maybe only because it got to me first.

At some point, I got a little fed up with how much time I felt compelled to spend limiting my appreciation of the musical world. After all, I am not on a desert island! Even if I was, the odds are approximately zero that I would wake up coughing on the beach still clutching my prized possessions. This rhetorical exercise reveals little more than how I like to waste my intellectual resources, idling on trivia.

It is no coincidence that around this same time, I was learning about the Eastern mystical tradition of tantra. Now for many of you, it probably goes without saying that tantra - as a lineage and not just an adolescent rumor - was never really about sex; tantra is about finding the divinity in everything. As a philosophy and practice, it appeared in reaction to those ascetic religions that demanded self-denial and even self-mutilation in the name of enlightenment (like starving one's self in order to redirect energy into higher states - or holding a single posture for years, until the body becomes malformed, as a way of cultivating concentration). The gruesome idea against which tantra revolts is that the divine, and our truest selves, are not of this world - that the goal is to escape the cycle of suffering by backing out. That the body is evil. That desires are evil. That this life is a window into something better, something that can be attained with only the most self-abnegating practice.

From this idea, tantra swept in compassionately and announced, "Look, you idiots. If enlightenment can really be found everywhere, then it can be found here: in food, in sex, in death, in business, in all of these things you so naïvely consider 'unholy.'" And so those things became explicit methods for tantric practitioners - opportunities to break the culturally-inherited stereotypes of what is "sacred" or "profane," to find beauty and holiness in the things we have been conditioned to disdain or fear or lust after. It is a radically iconoclastic tradition - because we need to smash all of our idols if we are to experience the world as it is, directly, instead of through the distorted lenses of our easy myths. It is about honoring your experience, every experience, as deeply as possible, from a place of reverence for every sacred instant, deciding for yourself whether something is worthy of your adoration. Charles Muir speaks of tantra as "about how you connect with the love that dwells in your heart, and how you put that love out into the world...about how you interact with people in your office, people driving down the freeway, your children." David Deida says that the essence of tantra is to "Treat every moment as your lover."

We can drop terms like "God" or "divine" if we find they stand in the way of our direct experience of these things. If everything is God, why do we even need the word? It's a loaded term, anyway, these days; so let's use secular temninology and simply talk about finding the beauty and mystery and wonder in all things. Remembering the old proverb, "Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder," we know that these qualities don't lie waiting to be discovered "out there" - they are something we bring to our lives.

The color "red" has no existence outside our minds; the actual experience of "red" - with all of the richness of its emotion and connotation and depth - is something that we personally constellate around a meaningless sensory datum. In exactly the same way, the beauty of a thing we believe to be a quality of that thing is actually a quality of us, a direct result of whatever beauty we are able to allow it. We are whatever beauty (or ugliness) we see in the world.

The more I came to understand this, the more I had to seriously reconsider how I was approaching my desert island playlist. This list, and others, were saying something about me as a person, obviously - not just "what I am interested in" (and thus, who I would be likely to get along with), but on a deep level, "who I am." Where I find beauty is a map of my ability to be beautiful. Where I find ugliness is an indicator of the parts of myself that remain closed to the potential beauty of the world, and thus, the parts of myself that remain ugly.

So I'm listening to a band I don't like. I'm criticizing them - how the singer is untrained, how the drummer is off time, how somebody else wrote this song and how ridiculous it is that they can't be creative enough to do it themselves. This is my experience, and I'm rejecting it. I can't fool myself anymore; this music and my interpretations of it are both parts of who I am - because who I am is a collection of experiences - and if I refuse this experience, I am refusing a part of myself. I am refusing the opportunity that is granted me in this instant to embrace beauty. And as soon as I recognize this, I realize how much energy I was unconsciously devoting to disliking this band.

If I am a music critic and I spend most of my time finding things about a piece of music I don't particularly care for, I am leaving a snail's trail of disdain, building a life out of energies that might have been given over to living in awe of the incredible creativity of our culture and world. I weave my identity out of my memories - so my ultimate responsibility is to be aware of the memories I am making, the pattern I am weaving, the person I am deciding to be.

It's not about being indiscriminate, but about making discriminations within a broader context of appreciation. I still have preferences, but I like to also find the place from which any piece of music can be enjoyed - and it all can be enjoyed, obviously, because people already do. Someone cared enough to write it, practice it, perform it. If it's in a store or on the radio or in a venue, then someone cared enough to purchase it.

The more I can find the beauty in a song that would never, ever make it onto my list, the less fixated I am on the laughably tiny slice of the world I allow myself to appreciate from force of habit. The less of my mind I spend marveling at how tremendously bad someone's new radio single is, how bizarre and probably demented the people who enjoy it must be, the more I am able to soak in the fun of it - or whatever the intent might be, the qualities that brought it into being in the first place - and the easier it is for me to find solidarity with the people naturally inclined to feel the same way. I find it much more nourishing to come at artwork from this perspective - what is called a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" mentality.

A friend of mine recently caught me railing on a particular artist and said, "Try to say two things you like about this person's work before you start taking them apart." It's a remarkably revealing practice. Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating being "nice" just for the sake of it, just because it's the "right thing to do," or because "mean people suck." I am not going to pass judgment on you if you decide to spend your time and energies explaining to people who like a piece of music why they shouldn't. I do, however, hope that you notice when you are doing this and, at the very least, can agree with the emotional and energetic investment you're making. Is talking trash really how you want to spend your time? Doesn't it feel better to be appreciative? Wouldn't you rather be putting the world together than breaking it into pieces? There's plenty of that going on already.

Nor am I advocating any kind of compromise - this isn't about forcing yourself to like terrible music. To the contrary, the real compromise is in usual predisposition for appreciating only some of the endless bounty we are offered. We imagine that we have only so much love to go around, and solder shut our own cages. To discover the beauty in absolutely everything is the most radically uncompromising position we can adopt, because we can no longer hide in our preferences. We can no longer pretend that we are so easily defined. We challenge ourselves to love no matter what.

Taking a second look at my desert island playlist, I wonder: How disappointed would I really be, to be marooned without my favorite music? Drawing a bigger circle, how disappointed am I to be marooned in this human life, without constant access to the object of my affection? Or rather, to have forgotten that beauty is something I carry with me wherever I go, regardless of what I have managed to clutch to my desperate breast through the waves and storm?

Instead of endlessly redrawing the boundaries of what I will permit myself to love, I am going to expand my silly little hypothesis of who I am to include love for whatever the world presents me. I have been shipwrecked - and, washed up on my island, I discover that my playlist of favorites is the song of the wind through the trees, the crashing of the waves, the crying gulls, the whispers of the shifting sand. Everything. You say radio sucks? I say, love the one you're with. You can change the station, but you can't get rid of yourself.

My mission is no longer to create the perfect playlist, the most delicately crafted artifact of my personal limitations. My mission is to take that list and stretch it over the whole damn world - to recognize the good and true and beautiful in every faulty, partial, opaque piece of music ever made. Yes, every song falls short from perfectly realizing the universal beauty I know exists. And yes, every song is one gleaming facet of an infinite gem I am slowly working to unearth.

No more "guilty pleasures." I am done trying to excuse myself in the company of the elite for the shape of my affection. There is nothing shameful about love, whatever form it takes. If someone else disapproves of my joy, I forgive them - because I chain myself to my preferences, too! I still wonder about people who dig songs I don't dig. I still have my favorite stations, my favorite bands, my favorite songs. I still like to make lists, to name the wonders I have discovered...and what a luxury, the making of lists! It's beautiful, isn't it?

Goodnight, moon.

(Written for iggli.com)

11 September 2007

Visionary Instruments: The Light Harp

"We are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams."
- Arthur O'Shaughnessy

I recently discovered another new instrument designed for use by more than one person: Jen Lewin's ultra-cool Light Harp. Starting with a Theremin-type concept (waving your hands through space to make music) and expanding it into several new dimensions, the Light Harp is a massive installation piece that uses laser beams to translate its users' motions into sound.

You literally play this thing by catching light in your hand. Each beam measures both the height and speed at which it is broken and assigns them independent variables - volume, pitch, etc. Lewin has been making them for twelve years, but she's gotten a lot of exposure from more recent exhibitions at Burning Man 2005 and Wired's NextFest 2007.

Less a formal instrument and more an interactive sculpture, Lewin's vision is to have her Light Harps played with haphazardly with up to sixty people, while still making beautiful noise. Here is a demonstrative video of children playing the Light Harp (many more on her website):


...and here is a totally different use of the harp, featuring a dancer with gauzy wings:



So there you have it. The more we as a culture enter into a relationship with our environment and understand that all sound is music from the right perspective (paraphrasing Ken Wilber, "Art is anything with a frame around it"), the more we are going to create works of art that reveal this understanding.

The Light Harp is one such piece - a real work of grace that reminds us of our role as creators in the world and invites us to participate in that creation. An appropriate artifact for Burning Man, a festival at which the principle of "radical participation" - being through doing - is fiercely upheld as an antidote to our culture of passive consumption.

Long, long ao, we lost our sense that everyone is a musician, that everyone is an active part of the celebration. We marvel at African cultures in which everyone knows they can sing and dance, and does so from birth. We handed over the responsibility for our art to the chosen few, and then we handed over our choice. Now we live in an age in which most people believe that art (and especially music) is something that belongs to someone else, some nubile god-king or queen of the recording leviathan.

But at the same time, we are discovering the sacred voice of the world, the creative will of not just everyone, but everything. An increasing amount of popular music features "found sounds" and atmospheric rhythms gathered from natural sources. Björk's soundtrack to the film Dancer in the Dark is punctuated with the beats of factory machines, footsteps, and railcars.

We are waking up to a world that presents itself to us as a gift, and we in return are beginning to sculpt a culture that engages us as active co-conspirators in the divine dance of it all. Beauty is back in rank with Truth and Goodness. We are the music makers, again, finally. The Light Harp is proof.

(Written for iggli.com.)

02 September 2007

Visionary Instruments: The Reactable

This is the first entry in a series I'll be doing on instruments that are revolutionizing the way we make - and understand - music. I was inspired to do this column by my introduction to one of the most inspiring inventions of any kind that I have ever seen, a wonderful new music performance device (it bends the definition of "instrument") called the reactable.

(I saw it at a Björk concert in April - leave it to her to debut musical technology that makes people feel like they've been cryogenically frozen for a hundred years!)

Devised by the Interactive Sonic Systems Team at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, the reactable is a totally novel musical control interface driven not by technology, but by a vision of a new way to make noise. The reactable homepage declares the intent behind it all - to make an instrument that is:

- collaborative: several performers (locally or remotely)
- intuitive: zero manual, zero instructions
- sonically challenging and interesting
- learnable and masterable (even for children)
- suitable for novices (installations) and advanced electronic musicians (concerts)

No small task, and yet these people have pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Here are some demonstrations:




Now that you have an inkling as to how this works, here's an example of the reactable in a live environment, on the Björk tour for which none of us were even remotely prepared (don't skip ahead, but the reactable is nicely featured in a segment starting at 4:36):



So yeah. Go visit the team's reactable media page for a score of additional videos that boggle the mind (as well as hi-res versions of those above, so you can feel even more futuristic - and even an amusing clip of Bob Moog playing an early protoype).

What tickles me the most is that, not only did the Interactive Sonic Systems team start with an idea and then bring the technology up to the level of that idea (which, as far as I'm concerned, is how it should be done: leading with intention), but that they left enough clues that you can build your own! All of their publications from the inception of the idea can be found here. The open-source code they wrote to control the visual recognition elements can be found here. A few pieces are still proprietary, but there's enough information scattered around in user groups that some buddies of mine, members of the Boulder, CO visionary art collective Motion For Alliance, built their own prototype. They brought it out for its debut last night at the Trilogy Wine Bar in Boulder - and, of course, it blew everybody away. Here's a video of their "bootleg" reactable:



They had four people working this thing last night, simultaneously - a vivid demonstration of the new realm of collaborative improvisation this thing opens up for us. (I'll try and post a video from the concert here soon.) Pretty soon, Fisher Price will be making one, they'll be selling them at Wal-Mart, and cafés will be spilling over with acoustic guitar and reactable duos...at which point, musicianship will be a whole new game. Spain, I tip my hat to you.