A conversation with Lucas Gonze about discovering, sharing, and experiencing music

It was a great pleasure to speak with Lucas Gonze for this week’s Innovators interview. Back in 2004, in Blogs + playlists = collaborative listening, I first wrote about webjay.org, the playlist-sharing service that Lucas founded and later sold to Yahoo. Later that year, I made an audio documentary about the people, the services, and ideas that I saw coming together to create a new kind of cultural curation. The factors in play included abundant talent, Creative Commons licensing, and linkable hypermedia.

That vision hasn’t materialized yet. In our conversation, Lucas and I discuss why it hasn’t — and how it might still.

In the realm of music, I think that Lucas’ project to reanimate 19th-century songs provides one of the missing pieces of the puzzle. Copyright restrictions are what sent him to the archives to learn, perform, record, and distribute these old tunes. But as he’s explored them, he’s realized that parlour music of that era was social and participatory in ways that are far less common today.

Lucas once wrote about how he was happy with a recording he’d made of a piece that he played with “only had a few mistakes.” The other day he wrote:

Imagine that we lived in a world where all photography was the kind you see in magazines. In this world all photos are taken by professionals and all the people who got their pictures taken are models at the peak of their career. If you had your picture taken normally, you’d think you were hideously ugly. That is the musical world we grew up in, and it’s bogus. Things don’t have to be that way.

In an era of cognitive surplus, as the pendulum swings back from consumption to production of culture, that’s a good thing to remember.

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6 thoughts on “A conversation with Lucas Gonze about discovering, sharing, and experiencing music

  1. Lucas is a great thinker about online music culture, but one big flaw in the beautiful romantic vision his Soup Greens project sets out for homespun artists is the enormous, unbridgeable barrier for most people that is starting and maintaining personally-controlled websites. Even most younger people who are extremely comfortable online do not start their own blogs, let alone register their own domain names or do any kind of technical administration. This enormous inertia will always generate a great force of gravity for walled gardens that make trivial the creation of an online persona. This is why MySpace is the single most important site for music on the web.

    As someone who is in a band and runs a local music festival, I can tell you that it’s not an exaggeration to say that the independent music business takes place on MySpace. Most artists and venues have MySpace accounts instead of web pages. Many of them use MySpace messages instead of email as their primary form of contact.

    In this context, the MySpace flash player is, in many ways, worse for the free programmable, curatable, movement of music than the harshest and most restrictive DRM. Songs trapped there can’t circulate into even local playlists for mixed listening let alone published ones for online sharing and recommendation by an audiokatia or other tastemaker.

    In an era when major labels have sued and restricted there way into creating an enormous unfulfilled demand for music, and especially music made by artists who are socially accessible online, the indie world should be exploding in popularity as it takes up the slack. MySpace lock-in is a big reason why this hasn’t fully happened yet.

    The other big reason is the amazingly successful FUD campaign that the labels have run about mp3s and “file sharing”. I run an mp3 blog community and music search engine ( http://grabb.it ) and, as such, spend a large amount of time communicating with bloggers. The number of times I’ve been asked “isn’t posting mp3s illegal” would knock your socks off. The major label’s “anti-piracy” campaign has succeeded in poisoning the well, not only for their own acts, but for any independent artist who tries to use the power of music sharing for self-promotion as well.

    Things have gotten so bad that recently YouTube videos have spread throughout the online music culture world as a safer basis for discussion. People will upload a video with a still picture or even a blank, all-black screen, with the music over it simply to have an object to which to anchor their online discussion: http://youtube.com/watch?v=W4C7QbWzx9A&feature=related

    The result of these fears is that music is now the only media that is not a first class citizen on the the web. The persistent urls that would enable solid conversation and curating, the strong metadata schemes, and all of the other great application-enabling technologies you guys envisioned in the discussion will never come about until this copyright logjam is thoroughly and utterly broken, whether that be by some mandatory licensing scheme that keeps the labels in play (of which I am, with Lucas, skeptical), or simply by the labels slow and agonizing death.

    Maybe the rumored NewsCorp/Yahoo partnership deal will go down, Lucas will end up in charge of MySpace music, and we’ll start seeing XSPF-based players with real mp3s behind them on all of those band pages. Setting all of the MySpace music free for curating and application development would be maybe the single biggest blow (besides the capitulation of the labels) that could be struck right now for the health of music online.

    Without that, I shudder to think what will happen to this generation’s folk musical heritage in the long run with its survival tied to the whim of News Corp. We saw how this story ends before when mp3.com folded and took with it a huge amount of people’s songs. Watching that happen again when we had ten years warning and ten years of wisdom we could have garnered would be truly heartbreaking.

  2. I love that someone is talking about the real, the pure, in music. We have doen to music what fashion magazines have done to the female face and form. We have distorted it with so many layers of modification that we no longer even know what real sounds like. So much for is it live or is it memorex…there is not much live anymore. I recall, (many years ago as I was learning how to sing) being told, never rely on a sound system, the person in the back row should hear naturally what the person in the front does. Now that was an art!

  3. > I love that someone is talking about the
    > real, the pure, in music.

    Agreed. I think what Lucas is doing is really important.

    It’s an interesting question as to how we reconcile the aesthetic he aims to restore with the technologies of digital recording and online digital media. Part of the answer, I think, is simply this: Just because you can manipulate recordings doesn’t mean you should.

    It’s instructive for me because I have been, and am still, a careful editor of the many spoken-word podcasts I record and publish. I still think that’s important, for the same reason that I’m passionate about editing the words that I write.

    But at the same time, I’m leaning in the direction of less intervention in those audio recordings, and more complete preservation of raw sources.

  4. Consider the simple explanation that the music started out as a live performance. A personal service in today’s requirement for a label on everything. With recording it went to a product. Now it is wending its way back to a service with a little product thrown in. The key is to understand that while the artist can perform the service is the valuable commodity. When the artist cannot perform anymore the only commodity left is the product so it has more value.

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