In a 1967 interview published in Encounter, Marshall McLuhan discussed, among a variety of topics, his views on media and technology as extensions of man. The interviewer, Gerald Emanuel Steam, asked if these extensions were as well “extensions of man’s will…” to which McLuhan replied:
“In the ordinary sense of subliminal wish and drive --yes. Man, however, never intends the cultural consequences of any extension of himself.”
Understanding media as cultural systems that grow around a particular technology [concept coined by Lisa Gitelman], then TV and Radio, just to use two common examples, are not TV and Radio in the literal sense. Television is not the actual extension of man but the system of Network Television [or Cable Television, Video on Demand, etc.]. Radio becomes a complex medium, which absorbs other technologies such as the telephone [essential for talk shows], and even other media systems like record labels.
The “consequences” of these extensions of man are today even harder to predict or understand, which is why we must turn our heads towards the work of artists as well as towards the artists themselves. As McLuhan explains in a 1962 essay [ironically] titled The Electronic Age, “for the most part men’s perceptions are overlaid by patterns of past experience that render them unapt to apprehend the world they actually live in. The artist alone is an expert in the contemporary use of his senses.” Paraphrasing Chuck Porter, experience is only relevant under the premise that the past is going to be like the future.
In this brief series we will look at the media system of the music industry in the context of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics as the response of the artist to an environment that, although not intended by the industry [as the extension of the industry itself], was and still is very real. Oswald’s work reveals the reality of a system that pioneered “hit culture,” and that created a legal framework that beyond good and evil has been recently rendered as [at least] unrealistic.
Back in 1985, in a paper titled Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative, Oswald reacted to the notion of copyright laws in the context of a pop culture environment that had transcended the brick-and-mortar principles in which the law was based. Over 20 years ago the artist led us to understand the end of the producer-consumer paradigm: “After decades of being the passive recipients of music in packages, listeners now have the means to assemble their own choices, to separate pleasures from the filler. They are dubbing a variety of sounds from around the world, or at least from the breadth of their record collections, making compilations of a diversity unavailable from the music industry, with its circumscribed stables of artists, and an ever more pervasive policy of only supplying the common denominator.”
Perhaps one of the strongest ideas in Oswald’s paper is rooted in the fact that, by acting as a tight filter focused on big moneymaking hits, most record labels had already entered a vulnerable space in which their final product is not entirely theirs anymore. Oswald clearly articulates why the music industry, powered by radio [among other distribution vehicles], lost their archaic right to have a tight ownership of every bit of sound:
“All popular music [and all folk music, by definition], essentially, if not legally, exists in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn't a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we're bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant bass-line, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of walk people. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise; specifically, in music, those with megawatt PA's, triple platinum sales, and heavy rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?”
Plunderphonics goes to an interesting extreme in its quest to enunciate Oswald’s ideas, the genre offers fresh thinking in the shape of music, that happens to challenge our conception of authorship in a world that doesn’t know how to differentiate producer from consumer, active from passive.
It is very important to mention that, as you will find out in Oswald's site, Plunderphonics [the album] is not for sale.
Click on the image below to hear the song that gives the name to John Oswald's 1989 album Dab.
Thanks to Mogollon’s Francois L Betancourt [AKA: Francisco Lopez] for his dedicated collaboration with this blog.