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This evening, Cory Doctorow was in Oxford, talking to a mix of ousfg, Compsoc and others. I was there. It was good.

What, you want more detail than that?

OK, so here's how it is: Doctorow is one of those people that could be intimidatingly well-connected if he wasn't so obviously a nice guy. Not just connected in terms of knowing people, although clearly he is, but connected in terms of information. He's been there, done that and moved on to where the action is now. His conversation over dinner was incredibly information dense; as Tom later said, you kept feeling the need to Google, then come back to what he was saying. I understood, if I'm generous, maybe 65% - I simply don't have the knowledge base to get it all. My comprehension would fade in and out; two minutes of understanding followed by forty-five seconds of memes wooshing above my head. He's living the techno-dream, and clearly loving every minute of it. He's busy, too; we asked how he'd been spending the trip and he proceeded to reel off not just his itinerary for the past couple of weeks, but everything more or less up to and including Christmas. There wasn't a lot of downtime.

The subsequent talk was differently excellent and, thanks to the mild weather, luckily not adversely affected by the fact that the porters wised up to the fact that we were having a speaker meeting and turfed us out of the college room before we'd even begun. Well, unless you count the five-minute blast of really loud hip-hop. Doctorow was talking about digital rights - EFF stuff - and managing to explain the central concepts in a highly cogent and congenial fashion. Specifically, managing to explain why the current confusion of copyright legislation is as bad for the people trying to enforce it as it is for us. He then read the first half of one of the stories in his forthcoming (from Four Walls Eight Windows this autumn) collection, then took questions.

He made some interesting points about science fiction. Doctorow suggests that there's a market need not being filled by current output; essentially, that there isn't enough tech-literate SF out there. Whilst there are a lot of computers in SF, for the most part - as in, say, traditional cyberpunk - they're a narrative prop, a catch-all plot device. What there isn't much of is SF for the slashdot crowd. You've got Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, and a couple newer guys (for certain values of 'new', anyway) like Charlie Stross and Doctorow himself - but then you start to get somewhat stuck. Doctorow believes that tapping this vein of readers is one way SF can stay a relevant form of social commentary; another is to bypass the slow and restrictive publishing industry and go straight to peer-to-peer distribution. After all, it worked for Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom....

It's certainly food for thought, and in my mind an interesting contrast to the New Weird discussions I mentioned a while back. That movement is also trying to attract new readers to the genre, but from a completely different socioeconomic group. I think both veins are there to be tapped, but somehow New Weird seems to constantly be on the verge of a descent into worthiness, whereas Doctorow's 'Overclocked' fiction just sounds like fun.

Anyway. It's late, and I'm rambling. On a final Doctorow-related note, his appearance on the Today program can be heard here.
 
 
 
 
 
 
whereas Doctorow's 'Overclocked' fiction just sounds like fun.


Not that you'd be able to understand it. I got the impression that 'overclocked' is supposed to be 'hard cyberpunk', and thus probably only accessible to the hardcore techno-geek. OTOH, hard-physics SF is accessible to the gormless non-specialist if it's done well (hello, my name is Tom and i like Stephen Baxter). Anyway, yeah, i found Cory's idea that techno-geeks represented a huge untapped market for SF to be a bit weird. I mean, how many of them are there? It's not like a quarter of all people are now sysadmins. And those who are are, it seems, being pretty well tapped by Buffy and Start Trek as it is; the minority of them who might be open to real SF are probably reading Stephenson or Egan already. And no, i don't have any evidence to back that up.

I also thought his position on copyright was a bit dubious. If you take the US constitution's position, that copyright is merely an incentive to create, then you can justify pretty much anything if it leads to more creation, as Cory was doing. But it's an if and only if; if you take the European (ie correct) position that copyright is a moral right (cough Berne convention (http://www.law.cornell.edu/treaties/berne/overview.html) cough), then you just can't handwave your way to "Okay, we'll charge a flat fee for P2P networks, ignore record labels' rights, abrogate their contracts with artists and pay them a percentage that we decide". In fact, that also involves smashing your way through all sorts of other rights, contracts, etc. You may be able to get away with deeply illegal laws in the US, but not over here. Ironically, his proposals are also deeply, deeply statist - hardly the sort of all-American laissez-faire info-anarchism the net is supposed to be about.

No, the solution is, clearly, to take record companies out of the loop, have artists release their music under a creative commons style license (http://creativecommons.org/) over the net through P2P networks, and have them make a living (but not obscene riches) through live performances and selling value-added physical copies (mmmm red hessian disc case). The artists would make more money, the consumers would pay less, and the musical landscape would be less distorted by the industrial concerns of the labels (ie no fucking Boyzone or whatever it is they have these days). I leave the application of this model to the written word as an exercise for the reader.

-- Tom

PS: IANAL. YMMV.
I got the impression that 'overclocked' is supposed to be 'hard cyberpunk', and thus probably only accessible to the hardcore techno-geek. OTOH, hard-physics SF is accessible to the gormless non-specialist if it's done well

Well, yes, but. I think it's a case of getting different things out of the fiction. As a non-physics specialist, my reaction to thousand-light year rings of dark matter spinning at light speed (or whatever) is 'that's so cool!' - somebody who actually knows about physics may be more impressed by the technical detail. Similarly, I love Cryptonomicon, and the Accelerando stories, but I'm sure I get different things out of them than you and Dave do (or would, if you got around to reading them).

Anyway, yeah, i found Cory's idea that techno-geeks represented a huge untapped market for SF to be a bit weird. I mean, how many of them are there?

I'd have thought there were enough to support a few more writers of that type of fiction, which I suppose is the relevant point. I'd be more concerned about characterising them as an entirely separate stream of fans; I mean, they may like Light as much as anyone.

Ironically, his proposals are also deeply, deeply statist - hardly the sort of all-American laissez-faire info-anarchism the net is supposed to be about.

Pfft. I don't hold with that anarchy nonsense anyway. Bunch of hippies. :)
No, the solution is, clearly, to take record companies out of the loop,
With the record companies out of the loop, who pays the upfront costs for recording the music in the first place?

have artists release their music under a creative commons style license over the net through P2P networks, and have them make a living (but not obscene riches) through live performances and selling value-added physical copies (mmmm red hessian disc case).
Which would seem a little unfair on those artists who for whatever reason are unable to perform live.

The artists would make more money,
They would?
With the record companies out of the loop, who pays the upfront costs for recording the music in the first place?


The artists. Modern technology makes it quite feasible to record and produce records with decent quality on a small budget, so bands can get started with a relatively small amount of money (think 'day job'). If they are successful, they can pay for bigger and better recording and production.

Which would seem a little unfair on those artists who for whatever reason are unable to perform live.


Interesting point. I can't think of any such artists off the top of my head; could you suggest some?

They would?


Yes. The vast majority of artists are paid an absolute pittance by record companies.

Perhaps i'm overzealous. When i talk about 'the record companies', i'm really thinking of the giant media conglomerates that are getting rich by screwing artists and pumping out crap backed by marketing. Small, pro-artist (ie indie) labels could still have a place in the system i propose, supplying production skills to artists at a fair rate.


-- Tom
The artists. Modern technology makes it quite feasible to record and produce records with decent quality on a small budget,

I've been in a band. I've taken part in and heard my share of low-budget recordings. It is feasible to make one with decent quality, but the vast majority of the time, it doesn't happen. Yes, the techonology is cleverer and cheaper than ever before, but it still takes a lot of skill to get the best out of it, and most musicians don't have that skill. Indie record companies can help here, but frankly, much of the music I've heard from them isn't terribly well-produced either.

Interesting point. I can't think of any such artists off the top of my head; could you suggest some?

I was thinking of dance/electronic musicians mainly, although many of these do play live or make money from DJing instead.

Having thought about this issue some more, though, I think the bigger problem is this: the market for live music, at least in this country, is rather limited. I know from experience that for an unknown band it's very difficult to get a gig which even covers the cost of getting to the venue, much less one which makes a reasonable profit. What I see missing from these ideas of a world without record companies is exactly how an artist gets from being unknown to being successful enough that they can make a decent amount of money from what they do, and I really don't think having a website and putting your songs on the internet is enough in the vast majority of cases.

Yes. The vast majority of artists are paid an absolute pittance by record companies.

Oh, I'm aware of that. My point is, your proposal would mean the artists getting a larger slice of a much, much smaller pie. Would that balance out so that they ended up with more than they do now, on average? I don't know, but I'd like to see some evidence.
re: small bands, new tech, required skills

Well, irrespective of the technology, not every band will be successful. At least this way, there'll be greater competition and creativity, which frankly is lacking (or is pinned down) under the current conglomerate system.

Over time the technology will improve to become more 'user friendly'/'idiot proof' - and in the interim, there may be fans who would devote their services to favoured bands to improve their product. This can get tricky, in this piracy-sensitive age we're in, but this is something to consider.

re: market for live music is small

Agreed! Live music is almost always better, but the demand is far lower than record purchasing or radio listening. Whislt the web might divert some of that behaviour, these old media will be the foreseeable giants of this system, and they seem quite adversarial to collectivist efforts.

To the question of how an unknown can become known - I think it's feasible at a particular critical mass for a central web-based music clearinghouse. There can be reviewing systems (two tiered, by featured critics, and by the listening masses), 'song of the month' efforts, and other forms of replicating original free radio promotions. It can work, I think, if the web-based engine gains a reasonable reputation, as good as Amazon or E-Bay, for example. 'The' place people go to for new music.

re: musician money-matters

Well, what I see you posing is a question of survival strategy. Do the majority of musicians put together a collectivist effort and de facto socialist communitarian - smaller pie, but everyone a fair slice, and still a chance of raging popularity (if not the same material rewards) vs. the current gambler's system where the best chances of material success are to be 'discovered' by talent-searching conglomerates who will turn you into the next 'one-hit wonder' or pop sensation. AND if one keeps one's wits about themselves, they might be able to hold fast through that period and become their own artist and content themselves with smaller success post-pop (like Jewel for example, though I know there are better examples).


I quite like your idea Tom ... seems very feasible, it's the transition to such a collective network that becomes tricky. One would need to buy licensing rights, and if it were to grow quickly, one would have the problem of audiences requesting popular tunes that one simply couldn't provide (without buying the rights of those artists from those media conglomerates - really not an option for a artist collective startup).

There's also a drawback of insufficient marketing structure, which, recording conglomerate or no, does drive a lot of the business.

Then there's the problem now facing the big conglomerates - piracy. Besides its ethical superiority, I don't see this collective structure being less vulnerable to piracy - it may in fact be moreso, should it become successful.
Then there's the problem now facing the big conglomerates - piracy. Besides its ethical superiority, I don't see this collective structure being less vulnerable to piracy - it may in fact be moreso, should it become successful.

If the music is released under a creative commons license, 'piracy' is basically a non-issue, since one of the points of such a license is that it allows copying and distribution - while retaining other rights. People may of course still break the license in other ways - creating derivative works may be prohibited, for example, but the basic approach as far as I can tell is to admit that preventing file-sharing is impossible, and try to make money through other means.
Which would seem a little unfair on those artists who for whatever reason are unable to perform live.



Interesting point. I can't think of any such artists off the top of my head; could you suggest some?

Steven Spielberg. And JK Rowling on all but special occasions. Music is the tip of the Iceberg.
and have them make a living (but not obscene riches) through live performances

Most tours don't make the artists involved money. If anything they cost money - which is recouped through increased record and merchandise sales.
... now you understand how I feel all the time, hanging out with scientists ...

sorry to miss it, but nose-up against deadlines. Think I would have found it very useful for the workshop I'm doing for cybercaption ...

is there a recording (of any part of it)?
is there a recording (of any part of it)?

I believe Archie was performing his usual archiving service. There must be quite a number of recordings by now...
I dunno about how viable a niche market this is that Doctorow is talking about. Rather than taking Tom's line exactly, I'd simply say that IME, as much as I may enjoy the likes of Stephenson and Egan, I'd say the majority of SF readers would probably be put off by them, and these are writers who make a real effort to communicate their ideas to a mainstream audience.

Going the route of only targeting the niche can be fun, but not particularly viable.

I would also add that in Stephenson's case, I found his weak characters to be a real problem. If one is going to get really techno-geeky, one HAS to have good characters to keep the broader audience involved.