23 Jun, 16

Open Is Hope

In the tech world, “open” is overused to the point where it’s becoming meaningless.

It’s yet to see the heights of mockery like “paradigm,” “artisanal,” or those stupid fucking “.ly” URLs but it’s getting close. The thing is, the meaning that still clings to life inside those four letters is vitally important. In the literal sense, open means creating work that can be duplicated, shared, and used by anyone. Open as a concept is so much more and crucial to the future of music and the arts. So instead of finding a new word, CASH Music embracing “open” and strengthening its meaning against the waves of hollow marketers.

Open stands for transparency. All of the work we do is done in the open, free for anyone to use. Open, as we use it, represents a series of ideals. It means community ownership. It represents a kind of hope for the Internet. Software and resources made with open licenses are accessible to everyone and that’s critical for musicians right now. If we’re building something egalitarian it can’t be rooted solely in corporate structures. Open brings collective strength and moves functionality from closed systems into spaces that everyone can use, shape, and embrace.

Open brings collective strength and moves functionality from closed systems into spaces that everyone can use, shape, and embrace.

The Internet was built for sharing. It started as a humble connection between computers willing to share files with each other. Sounds nice enough, but before that connection could happen people had to figure out how to get two computers to speak the same language. The networking protocol TCP/IP was the answer, and it had to be made, well, open. The same is true for HTML. Computers were talking but what they were saying had to be something that would look at least mostly right on the other side of the conversation.

Today there are standards bodies that tend open standards, open browsers to render all that shared information, and open servers to share it all. Fancy stuff that happens on servers is mostly handled by open programming languages and there’s a dependency on open at even the most closed startups. Firefox, Chrome, and Safari all start with open source code. The most popular programming languages used to build the web and the apps on your phone are all open. It’s the backbone of the Internet.

But maybe it’s better to look at it from a different angle.

The roads we all drive on are built and maintained with public money. We share the costs because we all have places we need to get to. We agree on standards like drawing a yellow line down the middle of the road or driving on the right unless we’re somewhere adorably quirky like England or Australia. We get where we’re going. Sometimes they’re public spaces, sometimes private, sometimes schools, and sometimes businesses. The infrastructure is shared. The rules are shared and understood. This is open.

Somewhere along the way I started working for people who cram themselves into vans and busses, using the open infrastructure of highways and roads to earn an implausible living playing music to strangers in strange cities. Open is vital to careers of musicians not just on the road, but on the Internet, too. Songs don’t get to Spotify or Apple or Bandcamp without first using the open infrastructure of the Internet. As soon as you get to each company you’re at the mercy of their terms of service, take it or leave it.

Open is vital to careers of musicians not just on the road, but on the Internet, too.

Think about the ways you buy or stream music online. Unless you’re visiting an artist or label site with a custom store you’re probably using a closed service. Closed platforms aren’t inherently bad. Some are decent deals for artists, but even the services claiming to be “direct” are still middlemen taking a cut before the money gets to the artist or label. The artist has to hand over control. This is fine. It’s the music business and this is business as usual. But what about “indie?”

The indie labels of the 80s and 90s were born of self sufficiency and the spirit of DIY. They fought for something, not against, building new avenues of distribution, catalog sales, mail order, and A&R. While the open web was designed as a platform for all, anything beyond the most basic functionality requires technical knowledge — true today and so much more true twenty years ago. Robust commerce on the web was and is beyond most indie labels. The end result being that labels turn to new middlemen to sell and distribute music online. This doesn’t free them from old middlemen, it just adds more to the stack.

Today even the most ardently independent labels rely on closed services to get their music to their audiences. While that will likely never change for large-scale streaming, it isn’t unreasonable to think direct sales and promotion should be controlled directly by an artist or label. This is why open is so vital for music. If you’ve ever wondered about the 2016 equivalent of “fuck this let’s get some glue sticks, steal some copies from Kinkos, and call a pressing plant” — the answer is embracing open both in the literal sense and as a concept.

We need to extend open infrastructure to include more of the functionality needed by working musicians.

We need to extend open infrastructure to include more of the functionality needed by working musicians. There’s no rule saying open innovation has to stop at the doorstep of the services listeners use. There will always be new opportunities for music businesses, but only if we empower artists now. We need to build more roads.

How long can independent music survive in a landscape dominated by startups backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of investment? As each service is closed, bought, or merged artists lose another option. Digital media, music especially, is slowly converging into a battle of giants. Consolidation and scale are the forces at play. Open gives the rest of us a chance.

That’s why I still love “open” even as it’s being coopted into nothingness.

Open is hope.

By Jesse von Doom, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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