Laurie Penny: The Digital Economy Bill threatens creativity

In defence of the download.

Framing the greatest innovation in human communications since the printing press as an enemy of cultural progress was always going to be a tough sell for the music industry. Public rhetoric around the Digital Economy Bill has focused on "protecting artists" from the evils of free filesharing, which is supposed to plunge us into a new cultural ice age in exactly the same way that home taping killed music. But as the Bill enters its final stages of being rushed through parliament, young artists and innovators are refusing to buy the orthodoxy of copyright protection -and many are fighting back.

Across the country, cottage music agencies and artistic projects are incorporating free filesharing into their business models, in defiance of the commercial hegemony that the Digital Economy Bill seeks to protect. Simon and Julia Indelicate, of cult folk-punk group The Indelicates, set up Corporate Records to "reflect and delight in the post-internet music market". "We want our data to flow freely," said Simon. "It's not just filesharing that's bringing down the music industry, it's the entire abundant sea of music and art that's legally available online. The industry is going to fail whatever happens - so we're focusing on what we can build in its place."

The hostility of the imploding publishing and music industries to innovative young talent has led many emerging artists to find new outlets for their energies. "If I didn't have to work in a nursing home to support myself, I'd be less tired, but I wouldn't be any less creative or productive," says Julia Indelicate. "People who say they'll stop making music if they don't get paid, clearly care more about the money than the music, so they should probably stop anyway."

For young creatives, the notion of spending years networking in order to get signed by an agent is increasingly outdated, as self-publishing becomes ever more rewarding. "As a teenager, getting published seemed an impossible dream," said Deirdre Ruane, author of the popular blog Wasted Epiphanies. "Part of me is astonished that I can now post comic strips and watch hits come in from all over the world -- all of it enabled by free filesharing. What emerging artists need is eyes on their stuff, and anything that puts more obstacles in the way of that process stifles creativity."

The orthodoxy of signing a corporate deal does retain some hold over the imagination of young artists. Musicologist and blogger Adam Harper, 23, explains that "it's a rite of passage for young male teenagers to start rock bands, and it would be rare to find one of these bands, however unambitious, who harboured no trace of the fantasy of stardom and commercial success that hovers over every 'unsigned' band. Even the popular currency of the phrase 'unsigned bands' is a reflection of this teleological fantasy of music-making."

That fantasy, however, is fading. When the means of producing and distributing high-quality media from scratch can be installed in your bedroom for the cost of a trip to Skegness, why would a young artist sign over their creative and financial freedom to a middle-aged person who doesn't understand the internet? "We've sold more stuff through filesharing than we would have if we hadn't been able to spread the news about our work," says Julia Indelicate. "We used to be signed to a record company, but we ended up with less money, less control and worse publicity. Now we're unsigned, we're still touring, and the record label has folded."

The moral panic associated with free filesharing portrays young producers and consumers of culture as a ghastly mob of "pirates", an uncouth barbarian horde rampaging through the pristine edifices of the bourgeois artistic establishment. That panic is understandable: the creative vision of the internet generation, fully realised, would shake our understanding of how culture is owned and consumed to its very foundations. Projects such as Corporate Records and Records on Ribs make a glorious mockery of attempts to manufacture cultural scarcity in order to maximise profit, and copyright piracy continues despite any number of sinister adverts.

Media princes such as Mandelson's confidante, David Geffen - a man so vain that that song may actually have been about him - are right to be afraid. The young people protesting in Westminster this week are protecting more than their right to stream the new series of Gossip Girl; they are protecting an entire cultural paradigm, one in which the process of recommending, sampling and downloading nuggets of media and information is deeply ingrained. For young creatives who have grown up online, the notion of restricting internet access for any reason provokes a just and visceral horror -- and they will not accept antique copyright laws without a fight.

Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist and blogger. She blogs at Penny Red.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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