Music and Cyberliberties
by Patrick Burkart
Wesleyan University Press , Middletown, CT, 2010
200 pp. Trade, $70.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-6917-2; ISBN: 0-8195-6918-9.
Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Professor of Economics Università Europea di Roma
This a comparatively short but well researched and, especially, very thoughtful essay. The author is a comparatively young associate professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A & M University; in terms of student body this is one of the 10 largest higher education institutions in the United States. It is a promising book for his career because Patrick Burkart deals not only with technology in the field of music but also and mainly with how technological change is promoting major social transformation. And, more significantly, even though Burkart’s own thinking is strongly influenced by Jürgen Habermas (not the easiest social science writer to read), he uses a very plain and clear language to express rather difficult concepts. Thus, the book may have a wider audience than that of the specialists of online music, of those familiar with the Netscape rise and fall and of the supporter of the Celestial Jukebox model of music e-commerce through the sale of licensed access to music.
The first chapters of the book deal with the rapid structural transformation of the music industry, from CDs in the 1990s to digital music products and digital music services in less than 20 years. The technological change has also, and mainly, brought about a drastic modification of comparative power roles in the industry. In the 1990s , four major international corporations – Sony-BMG, Vivendi-Universal, Warner and EMI – had consolidated ownership of intellectual property on recorded music and also some rights to the digital technology now used to record it. In less than two decades in the industry there has been of huge modification of both technology and power. It is so deep as to affect also other aspects of life in the society.
On the one hand, in Burkart’s view, bureaucracies and technocratic systems of control attempt to take over online music and audiovisual culture. On the other, music and cyberliberties activists are fighting against the “copyright grab” by major labels and propose a new approach to safeguard artists and fans without providing them with “excessive privileges:” a peer-to-peer self regulated network developing its own international commercial law and practice (like the lex mercatoria prevailing at the start of modern times). Patrick Burkart is, most probably, an idealist tracing the prospects of a self-regulating world in a sector (music) where art and technology are married with business. Also it is hard to see how the peer-to-peer networking would provide incentives to artists and technologists in the music field to improve their products and their processes.
More significant than these and other questions to be delved into, hopefully, in a future book is the analysis of how musicians and music fans are at the forefront of cyberliberties activism and the analysis of the various groups that make up a movement that is trying to correct, in their views, the imbalances that imperil the communal and ritualistic sharing of music.
It is a real eye opener for many music specialists and musicians who consider their fellows in the sector a rather conservative lot and know very little about the breadth and the depth of cyberliberties activism and its implications both for the music industry and the society as a whole. Thus, the book makes for a passionate reading.