Info Essay: Capitatio Benevolentiae - Piracy, Capital, and the Culture of Digital Sound - Frank Rothkamm 

fn issue October 2011
'N-Plants' - Biosphere
'Sky Snails' - The Electric Golem
'Echo Park' - Willamette
'Gramophone Transmissions' - Broken Harbour
'Negative Space' - Blue Sausage Infant
'Home Patterning' - compilation
'Polychromatic Integers' - Richard Lainhart
'Generate Records' - compilation
'Sung In Broken Symmetry' - Aquarelle

"Trading profit arises from buying as cheap and selling as dear as possible. Profits largely depend upon the relative strength of buyers and sellers. It is, of course, most profitable to find oneself in the pleasant position of being able to take commodities from a commodity owner without giving him any return. In fact, in its beginnings, trade is very often indistinguishable from piracy." [1]

The piracy of digital sound content is an act of trade, an exchange between the creator of sound recordings and the listener thus defined: The creator gets nothing and the listener gets everything. But the accumulation of digital capital is different from that of its material counterpart; there is no intrinsic value in digital capital. An MP3 only becomes real when it is heard, when vibrating air reaches the membrane in the ear of the listener, the moment of digital to analog conversion. Only when the sound is played back, does it become digital sound capital - transferring it from potential to physical reality via experience. This is when the exchange between sound creator and sound listener takes place, and the potential of virtual sound recording is realized at the moment of digital to analog conversion. The act of piracy has commenced.

This differs greatly from traditional piracy, where the exchange is tied to physical property. A compact disc could indeed be taken from the sound creator and an act of piracy would be committed. However, this would be independent from the sound listener's experience, because a compact disc is an already realized commodity. Like money, the object may have symbolic meaning, but in essence the physical objectification of sound recordings is real and has exchange value. Historically, piracy became trade in the relationship between sound creator and the record label. In all traditional record contracts, the label advances money and takes ownership of the master recordings.

It is therefore the sound experience itself that is at the center of digital sound capital. This experience cannot be predicted by the creator of a sound recording. How will the created sound be experienced ?

This is unknown at the time of creation, and unlike any other form of cultural production, for example network television, motion pictures, and institutionalized concerts - the capital of the sound creator is experienced in diverse circumstances. Every home has different acoustics, speaker setup, and quality of sound reproduction equipment. Additionally, a sound recording is intrinsically dualistic and always inhabits two worlds: speakers and headphone. Its time may be shortened or extended - by skipping tracks, movements or notes, or by repetitive listening. The conceived unit of the sound creator - the album - may never materialize as it was originally produced.

It is rush hour in New York City. I get into the crowded subway car and, as usual, there is no place to sit, but I manage to squeeze into the middle seat, hoping for a few inches more space. At the next stop, more people come in and now the carriage is filled with bodies touching bodies. A voice on the internal speaker announces something, but it is muffed and distorted. Everybody ignores the voice and continues to squeeze into the train. There is now a ten-minute ride, skipping local stops, from 125th Street to Columbus Circle, along the west side of Central Park. The guy next to me puts on his iPod headphones and the sound of hi-hats and cymbal crashes fill the train car. He must have the volume up to 111. For the rest of the trip, all I hear is the same piercing pattern, repeated over and over again. So do the passengers within earshot of the high frequency noise broadcast from his ears.

The sound creator wants a sound listener with the keenest perception possible: the solitary listener. But society has produced the opposite. A sound listener that pirates and then shares, turning everybody around him into pirates. From the heyday of Napster until today's massive "torrenting" of sound recordings, vast quantities of potential sound capital is systematically accumulated by sound listeners and then reproduced as sound spam: the unsolicited and unwanted amplification of sound.

"It is the compelling force of anarchy in social production that turns the limitless perfectibility of machinery under modern industry into a compulsory law by which every individual industrial capitalist must perfect his machinery more and more, under penalty of ruin. But the perfecting of machinery is making human labor superfluous."[2]

Hard drives are filling up with MP3s accumulating capital, but the potential wealth is never materialized because of the labor involved. Sound capital has to be identified, tweeted, googled, copied, explored, organized, downloaded, converted and synchronized. All this takes time. Because of capital's sheer quantity, the act of accumulation now averages significantly more time than the act of listening. So it appears that the sound recording has all but disappeared in the quantification, the laboring of virtual production. And as the amount of accumulated capital increases its realization decreases. Thus, there is no piracy. There is only the perfect machinery of mechanical capital accumulation whose quantity increases near infinity while the sound listeners experience decreases to near nothingness.

[1] Karl Kautsky "Thomas More and his Utopia" (1888)
[2] Frederick Engels "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" (1880)

Thumbnail photograph by Glenn Wolsey.
Banner photograph by frasse21.

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