Mixing Up the Music Business: Kiwi musicians sharing their art under CC license

Mixing Up the Music Business: Kiwi musicians sharing their art under CC license

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The music business is not what it used to be.

After the dawn of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, it didn’t take long for music file sharing sites to become a thing – and in some ways, the music industry is still reeling from the moment 20 years ago when Napster disrupted the world with its instantly popular file-sharing service.

While Napster was shut down fairly quickly thanks to lawsuits by artists who didn’t want their music distributed freely, the idea of sharing music in digital form online had firmly planted itself in the collective minds of music consumers, and there was no going back. Digital music was here to stay – and the music industry would never be the same again.

Cut to today, and consuming music digitally has become the norm. Be it via streaming on Spotify, Apple Music or Google Play, or downloaded via iTunes, the way we listen to recorded music has truly undergone a sea-change since the days when the only way to access it was on the radio or at the record store.

Of course, behind every created piece of recorded music is a musician – and as the industry has changed, so have the approaches those musicians take towards sharing their music with the world. While some artists struggle in a saturated market to find ways to get paid for the music they produce, others are taking a different approach, releasing their music under a Creative Commons licence.

One New Zealand music enthusiast who is helping Kiwi musicians sharing their art this way reach a wider audience is Sholto Duncan, Web Archivist at Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

Sholto Duncan and Matt Steindl
L-R: Sholto Duncan and colleague Matt Steindl from the Alexander Turnbull Library were responsible for putting together the first CC Mixtape in 2012. (Image courtesy of National Library of New Zealand, photographer Mark Beatty. CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ)

In 2012, Sholto began noticing that more music licenced under Creative Commons was coming into the Library’s collection, which today has around 700 CC music albums archived in the National Digital Heritage Archive (about 5% of their published digital music collection.) He wanted to find a way to promote the CC music collection that enabled more openness and sharing as intended by the licences – and so that same year, the Library’s annual CC Mixtape project was born.

“We came up with the idea of putting together a mixtape of tracks archived over the past year that people could listen to, download and share. This would be accompanied by a blog post with some interesting facts around Creative Commons and our digital music collection in general.”

Now, in its seventh year, the CC Mixtape is growing an ever-increasing listenership throughout its annual compilation and release process. In previous years the Mixtape has been selected by staff at the Library, but this year Sholto ran it a bit differently and asked the public to choose the top ten tracks by listening to a longlist on Bandcamp.

“As long as the work has a CC license then we will consider it for the mixtape, however as a general rule, the digital music we archive would have been created by or feature NZ musicians in some way whether it be produced in NZ or overseas,” says Sholto.

Musicians who release under CC licence
Two Kiwi musicians featured on this year’s Mixtape who like to share their music online under CC licenses are Callan Vincent and Addison Course.

Callan Vincent, a.k.a. prog-folk-metal artist Gangari (Photo by Kris Taylor, CC-BY) 

Vincent – a.k.a. Gangari – is a one-man musical project who plays folk-tinged melodic death metal, inspired by Norse Mythology. He first heard about the CC Mixtape when the dark and heavy track “Spear Storm” from his album Songs of a Southern Winter was shortlisted for the compilation.

“I’m most happy to contribute my music to just about anything, so I was very stoked to both gain the attention of the National Library, and to be informed of that,” he says.

“I release all of my music under a CC license as pay-what-you-want on bandcamp, including free downloads. My goal was never and has never been to make money on this. I just want my music to be shared and heard, and a license that allows freedom in redistribution and remixing is most conducive to that goal. I’m always more than happy for it to be used with attribution.”

Vincent says releasing music this way has led to some “interesting circumstances”, such as one of his older songs being identified nearly 20,000 times through the music recognition app Shazam.

“That means it’s probably being played regularly without my knowledge somewhere around the world. I keep my music free under Creative Commons because these are the kinds of situations I like seeing happen.”

So, what would his advice be to other musicians considering releasing their music under CC license?

“I would say think holistically about your music’s barrier to entry – and that means pricing-wise, license-wise, and in terms of how listenable and marketable your music is. Heavy metal is still a more obscure venture than pop or hip-hop music, so by making my music free via CC, I set that barrier to entry very low. Consider what you want for your band/project, set your goals, and persevere.”

At the opposite end of the musical spectrum is electronica artist Addison Course, whose atmospheric trip-hop composition “Danger Danger Danger” from his album Black Rainbow Tiger Step features on the 2019 CC Mixtape. He is very clear about why he releases all his music under a CC licence.

Electronica artist Addison Course
Electronica artist, Addison Course (Photo by Addison Course, CC-BY)

“The history of music has always been this ongoing conversation – artists doing covers and versions of songs meant that they liked the song enough to want to create their version of the original. With the advent of ‘The Dub’ things changed, and producers started using whole tracks or recorded layers of tracks to create their versions, and then as we moved into the digital age this process just evolved again to fit the new medium. The time of the remix arrived, artists began using parts of the original to create their versions,” says Addison.

“Coming from a creative practise which was primarily in the realm of visual arts, the Creative Commons licence just makes sense to me and the way I think about and go about making music,” he says. “For me the greatest difference is between the commercial and non-commercial. As long as my music is not being used commercially without permission – and dare I say it, without my profit – I am happy for it be used by DJ’s, radio show hosts, remix artists and producers.”

And his advice to other musicians regarding CC licenses?

“My advice is to look at why they are making music. Look at what you want to happen to your music, and do you want to be included or involved in the ongoing processes of remixing and iteration that takes place these days.”

As a Web Archivist, Sholto Duncan is also enthusiastic about this approach.

“The CC Mixtape is primarily a tool that we use to help promote the Library’s digital music archive, but it has also been a good vehicle for promoting the use of Creative Commons licencing in general and the ways in which this type of content can be shared and re-used.

“Musicians who participate in the CC Mixtape benefit from their music being exposed to a wider audience outside of their usual fanbase, which hopefully in-turn encourages more people to listen, purchase and share their music,” says Sholto.

“This year we had just over 1000 listens in two weeks and a further 500 since the competition closed at the end of May. As revenue from streaming and downloading music keeps declining and the so-called ‘gig-economy’ becomes increasingly challenging, I think that having more open licenses can be a real benefit to musicians who want to get their music heard by a wider audience.”

For more info on the CC Mixtape, visit the National Library’s blog at this link: https://natlib.govt.nz/blog/posts/turnbull-mixtape-7-one-time-at-bandcamp

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