Words by Alexander
The ethics of art ownership is a long-standing talking point which permeates across different forms and disciplines, turning heads in music as much as any other medium. How much ownership does a creator have of that which they have birthed?
As I pose this question, I am well aware that there is a strictly legal answer to the conundrum. A case to case matter of contract and agreement, be it with the record label, distributor or other entity in the ever-diversifying digital music food chain. If I’m completely honest, I’m not so interested in that side of things as it’s the mechanism by which many artists have been hood winked, deceived or simply screwed over. If you release your music with a Drum & Bass label, more often than not, the chances are that you don’t actually own the track in any meaningful way. It is easy to see how we arrive at this point. Creators have little leverage when trying to establish themselves in a competitive scene so happily except standardised contract terms and often simply don’t realize there is room for negotiation, so we see a scene with rigid conventions with little opportunity for development. Although a contract will clearly define the obligations to and of each party, it can relinquish a creator of their ownership. On the matter of ownership composer John Oswald starkly puts it “if creativity is a field, copyright is a fence”. Maybe in the case at hand we have metal bars rather than a fence, a protagonist artist as prisoner and record label as guard?
Legal and contractual definitions of ownership do not define or even necessarily inform the ethical question of ownership. There is a distinction to be made between inherent creative ownership or intellectual property and the transferable ownership that can be transactional. In truth it is a quagmire that’s solution is entirely based on perspective. Just last week an established Drum & Bass artist gave away a Dropbox folder of 35 tracks, some unreleased, but also some which had previously been released on a handful of labels, all still available to purchase legitimately through the usual online vendors. Here is the clincher – the artist didn’t consult the labels or apparently even other artists involved in the tracks before-hand. Subsequently the artist’s Dropbox account was reported and suspended due to label intervention. The artist later cited “pointless business vibes in underground music” and “bullsh*t micro-scenes moves” as being in play. Again this is a question of perspective.
Is this disagreement symptomatic or unique to the digital age? You might be surprised to hear that its not. Questions around ownership and usage have been numerous throughout Drum & Bass’ history. Back in 2004 producer Aphrodite released his remix of Shy FX’s ‘Original Nuttah’ as a 12” single having only been given permission to have the track featured on a mixed compilation CD released a year prior. Presumably Aphrodite acted upon a feeling of ownership of the work. Considerable online backlash followed with Shy FX’s own Ebony Recordings releasing a statement on the Dogs on Acid internet forum stating “as we are not the only ones this has happened to we felt it necessary to go public. Also considering that Shy FX himself has had a few calls asking why he would put out such a weak mix of such a classic track he wanted to set the record straight and explain that this was not his work” and “We are all aware that there are unsavoury people bootlegging our material, we just find it shocking that on this occasion it happens to be one of our own.” Over the years I’ve heard loads of accounts of this kind of thing through the Drum & Bass rumour mill, including a certain well-known record shop pressing up bootleg copies of huge jungle and hardcore tunes originally released on long defunct imprints without recourse.
There is clearly a distinction between pressing up some 12” vinyl singles and posting a Dropbox folder of tunes and releases on Facebook. It does however reduce down to the same thing, a creator’s (or part creator’s) perceived ownership of their work. My personal feeling is that to distribute released music without the label’s permission disregards the work that a label puts in to package, promote and distribute the work. At the same time, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment that if I made it, it is mine. If it is my creation, it is of me… Even if I don’t have the right to distribute it.