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Keeping control of your digital media

by Michael Sheetal

Media distribution methods are changing, and what it brings is not all bad for creators.

Over the last year or two, Tokyo-based minimal-techno producer Shane Berry (shaneberry.com) saw online media remolding his industry and set about exploring how he should adapt to deal with the new online marketplace and how that affects him in the real world.

The way the average person consumes media has changed dramatically over the last few years largely as a result of BitTorrent, an open file-sharing system that utilizes the power of multiple Internet-connected users to transfer digital files. In 2004, it was estimated that BitTorrent was responsible for around 35 percent of all Internet traffic. Today it is often quoted on tech blogs as being 45-55 percent of traffic on the Net.

Streaming media has also become common. Thanks to faster Internet connections and services such as video-streaming site YouTube, the quality and speed of streaming-content delivery makes the Internet a useful tool with which to find media-rich content. YouTube is currently the 4th most popular Web site In Japan, according to Web statistics site Alexa.com. Also appearing in the top 10 is Nico Nico Douga, another video-sharing site with a unique Japanese twist, allowing users to comment directly onto the video.

This changes the model for distributing a media creator’s work.

For musicians, previously the standard way to get music heard was to sign with a label and have them promote and sell records or CDs. Now musicians are more and more likely to have their big break via a viral YouTube video or bootleg BitTorrent download.

What Berry found is that there are alternatives and viable options to replace many aspects of a record-label system that has a bad reputation and is struggling to deliver what customers want.

First, artists should have an idea of who owns the material they have created. Berry quickly realized that for many musicians the answer is “not me.” The owner is often the music label that signed them.

Many creators internationally and in Japan know little about what they own and what their rights are relating to the music or other digital media they make. For some musicians, it may not be important to own the work, but owning and controlling how your content is used has some obvious benefits if you want to build on that work, and especially if you want to allow others to build on it at some point in the future.

After realizing you want to gain control of your own creations, it is necessary to look at what controls what are available now. Simply put, that means copyright laws, which are different in every country but mostly revolve around some basic principles to stop other people doing things with your creation.

Creators can define the rights that they wish to claim on a work, and usually this means claiming that nobody can do anything without the copyright-holder’s permission. For musicians, once again, this copyright-holder is often not them. For other media creators, you will need to be careful where you sign away permissions of ownership.

Berry’s research revealed that, integral to the creative process throughout history, is the ability to copy from and change a work — from stories passed around a campfire and down through generations, to music and art movements whose quintessential works are a result of inspiration from earlier works by other artists.

“People who create every day know that our ideas don’t come from us,” says Berry. “The inspiration comes from external stimuli.

“You create a child, you nurture it and then you let it go. Ideas are the same. You create them, nurture them and then let them go. If we don’t treat our ideas like children, then we don’t have a next generation of ideas.”

For content creators to decide how to make their content public, they need to be clear about what the goals are. Berry’s goal is to reach as many people as he can with his music. The more people that hear his music, the more people there are that will come to his live performances. Online distribution can provide a potential audience of many thousands compared with the relatively small number who may stumble upon his music in a record shop.

Most of the money Berry earns from music comes from live performances rather than from record sales. In his case, it is of benefit to publish digitally and cheaply or for free. From the extra people he will reach, there is a very good chance that he will find new fans who will become regulars when he plays live. The royalties Berry would make from record sales are outweighed by live performing fees and the good feeling of reaching more people with his music.

Digital-distribution options are increasingly accessible and largely free. It is not going to cost Berry anything to publish a new track to online music networks and utilize file-sharing systems such as BitTorrent to spread the work.

In order to have some level of legal control over what happens to his work, a strong option is Creative Commons. Founded by Lawrence Lessig in 2001, Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that “provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.”

Creative Commons Licensing is Web-based, free to use and includes a summary in words that you don’t need to be a lawyer to understand. It covers most of the needs of a small media-creator and makes it easy to define what you are happy for others to do with your work. This includes licensing options for Japan, with Japanese licenses translated into 38 other languages.

Self-publishing content or working through an existing network that allows Creative Commons licensing options is fine, but there are some traps in getting your content online that are worth noting.

When you upload a photo on Japanese powerhouse social network Mixi, you are not able to set permissions for reuse of that image and reserve the right to display your image within the context of the site. Overseas, the rights you give away are scarier. A recent attempt by U.S.-based social network Facebook to integrate your friends’ profiles and photos with advertising met with a huge user backlash, but the terms-of-use agreement and privacy policy supported that usage and actually allowed Facebook to do much more than it did.

So, in a world of digital distribution, are the old dinosaurs of content distribution dead, making way for brash new attempts at controlling your content and the informed taking control of their own?

“Certainly not,” says Berry, talking about the role of record labels. “However, the role of the label needs to change, and it needs to change fast. Previously it was about distribution; now digital distribution is practically free, so it is hard for me to justify using a label for that. What I need from them now is the social connections. A record label should be able to get my music in front of people who shape opinion, people who can continue to promote the music. If I were to do the whole process by myself, I would be lost in the noise, so it is the knowhow of standing out from that noise that I look for in a label.”

Toyo Yokota is the vocalist with Tokyo hardcore band Newbreed. They have a decent following, play five to eight gigs a month and are signed to two independent labels for their various releases. For Toyo and Newbreed, the labels actually provide a very valuable service.

What do they provide?

“Everything,” says Yokota. “Gigs, recording, promotion, transportation, tours, practice studios — you name it.”

So it seems there is a new balance emerging, brought about by the falling cost of distribution as a result of the digitization of content. The role of the former distribution platforms is shifting toward the service of organization and social connections.

Of course they now have a race on their hands with the new media moguls, the Mixis, Facebooks and MySpaces of the world starting to move into their territory and control online content.

As Berry looks to decide what he will do next with his music, the dust clears on options for content creators in a digital age. While the infrastructure is not yet in place, there are a lot of people moving very fast to get there.

You can own your own music. The option of self-publishing is real and already a viable option, with home studios providing high quality audio and video.

Licensing without lawyers is possible to do and understand through Creative Commons Licenses, also allowing for the redistribution of your work with the limitations you choose.

But the last piece in the puzzle is getting heard or seen by the right people. This is the area where external help can benefit artists the most, but it is only a matter of time before online options become equally effective; the current crop of upstart music sites, video-sharing platforms and social networks are already Getting very close, but beware of what you give away when you use them.

Michael Sheetal is an owner/director of Tokyo-based interactive creative agency UltraSuperNew. He also co-organizes industry networking event www.tokyo2point0 in Tokyo each month.