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Protest Platforms: In Age Of Streaming, Saga Believes Artists Should Have More Control

Protest Platforms is a three-part series examining what it means for music to protest today.

Platforms have always helped to shape protest music. Independent artists, punk labels, and do-it-yourself (DIY) organizers have long suggested that the means through which music is created and distributed carries as much political weight as the content of the songs: by subverting the status quo, producing their own platforms (labels, outlets, shops), and creating alternative worlds.

What do these ideologies mean in today’s hyper-mediated digital culture, as music communities grow beholden to centralized and exploitative platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Spotify?

In the first installment, we featured the music streaming cooperative Resonate. The second installment features Mat Dryhurst and his project Saga, which advocates for artist autonomy on digital platforms.

Dryhurst serves as a part-time advisor for Resonate. Currently, he is working on new projects and teaching at New York University’s Berlin campus. He is a frequent collaborator with the musicians PAN and Holly Herndon, an artist who also opened conversations about platform politics surrounding her 2015 album, Platform.

Enter: Saga

In a digital music culture where songs and videos can be embedded anywhere, how can musicians retain agency over where their work ends up?

In 2015, Mat Dryhurst released Saga, a piece of software for artists, to help those who prefer to host their own music, rather than upload and distribute it via corporate platforms. Using Saga’s code, musicians can do more than a basic embed of their video. They can control the entire plot of webspace surrounding everywhere the work is shown.

This helps creators have more control over where there videos are displayed online.

When an artist’s video is embedded somewhere on the internet, Saga sends a notification. They can then craft a response that is displayed specifically on that plot.

For example, if a media outlet embeds a video next to an article that the artist does not particularly care for, the video can be obscured by a sad face or a text expression. If the video is embedded next to an advertisement, the artist can charge before continuing to display the work.

In developing the project, Dryhurst tried to create a way to distribute artwork online that would feel “interesting and liberating,” he says.

Saga suggests individuals should control how their work is represented in those individual spaces, to offer “some kind of fluid mutable representation” of the work, where the creator has “as many options for expression as …  in the flesh,” he says. “That brings with it a sense of liability or unpredictability.”

But as Dryhurst explains, most corporate platforms do not exist to facilitate unpredictability, “as ultimately human expression is only a small part of their greater objective. They want standardized, machine readable expression that—in the case of something like Facebook—satisfies their ability to present tidy information to prospective advertisers.”

This is why it is so powerful that Saga-hosted art can interrogate the advertisements surrounding it when embedded. It suggests that media and corporations cannot merely lift an artist’s work and use it without consent for their own financial gain.

Contemporary Equivalents

While Platform and Saga were released two years ago, Dryhurst says ever since, “Things have just become more entrenched, and we are further down the line in the process of standardizing and curving human expression towards dull, commercial objectives,” at the whim of commercial platforms.

Now, Dryhurst contends, even artists mindful of these realities have internalized the demands of these platforms. They understand “the best ways to draw attention” to themselves on Twitter or how to modify their language to “best feed the objectives of the platform. Musicians have “internalized the demands of Spotify to create more seamless playlist-ready music to feed their objectives.”

Projects like Saga counter this trend by providing ways for artists to push back while fully utilizing the tools available in 2017 to do so.

Take a classic moment of protest in music history: when Jimi Hendrix played the “Star Spangled Banner” on stage at Woodstock, wildly destroying it and setting fire to his guitar.

To Dryhurst, this is an example of a musician using readily available tools and pushing them to an extreme to communicate a political objection.

“What would the contemporary equivalent of that be today?” he asks. It feels strange to him that in 2017 protest so often looks the same as it did in the 1960s and 1970s.

“You have the world at your fingertips, you have the ability to in some cases unseat governments through understanding the tool that you make music on—in many cases, your laptop,” Dryhurst asserts. “You have all of this extra capacity as a result of the era that you live in.”

Creating new platforms is even more important “when you see the social and political dominance of centralized platform monopolies over aspects of global culture,” Dryhurst additionally argues. “You cannot separate [President Donald Trump’s] victory from the prominence of Facebook. People are alert to that now. That seemed conspiratorial a couple of years ago.”

“To not contemplate designing structures that better communicate our values…it seems so disconnected to me, to the point of being basically irresponsible,” he says.

For music, Spotify, a platform with an inequitable business model for artists, is one of the most popular platforms. Yet, it routinely removes songs from their intended contexts with its playlist-centered model, making even basic information like the coordinating record label or liner notes difficult to find.

This is what Saga directly opposes: a platform de-contextualizing music to fit its own business model.

Boring Ass Culture

The political repercussions of monopolistic platforms like Spotify extends to the way they shape the aesthetics of music and create echo chambers of repetitive sounds.

“Centralized influences and centralized incentive models also create boring ass music. It creates boring ass culture,” Dryhurst declares. “If you design a system that privileges back catalog, you’re going to get a lot of music that sounds like back catalog. You’re going to get a lot of pop music that sounds like pop music from the 80s.

“We also run this risk of making music so bland it’s of no political consequence anymore. I fear that to some extent has already happened.”

Of course, there will always be underground musicians making work interesting enough to deviate from the playlist-serving status quo. But Dryhurst believes: “With culture-writ-large, it is something to worry about. It’s weird. We’re kind of rolling over and dying and being like, ‘Take it, just take everything.’”

In decades past, independent labels surfaced as responses to the exploitative major labels. What is today’s equivalent?

According to Dryhurst, the prevailing center of powers are centralized entities limiting how we form communities and express ourselves: “Ultimately that abstract concept is kind of the enemy. That logic, that abstract concept of centralization, of monopolization, of dictation, is ultimately the enemy. In the music context, that is the new major [label].”

“If you are in an environment that is telling you how to make your music, how to spread your music, and penalizing you for not doing things in a way that suits the algorithm that dictates the feed, then you are in enemy territory,” he adds.

When considering modern-day equivalent protests to the status quo, one must recall that independent labels of decades past did not represent one single way to do business.

“It was hundreds and hundreds of different ways to do business,” Dryhurst recalls. “When you look back, a Dischord Record looks exactly the same as a Warp Record because it’s a square that we shipped around the world. But in terms of how many were circulated, and the communities that made that stuff possible, they were all incredibly distinct. They sourced music in different ways, and they recorded music in different ways. They had different shows. They had relationships with a particular space.””

A Decentralized, Blockchain Crypto-Friendly Approach

The public needs several alternatives to the major streaming and social media platforms. To Dryhurst, a “decentralized, blockchain, crypto-friendly approach, could potentially stimulate hundreds of different ways to do business.”

He is hopeful, in part, because the cryptosphere provides an alternative to the concept of taking venture capital for a startup. “I say this with a degree of caution, because half of the space is full of shit, but the blockchain and cryptocurrency universe is shaping up to be the antithesis to that [Silicon Valley] logic.”

In the crypto space, there is something called an initial coin offering (ICO), which Dryhurst says is like a combination between Kickstarter and venture capital, where an idea is announced, and there’s a call for pre-investment in it; in return, one receives tokens that operate as equity in the ecosystem.

Reflecting on Saga, Dryhurst suggests it would have been much easier to get off the ground in this way.

“Saga is an open source project,” he says. “I’ve made like a grand from Saga and that was all from speaking appearances. There was no investment in Saga whatsoever. Now you have this ecosystem where open source developers can reach out to the community and raise competitive amounts of money to make seriously competitive platforms.”

“You could do something like [Saga] with crypto far easier than it was to do without it.”

Parallel Gestures

It’s worthwhile to meditate on this idea of independent labels representing not one type of interaction but hundreds of different types. Indeed, music culture at large currently does not need one type of technology or one alternative platform to “save music.” And so experimentation is necessary.

In a 2015 interview with Fact Magazine, while discussing Saga, Holly Herndon spoke to this, and pushed back against what one might describe as programmed solutionism.

“It’s all about creating new ways for people to communicate with one another, instead of being like, ‘I’m going to solve all the world’s problems with technology,’” she said in the interview, adding that the world’s problems will never be solved that way. “It’s like Whack A Mole–another problem pops up. It’s more interesting to create infrastructure—new modes of communication–and problem-solve along the way.”

Saga opens up the idea that even in an economy where musicians are expected to consider it the norm for different major media and corporate platforms to take their work out of context and re-publish it for their own gain, artists can reclaim some agency, and if they want, say, “No.”

As alternatives to this exploitative system are being created and dreamed up, what else can artists do in the meantime?

“For every thing that you do within a centralized context, make a decentralized parallel to it,” Dryhurst says. “For example, [trying] something like CASH Music [which offers open source tools for artists to have more control over their work], or Resonate, or other interactions such as creating mailing lists. Find novel ways outside of the standard interactions pre-programmed for you by the centralized music industry. Experiment with them in tandem.”

He is fairly confident the conversation is changing: “Like, what else is going to happen? Either we spend all of our time getting depressed on Facebook or we do something else.”

“Talking about it is one thing, executing on it is really really hard,” Dryhurst concluded. “I would never judge someone for not successfully creating an alternative. I’ve been trying to do that for years, and it’s not easy. But I think we do need to reach some form of consensus that this is of grave political importance. And grave aesthetic importance.”

Even though some of these new platforms and ideas are in their infancy, there is an enormous opportunity for artists and listeners to self-educate through using them, to better understand the conditions people are up against, and to think of ideas for moving forward.

Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly