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Opsound's Sal Randolph

Open Culture

Meet Sal Randolph, the New York-based artist behind Opsound, a new online record label that has adopted the concepts of open source and copyleft and adapted them to music production. Opsound invites musicians to contribute sounds to a “sound pool” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. Others can then take sounds from the pool, mix them or use them as-is, and publish the results however they like: online, or under a real-world micro-label; for profit, or not. The project is a great example of how Creative Commons licenses can promote new kinds of collaboration and help build a digital resource people can use freely — even for commerce.

Sal is kicking off Opsound with an open invitation to the world to submit works to the sound pool. Users will host their own sounds, and the Opsound site will feature a local indexing function that links to every sound in the pool.

Asked if artists would be moved to contribute works to the sound pool, Sal is optimistic. She says she senses, however, a disconnect in most artists’ view of copyright: most understand how copyright protects their own work, but few appreciate how too much copyright can also hinder them from drawing upon others’ work.

“Many artists download music but don’t want to give up any protection on their own stuff. They see copyright as something that is primarily there to protect them. They are afraid that giving away some of that protection will diminish the value of their work, but it is my experience that allowing your work to be used and shared more freely actually increases its value — certainly its social value, and under the right circumstances, its financial value. A lot of the Opsound effort will be to educate artists about copyright and how sharing can help them.”

Opsound is Sal’s newest open source social architecture project. She is also the mastermind behind many other open source art projects including the Free Words project, Free Biennial, Free Manifesta, and Opcopy. Opsound, like many of Sal’s projects, is a constructed social situation based on a “gift” economy — a kind of market that, like the open source movement, operates in part on non-financial motives.

In one of these such projects, Sal produced thousands of books simply entitled “Free Words” containing a collection of 13,000 randomly assorted words and phrases Sal had put together over 10 years as fuel for her poetry. Sal contributed “Free Words” to the public domain. “This text is placed in the public domain,” reads the book’s front cover. “No rights are reserved.” The back states simply, “This book is free.” She began to sneak the books onto shelves in bookstores and libraries around the world. Some people would find the book and take it, while others doubted that the book was indeed free. Sal says “It’s that moment of confusion that is the art.”

I caught up with Sal in New York and had the opportunity to ask her a few specific questions about Opsound and the philosophy behind it.

Creative Commons: Could you talk a bit about gift economies and how they relate specifically to Opsound?

Sal Randolph: I’ve been studying gifts and gift economies for a few years as part of my work as an artist. Generally gift economies are discussed by anthropologists, very often as if they have little to do with contemporary life, dominated as it is by global capitalism and market forces. But gift giving is fundamentally human and is at the foundation of how we create human relationships. Families are largely gift economies. Workplaces are a complex intertwining of gift and money economies where extra work is very often done for reasons that are primarily social rather than financial.

In recent years the free software and open source movements have become an example of a hugely vital gift economy capable of engaging the creativity and attention of hundreds, if not thousands of participants working on projects which now stand alongside the products of a gigantic commercial industry.

Opsound is in part an attempt to apply some aspects of open source software’s example in the context of music. Like software hackers, musicians are very often motivated by the pleasures of making, and the desire to share their work with others. The way the music industry operates does offer the possibility for a small number of musicians to make a great deal of money, but it doesn’t function well for the vast majority of people who are making music. The current situation of the music industry begs for alternative structures to be invented and created.

CC: Why are you using Creative Commons licenses? What do you think the value is of Creative Commons, and our licenses to the world, perhaps in the context of a new social architecture?

Sal: I began working on the Opsound project before Creative Commons released its licenses. I was aware of some other possibilities like the EFF’s Open Audio License, and Copyleft Attitude’s Art Libre/Free Art License, as well as a number of open content licenses designed more for texts and academic work. All of these were clearly inspired by the GNU General Public License and the work of the free software and open source movements. . . .

I had various hesitations about each of these, including how easy or difficult they would be for artists to read, understand, and use, what their legal strengths and weaknesses were, how widely applicable they were internationally, how the license notification worked when pieces were published or released, etc.

When Creative Commons introduced their licenses, I was delighted to see that many of my questions had been addressed. Most important, the licenses are easy for anyone to understand and use. In addition, the “some rights reserved” logo and html provided by Creative Commons gives everyone with web-based projects a very easy way to make the licensing of the work clear to its audience. Creative Commons does a wonderful job of introducing the public to the ideas and principles behind the licenses as well as explaining clearly how they can be used and what they mean. From my point of view, working with a group of artists and members of the public who may not yet be familiar with these issues, this aspect of Creative Commons’ work has been essential.

In the larger picture, I feel that there is a general movement to respond to the increasingly restrictive climate of copyright legislation and practice by simply bypassing it, by creating alternative structures where music, art, and writing can be more freely shared and used. Despite the dominating mind-share of the commercial cultural industries, most music, art, video, and literature is still made for noncommercial reasons, and the artists who make that work have nothing to lose and everything to gain by sharing it more freely.

CC: How did you get interested in social architecture, open source, free art projects?

Sal: I had been working for years as a poet and installation artist. Over time I came to feel that the traditional art experience, essentially private and contemplative, was frustratingly brief and passive. I began to look more deeply at the situation of art: where we find it, how it is used, how it is bought and sold, what are some of the hidden forces at work in shaping our experience of art. I became very curious about art’s relationship to money, and I began a series of art projects investigating the pricing of art. As part of this work I gave a few things away for free, and found that a new and astonishing energy entered people’s engagement with the work.

I’ve been working on free art projects for about five years now, and they grew quite naturally into the work on social architecture. Gifts (as Marcel Mauss points out in his wonderful book, The Gift) are essentially relational. Gifts ask for reciprocation, and in the back and forth that ensues relationships form. So projects involving giving things away very quickly take on a social dimension, spontaneously creating and illuminating social networks.

I’ve always followed the open source movement with some interest, but as I became interested in the way that more complex gift economies and social architectures might function, I began to study it more specifically. Because the history of the free software and open source movements are so fresh and so well documented by participants and observers, a great deal can be learned from it. One of the particularly interesting things about open source software is the interface between the gift economy in which much of the work is created, and the capitalist economy in which it is also bought and sold. No one yet knows if the economic model of open source software is entirely sustainable. And we know even less about whether it can be applied to other areas, for instance music. Nevertheless, the sheer energy and scale of open source software is enormously inspiring.

CC: What is your vision for Opsound a few years down the line? What kinds of contributors do you anticipate? And how many? What will the Opsound community look like, overall?

Sal: One of the exciting things about working with social architectures and gift economies is that they are living entities, and therefore unpredictable. I have never done one of these projects without something very surprising and interesting happening. That said, however, I am hoping that Opsound will gain a certain critical mass and energy, a few hundred participants at least, to create a vibrant community where there are many ways of taking part.

With a large pool of sound files available, many things will be possible. Musicians, sound and video artists will be able to draw on them as elements in new work. For those who aren’t musicians, there will be the possiblitity of easily creating online microlabels. And of course I’m hoping for Opsound to be an interesting record label in its own right, producing and selling records and cds, holding events, parties, tours, etc.

Posted 01 October 2005