Music buying habits of teenagers, copyright and my quietest lessons of the year

For the last few years, during the art and cultural awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 years old), I have included a series of lessons that focus on the theme of the remix in all areas of culture and how the copyright laws affect both creators and users of culture.

It is an area that is close to the pupils and leads to interesting discussions. I asked them this week about their music buying habits. When I was at school as a teenager, everyone spent money on actually buying the vinyl or CDs of their favourite bands. This week in one of my classes of twenty-four pupils, just four had ever paid directly for a music track (either in the form of a physical object or legal download). A number of others pay indirectly by using Spotify but the majority either download from ‘other’ sources or simply make do with YouTube or (and I still find this slightly surprising) listen to the radio.

The content of the lessons certainly doesn’t just stop at our music buying and listening habits though. I focus more on the creative people whose work in their field could be described as a form of remix and the collisions this may or may not bring with the laws of copyright. This may be in music, film, visual arts or design.

The core of the whole series of lessons is try and get the pupils to evaluate their own position and opinions in just how creative any form of remix is and how this may compare to comparable but ‘non-remix’ work forms.

When I present them at the start of the module with the question of who is being the most creative; someone who takes a box of watercolour paints and makes a picture, someone who plays a Mozart piano sonata or someone using a computer to make a remix? Almost without exception they all choose for the painter. Not that surprising maybe, but it’s just an initial thought in opening up their minds to the world of the remix in all its forms and what it actually means to be creative. In doing this we touch on the laws of copyright, intellectual ownership, the lengths that some cultural practitioners go to in order protect their work and the impact the digital world has had on this complex and changing field.

I make use of some excellent online material such as the films below:

Having presented them with a range of examples and situations to consider I also ask them to have a go at creating their own remix.  I have two main assignments that I make use of.

The first is a digital graphic design assignment. It sounds straight forward enough. They have to design a poster for a music festival. I provide them with a limited collection of image material, a set of about twelve varied pictures that they may use. They are allowed to rework work them, crop, filter and add colour to them. They are also required to add the necessary text to advertise the festival, but the twelve images are the limit, they are not allowed to source any of their own images.

Of course at the end of the design process there are recognizable elements and overlaps in all of the posters. But what is interesting to see, and the pupils see this also clearly for themselves, is that some have been a whole lot more imaginative and varied in their use of the basic material.

The second practical assignment is to use one of the online remix studios and sound libraries to create their very own remix. I use www.soundation.com or www.looplabs.com. They both offer similar possibilities, extensive libraries of sounds and rhythms. Each fragment is just that, a fragment, mostly very short. These have to be combined and built up into a composition.

Let me be clear, I am not a music teacher, this is a little outside of my field. However, in a sense, it is not about producing a beautiful, complex and immaculately combined track. It is about giving the pupils a chance to work with preexisting sound fragments, to order and manipulate them, to challenge them to see just what they can achieve in this very new area of creative practice for them.

soundation

They respond well, once the headphones go on I get my quietest lessons of year. Eyes are glued to the screen, tongues often nipped between lips of concentrated faces. We subsequently spend a lesson listening to the results. Some can really be quite impressive, combining varied sounds and subtle transitions, others, if I’m honest, sometimes sound like a kind of brown, musical soup!

Whichever assignment is chosen, the most important question of all comes at the end. Whilst working on your remix or poster design, making use of ‘other people’s stuff’ as your raw material, ‘did you actually feel like you were being creative?’

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If illegality is involved, then we’re interested

Whilst evaluating the various art and culture modules I’ve taught to my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old’s this year, an interesting point has come up. I’ve taught across a variety of themes, but there is no doubt, that three in particular have stood out in the eyes of the pupils, and they all involve, in some way, questions of where the line lies between legality and illegality. I’ve looked at copyright and the remix in the cultural sphere, and how it impacts on artists and other creative practitioners. We’ve covered the question of artists and filmmakers engage with the extremely newsworthy theme of illegal immigration and we’ve spent time looking at street art and its place on the fringes of artistic production.

These links with illegality in various ways has on my part been a completely unconscious decision, but is the preference expressed by pupils in relation to these themes more than just a coincidence?

streetart

In the eyes of many young people the world of art and culture exists in many ways as something of a detached entity, particularly when it comes to visual art.  You go to the museum to see it and often it seems to boil down to a question of whether you like it for its aesthetic qualities or not. If there is an accessible narrative, for young people it is a narrative that is often a huge distance from their own world of experience.

Maybe in this context it isn’t that surprising than a cultural theme that engages with a relatively straight forward distinction of legality and illegality does provide a point of access. Most children and teenagers are quite interested in a sort of natural justice, things that should be allowed and things that shouldn’t.  All three of these modules have played into this area in different ways. The response of my pupils in all three cases has been incredibly positive. They feel we are engaging with the real world, they tell me that it’s helping them understand complex issues better and they are learning to appreciate that artists and other creative people have important and relevant things to say in these areas. In short it is a win, win, win situation!

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I suppose in a way it still reduces down to being able to link up with narratives and stories. Stories of the artists and musicians working in areas of dubious legality and being pursued by multinationals who own copyrights, illegal immigrants struggling to cross (or stay within) borders and the nocturnal world of the illegal street artist all have their own narratives, and better still they are narratives based on reality.

For me there is perhaps a lesson and an opportunity here, playing into these sorts of narratives must be possible in other areas too. More emphasis on the personal history of a particular artist, designer or architect perhaps or seeking out dramatic social contexts or dramas behind a given creative work. Once engaged, it never stops to amaze me, how far you can go, but opening the door is the challenge and finding the route in is oh so important.

“….and what if Madonna was your mum?”

I’ve written that on a few of the reports handed in by my pupils in the last week or so. A little unusual I know, but the remark has come in the context of a module of work that I have been doing with my fourth year groups (aged 15-16) that has had the title of Remix in Art and Culture. Part of the module has involved taking a look at the world of copyright protection and how it works, and doesn’t work in the cultural world. Pupils have visited an exhibition by the Dutch artist Gijs Frieling whose work there involves a painted remix installation that touches on any number of his artistic and cultural references and favourites.

gijsfrieling

We have also watched the excellent and entertaining film RIP A Remix Manifesto, made by Brett Gaylor to give a broader picture of remix in culture and the way in which copyright is tangled up in it.

The pupils themselves have produced their own music remixes and examples of mash-up graphic design work to help them see and understand the role of creativity even when the artist seems to be ‘borrowing’ work from others.

It’s been a successful project and the pupils have certainly enjoyed it, especialy the practical activities. So what prompted the Madonna comment. Well, as with many such projects, the final part is a little reflection, and one of the questions I put to the class is as follows; if we are going to protect artists’ creative work with some sort of copyright law, how long should this be for? They have see in Gaylor’s film that in many countries protection runs for the life of the artist plus seventy years.

Some pupils are quite clear and outspoken, they think that the whole copyright law is completely unsustainable in our digital world and should be scrapped, or at least radically rewritten. Others though are more unsure and are clearly perplexed by the seventy year rule. Why on earth should someone have copyright protection after they have died? “They can’t benefit from it then can they?” they write.   I suspect that ‘if Madonna was your mum…..’ you might actually be able to work out why copyright protection extends in this way, and you might also be very in favour of it! Otherwise you, and, in this case your mother’s estate is going to be missing a lot of royalties.

Part of the aim of this cultural reflection subject that I teach is to develop the pupils cultural opinions. Teenagers are in general pretty good at opinions, however for my purposes, opinions do of course have to be thought through and explained. This second step of thinking through the consequences of an opinion can be surprisingly difficult and worth a post some other time.