Cultural Capital is a collaborative research project that explores the historical antecedents, theoretical trajectories, legal ramifications and technical components involved in the creation of a non-profit patronage system and social network directly uniting musical artists and fans. The goal is to design a piece of online, cultural software that harvests user-generated data of listening and sharing habits and then utilizes an algorithm to allocate equitable compensation via distributed micropayment. Incorporating the multitude of individuals who propel the cultural industries with their creative labour, including fans, photographers, artists, labels and others, the Cultural Capital project aims to establish a ‘radical monetization’ of the music industry based on equity, connectivity and sharing. Integrating critical cultural theory and open source philosophy with advances in web technology, this research argues — legally, philosophically, and practically — for the recognition and compensation of music consumers in the cultural industries and the establishment of a sustainable infrastructure to fully embrace shared culture.

Redefining what it means to be a “creator” of music, the Cultural Capital platform aims to realize the capital in both a listener’s capacity for connection and desire to share music. No excess capital will be wasted on “middlemen”, and no power will be granted to “gatekeepers” in an unfair corporate oligopoly. Rather, generated profits will be redistributed directly to artists and the fans whose cultural labour propels them. Users will not only have the ability to craft their own patronage system, they will be encouraged and rewarded to modify the system.

There would be much value-added for users participating in this system: cultural sustainability (most people want to support artists), status and distinction (a largely untapped motivating factor in the consumption of music), and social connection (cultural consumption being a key medium for contemporary interpersonal relationships). A subsequent addition to the system would be establishing a credit system that rewards users for their cultural labour. For example, access to exclusive material supplied by participating artists and record labels can be offered to users who have been particularly active in sharing an artist’s music. But it is artists who have the most to gain from the Cultural Capital platform. They will be compensated by receiving capital directly from users, circumventing industry intermediaries of the outdated ‘big music’ industry model. Initially, the Cultural Capital system would actually realize surplus profit for the current record industry, but it would slowly shift the rules of the game; users and artists would become both distribution and promotion, legitimizing the unacknowledged roles which they already play.

The Cultural Capital platform encourages and monetizes creativity through a cultural philosophy that exploits unique advantages of the contemporary musical, social, and technological environment. It aims to facilitate the payment of both artists and fans for their creative efforts, while also crafting legal and theoretical arguments for a more open copyright regime. We are working toward establishing the infrastructure to fully embrace shared culture, guided by cultural theorists and legal scholars who have anticipated this intervention through their writing. This “radical monetization” is an intentional misnomer: radical in its scope of overhauling the infrastructure of the music industry perhaps, but almost banal in its effort to simply give both musicians and listeners what they want.

How it Works:

1) A social network where cultural data — music, video, photography, event data, etc. — is aggregated and where users can interact. The platform’s social network will be comprised of profile pages for both artists and users that are generated dynamically from publicly available application and social media data. For artists, these pages would include playable music files, but they would not be hosted by the Cultural Capital platform (thus sidestepping the thorny issue of intellectual property rights). Rather, music files would be embedded by legal external services, of which countless services now exist, each with unique characteristics. In addition to the automated aggregation of audio and video, other data streams will be incorporated into the profile pages of artists and users. Social media feeds such as Twitter and Google+ are easily incorporated as widgets, publishing the latest news feeds. The curation of this aggregated data would be handled by a community of dedicated members, not unlike Wikipedia. Anyone could contribute and the community would assure its quality.

2) Opt-in tracking software harvests the musical consumption of users, then suggests and facilitates equitable compensation to creators through a micropayment subscription fee. The platform would specifically focus on indexing a fan’s engagement with their favourite artists and their broader music community. Online activity (‘likes,’ embeds, shares) would be catalogued on profile pages. These user pages would provide the data for the radical gesture at the heart of the Cultural Capital project: opt-in tracking software monitoring the musical consumption/sharing of users that then suggests equitable payment through a customizable micropayment subscription fee. Payment would be entirely in the hands of the user; they might decide to contribute as little or as much as desired. Subscription is completely voluntary, as the Cultural Capital project aims to nurture a relationship through transparency, not realize profit through exploitation. Subscribers would choose how much money they wish to contribute each month and control a dashboard of sliding scales to visualize their payment distribution. For instance, a user may wish to base their payment on the artists or songs they individually choose to support (their “Likes” and “Favourites”), or they might prefer to let an algorithm allocate funds based on specific properties, such as “most listened”, “most in need of funding for their next recording”, or “most local.” A combination of any of these properties would also be possible and codes of conduct for cultural stewardship would be encouraged, promoting ethical consumption by users and ethical production/distribution by artists.

3) A legal intervention providing a legitimate space for the digital consumption and promotion of music. The project seeks to demonstrate that copyright’s goal – the just reward of creators – can be accomplished without a private property regime. Cultural Capital‘s code is a law best described as stewardship, enabling responsible consumption, sustainability by financing creators, and the best interests of the collective in regard to a public good. It rejects the criminalization of digital music sharing and instead seeks to validate the value and capital created by sharing. In no way does the Cultural Capital platform violate copyright law. Circulation of digital files is a phenomenon that occurs outside the platform’s confines. Rather, Cultural Capital enables users to assert a different legal imagination, wherein creators are still compensated but copyright gatekeepers are forsaken and sharing is included in the commercial equation. It is the first, voluntary step towards alternative digital music legality.