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Opening the Field: Sumanth Gopinath | Mobile Music, Ringtones & Cultural Commons

According to Sumanth Gopinath, the ringtone is a remarkable cultural phenomenon that is demonstrating a high degree of popularity and is undergoing rapid transformation. It’s a powerful lens through which to view the dynamics of cultural production. He’ll help us do this at the Open Field kick-off on June 3rd!

To help kick-off Walker Open Field, five guests from across the spectrum of art and ideas have been invited to share thoughts and pose questions on the cultural commons, framing a conversation that will continue throughout the summer. We’ll be posting our notes on each of these presenters over the next two weeks, and encouraging them to drop by Walker Blogs to recommend readings and other resources. The event kicks-off at 7pm on Thursday, June 3rd. Save the date!

We met Sumanth Gopinath just a few minutes after he’d left an experimental music concert at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches music theory with a focus on globalization. From his emphatic description of the performance it seemed a wildly creative and moving experience, one that flew completely under the radar of most Twin Cities music fans.

“The University has one of the best experimental composers in the world, James Dillon, working right here in town. He’s absolutely amazing! And the School of Music brings some of the world’s most creative performers to the Twin Cities. They host wonderful concerts that are open to the public and totally free.”

Although Sumanth is on temporary leave from the University while finishing a book project, he regularly attends the School of Music’s concert series, just one of many untapped cultural resources he hopes more people will utilize.

While talking with Sumanth about Open Field and the cultural commons, we learned that his interests and knowledge are wide-ranging. He sees myriad connections between digital technology, politics, culture and the everyday. He’s critical of notions of cultural commons that don’t take these connections into account.

“Ours is a capitalist world-economy. One could argue that various forms of unpaid labor have always made capital accumulation possible, making practices like creative commons nothing more or less than part of a longer history of common repositories for cultural forms.”

Over the course of an hour our conversation meandered between the concept of commons in the writings of Karl Marx, Sumanth’s own philosophical views on the production and dissemination of creative work, his passion for experimental music and art, and his interest in the global ringtone industry.

“The ringtone is a remarkable cultural phenomenon that is demonstrating a high degree of popularity and is undergoing rapid transformation. It’s a powerful lens through which to view the dynamics of cultural production.”

When it comes to questions of music production and the cultural commons, we often hear the familiar outcry that file-sharing and a laissez-faire attitude toward intellectual property, especially among those under 30, is killing the music industry. In fact, it’s an argument that’s been taken up again recently in the Atlantic (nice response here). Sumanth pointed out that the proliferation of ringtone versions of popular songs happened in tandem with the proliferation of pirated music.

“Ringtone providers’ increasing use of copyrighted popular music meant that music publishers were licensing material for ringtones and receiving royalties — thus planting the seed for the music industry’s plan to make up for financial losses due to file sharing.”

Sumanth will be discussing these often overlooked connections at the Open Field kick-off, asking us all to consider the technological as well as the political histories of the creative tools we use, as well as the bits and bites of information that make them work and that provide access to art and culture. In many cases our mobile devices, small as they are, contain extensive libraries of music. Some of them even allow us to compose new works.

In the case of ringtones, this music doesn’t just play through our home stereos or headphones, it blasts unexpectedly in all kinds of private and public spaces, becoming part of the fabric of our physical commons, as well as our amorphous digital one. These questions of intellectual property, common ownership and the politics of cultural production will undoubtedly be raised again and again over the summer.

For now, one thing Sumanth is interested in learning which ringtones visitors to the Open Field have chosen for themselves, and why. Anyone? I’ll start by confessing that much to the annoyance of everyone around me my ringtone is set to an obnoxious Girl Talk mashup, which I am pretty sure I got from a free file sharing website. Because I am a freeloader.


A Brief History of the Ringtone

Standford Mobile Phone Orchestra

Despite the Downturn: An Answer Album

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