Tools In Our Hands
Discussing SAGA with Mat Dryhurst

SAGA is a digital publishing framework that gives creators the power to control how their work functions on the web. Using SAGA, an artist can track and edit their work online, wherever it might end up. This allows the artist to determine how their work appears - or if it appears at all - in each specific context.

Over a series of emails, presented here in unedited form, Dryhurst explains the potential in his code, details its political roots and expolores the implications it has for artists, publications and audiences.

Swipe left to move through the discussion.


FM: What I'm most interested in with Saga is the way it changes the relationship between the artist and their work. It makes it a sort of on-going relationship - one without a natural or definitive end-point. Really, the artist can go on tweaking their work as much as they like. They need never sign-off on it exactly. The work becomes always - at least potentially - in progress. How do you feel this will be of benefit to artists? Is there something lost in that trade-off?

MD: I have a number of thoughts about this, and I do see it as a principle issue. There is always an 'end point' to a work - it's basically when someone else listens to (or sees) something you intended them to. If we stick with music, common practice now for someone making electronic music is that the end point for the work is the final few seconds before you send something off to get mastered ('print'), or the final few seconds before you perform ('play') - as I know that most people are tweaking and manipulating things up until that moment. With digital production environments, the distance between your latest ideas and the end point has shortened significantly, and a tool like Saga in a way allows you to eliminate that terminal moment as yes, you could decide to continually update the file, or also choose to leave it as it is. Why not? We've only been releasing records for a century - and I'd wager that probably the majority of songs before that were continuously evolving and mutating before being 'fixed' onto a physical medium.

It's also interesting to think of how the value of 'liveness' has increased as the value of 'fixedness' has decreased since the advent of file sharing on the internet. People pay for liveness, and pay attention to it. I was reading a cool interview with Autechre recently, who were empathizing with what it's like for artists in this new climate to release a record they have toiled over and only get attention for it for a few days online before it disappears into people's feeds. On the one hand something has been lost by these shifts - we lost a climate of scarcity, where only a few artists hit the recording studios and distribution channels necessary to reach a lot of people, and where the best way to hear this work in high fidelity was to purchase a physical object. What replaced it was a climate of ubiquity, and dramatic changes in people's listening habits that are likely never going to return to that time. I would argue that what they are complaining about is also an opportunity. People care about the 'liveness' of release announcements - it's something time specific. They want to know what's going on with you, now. They go to shows to see what's up with you, now, and not see a rote performance of an LP. There is real value to that. The ability to update a work in time and context specific ways offers tools and aesthetic possibilities for artists to experiment with that new climate. I did a talk for PAN years ago, when I premiered my 'net concrete' stuff, that talked about how those artists who saw the feed as a medium, and prioritized liveness, were really utilizing the full creative potential of the internet, and seeing results for it. Lil B is a fascinating example of that.

Being interested in this also rubs some people up the wrong way, but Saga doesn't force anyone to utilize these possibilities. You can keep the work fixed and keep business as usual, but I think that giving people more tools to express themselves in time and context specific ways opens up a lot of opportunities that we just haven't seen before. I'd rather work with the changing landscape than stoically pretend this isn't the world we live in. I'm really interested in comedy, and improvisation, responding to the context of a work. This is also a matter of human agency, and evading the ways in which work is quantified and analyzed online by pernicious entities - bots and such. Making independent music live, elusive, cunning and difficult to pin down is one strategy we have to beat the bots and continue to develop a new language for this community. It's funny, as in a way Autechre's 'Flutter' was an example of a cunning time and context specific adaptation to their work, within the limitations of what was available to them at the time. Why not be able to make such decisions at every turn, at every end-point? I can already tell I'm going to get shit for saying that, but I think that the logic is consistent.

The other side of the story is of course the way Saga makes it more difficult to ignore the context in which a work is viewed, or - less generously - consumed. It allows the artist to think and react to the situations the work ends up in, and allows them to stay connected in an active way to those situations. Again, same question, what's the benefit to artists here? Can you see it as more than a way of registering displeasure or disagreement with the way a work is presented, or contextualised?

For me it's about recognizing that online, the value of a work is largely derived from it's context. Your music becomes more valuable to you shared on Resident Advisor than does with no views on a soundcloud page. This has always been the case - your 12" is more valuable sitting in Hard Wax than it is in your basement. I'm interested in acknowledging that reality, and this is the first online distribution tool I know of to really work with that logic.

It's also a matter of legal protection. I was recently approached by an IP lawyer interested in Saga who suggested that it is solving a legal problem. The thing is, (in the US) the law is still stuck in the time when 'copies' meant a physical reproduction of things. When it comes to embeds, it still sees your track embedded on someone else's site as a 'window' to your site. So legally there are no grounds to protect the usage of that embed once it is out in the world. So in a way using something like Saga provides protection in ways the law does not.

Using a logic like Saga embraces ubiquity, but with provisions. You can choose to publish your work freely, and decide that you aren't down with having it shown for free next to ads, should you like. Putting that decision into the hands of people creating value is a matter of principle, and if enough people were to use it, really shifts the balance of power towards creators I think, and separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of entities who are legitimately interested in supporting this culture, and those looking to cheaply profit from it. It's so easy for any entity with some money to spend to use the work produced by this community to make them look better, or sell ads off the back of our work. People make plenty of money from independent music, we just don't see a lot of it. I propose that at the very least, if someone is making money off something you have released, then you should be able to share in those profits. They wouldn't exist without the artist.

So yeah, it's all of the above. It's a protection and also a new creative possibility. I like to imagine a song of protest, for example, that exists as this alive entity that travels throughout the internet, complexifying and responding to its environment. People would follow that, and how much more powerful could that potentially be? Companies and governments find new and technologically astute ways to increase their influence online, and it will become increasingly difficult to present a resistance to that if we aren't dedicated to finding new ways to do so. Saga puts tools in artist's hands that are commonplace to many corporations, in fact. Youtube already knows every location where your work is based online, and serves ads in accordance with what they find. They don't put those tools in our hands though. They keep that to themselves.

The earliest independent labels made a new system for disseminating work that defined this culture in opposition to the predominant and corrupt major label system of the time. I'm really curious at what a contemporary analog of that system would look and act like. I think I'm getting closer.

While I agree with you to a certain extent about this dichotomy of "climate of scarcity"/"climate of ubiquity" that you mentioned earlier, I see this divide put forward a lot and I think it's far too simplistic. It makes sense to think of a pre-digital era as a time of relative scarcity, but the scarcity of the object (a record, a book, etc) wasn't generally what gave the object value. In some cases obviously a rare LP is worth a lot of money, but I'm trying here to focus on a sort of emotional value (a slippery value, I'll admit). An example: People, I think, often listen to records because they remind them of a former time in their lives, a place they used to be, someone they used to love, etc. (I'm thinking of something like Xavier Dolan's Mommy, where the music has emotional impact precisely because it's so over-played, so cliché.) Now, I'm imagining a situation where you think, 'I haven't heard that record in years', and you go to listen to it via Saga and find it's changed. This is what I mean when I ask, is something lost? When an art object goes into the world, it potentially becomes much greater than its author could have predicted - we all know this. Its meaning naturally develops, changes, possibly deepens. This separation, the work's own independence, its objectivity, seems really important to me. Saga invites the artist to never sever that connection, to continue to define its role in whatever context it appears - personal blog,, wherever. If a work is only available through Saga, it never truly belongs to the audience. Is there a danger in that, for both the artist and the work?

Regarding 'scarcity/ubiquity', it's obviously nuanced. My point was more looking at the scarcity of opportunities to record and distribute your work, which is something that the original independent label infrastructure addressed, but to nowhere near the degree of opportunity that is present today. Previously, your work became valuable when you found a means to record and distribute it (a label or other channels) - otherwise it was unheard of (no value). If your work was picked up in 1994, you were competing in a far smaller market, and people were also purchasing your record so that they could play it on demand. This does represent a scarcity in contrast to the landscape today, as in there were scarce options to play the song you liked when you wanted to. Not to mention the fact that you were already utilizing the full capacity of the distribution channels of the time to have a physical record circulating in the world and a video on television. There is so much more capacity for live expression at the moment, it's weird that we are still stuck in the same mentality.

Nonetheless, people are free to keep their work the same using Saga. You don't have to alter it, that is just an option available. Secondly, something I'm thinking of building out in Saga is a kind of public versioning system, which could represent the 'story' of a piece for the viewer, who can see where it went and how it responded. I think that this would be a really interesting development.

Let's say an artist does choose to create versions of a work - why would those lose the power you discuss over time? Why couldn't multiple gestures do the same? I don't believe in some kind of undeniable, pure, objective art. I do believe in complex and personal relationships to art work, however they are largely subject to contextual factors. The value of a song is often determined by subjective context - how it is presented, where you first heard it, how timely it was, etc. It's also subjectively targeted at people - look at the timing of fixed releases, for example - do you not think that those decisions play a significant part in your relationship to a song? Or live gestures that can help define a career - thinking of people like Hendrix and Dylan who are as known for timely statements (Star Spangled Banner / Electric Dylan) as they are for their songs. It's all part of the same practice, except we have an imbalance of tools prioritizing the traditional modes of expressing yourself through a linear, fixed recording. This, again, is largely a infrastructure developed by non-artists whose priority was to milk a recording for as much as it was worth.

I'm going to use my dad as an example - he was deep into music in the 70s and has a thing for arty progressive rock. His vinyl sit in an attic somewhere, and he bought digital versions of records that he might stick on when friends come over, but his eyes light up when he talks about seeing Amon Düül II live. The records are not insignificant, but I've always found that the experience of witnessing and experiencing something unfold in front of you is so much more powerful. The cultures I am drawn to are live - there is a show to go to, there is an opinion to be formed, there is a vine meme to follow and giggle at. What is a techno white label without a DJ who finds the right timely moment to introduce it in the different places she plays? Recordings can serve as wonderful documentation of a culture, but bereft of the culture they are pretty drab IMHO.

I think you're quite right to bring up the fact that tools like Saga exist already, they're simply not in the hands of the people who are making art. Amazon can edit the books on your Kindle without your consent, Youtube tracks embeds for ad purposes, as you say. I also think you're right to bring up the indie distribution networks of the past (I actually had a question written about this, but I didn't want to start off with it). I think the barrier of distribution is - possibly always is, at least with art - where the fight really lies now. Talking to James Hoff recently, he said he was very excited by the idea of an app equivalent of Forced Exposure, a music distribution tool which serves a particular community, and which is built around their needs. You've pointed out already that there are strong commercial consequences of something like Saga, with artists/labels being able to sell product placement for specific timeframes in a video, for instance. This obviously makes sense from a major label point of view, but I'm more interested in the Forced Exposure level, the mail order/bedroom label level. How do you think Saga can help those kinds of artists, on a collective level? Not just empowering individuals to set their own prices, but to collate audiences, to cross-pollinate, to work together to increase their collective reach and collective returns? Does Saga imply the continued atomisation of artists working alone, or can you see it being a force for collective organisation and action from a niche community perspective?

I'd be curious to chat to James about this. To put it frankly, the motivation for trying to make this happen is that I think it is quite clear that no-one is going to solve our problems for us. Nobody else is going to represent our interests, as we are not a priority to large companies. Infrastructure is everything - when we stop building it we begin to lose independence. The surge of interest in experimental music in the past 10 years coincides heavily with the emergence of entities like Boomkat and others who have taken the job of representing underrepresented music very seriously and very professionally. Look to PAN or Primary Information, to see the difference that can be made through careful presentation and self organization. Why not try to do the same with how we publish our work online?

Why should independent labels and artists be squeezed into the same template designs and deals as the majors, or anyone else for that matter? What is stopping us from experimenting with the way that work is published such that a Warp release looks and feels entirely different to an XL release online? Why should we take bad deals with Youtube or Spotify? Again, the people creating the work provide the value. If everyone decided to ditch those services and contributed to something cooler and more engaging and distinct, then people would follow. Why not charge people a small amount of money for something you have hustled over for a year? If 20% of the people who have enjoyed our work online had paid $1 for it, we could have bought a place with that money by now. I just really think we need to reassess things.

There are a number of ways to make Saga 'social' eventually, but I'm not keen on doing that right now. I think that it is powerful to put forward a new interaction, and then time will tell how and if people use it. When people think of 'legitimate online services' they want profiles, accounts, feeds. Look at Ello, even with all the good will in the world they essentially built an empty palace. Saga is built on one core, and unique, interaction. I want to make it as easy as possible to publish, track and amend your work, and then if sufficient people are enticed by that we can start talking about building community. Design can in so many ways limit the potential of something, and limit what people imagine something developing into. If my focus is to provide independent artists tools that I think shift the bias of the web back in their favor, then the community will naturally follow and I will respond appropriately when the time is right.

In principle though, we are in total agreement. We just need to build our own shit and dictate our own terms. I also think that self hosting and self organizing in this way provides something relevant for people to rally around. I legitimately believe that the hosting debate could prove to be as significant an aesthetic politic as the indie/major identity distinction of yore. It is so much cheaper to run your own server now and deliver things quickly to people in high quality, it's really a huge opportunity to make a break.

There is another argument, which I think is worth entertaining, that spending more and more of our time on social platforms actually inhibits some aspects of the community building that you are talking about. The popular design bias towards creating playlists and zoning out in the feed doesn't exactly stimulate the kind of interactions I value. I'm not attracted to passive consumption of things - which goes back to what I mentioned earlier about prioritizing liveness over fixed works.

I guess the major stumbling block with Saga is the same for any independently minded situation: that of control, or responsibility maybe. I find the reason people work with bigger labels or big booking agents (or whoever) is usually just because they don't want to take care of that themselves. They want to focus on their music and leave what is essentially admin to a third-party. And they're willing to pay for that. I can sympathise with that without ever feeling like I'd want it for myself. Saga comes with extra baggage because it's not just sending emails and posting LPs, it involves knowing how servers work, it involves knowing how to handle things like mySQL and Github, which can be very intimidating to people (they certainly were to me at one stage). What would you say to people who are interested in these ideas of self-hosting, but find themselves unable to engage with the technology that enables it? For an artist working alone, it's a lot of responsibility to take on - why should they make the effort of learning a new language, a new way of putting their work into the world?

I totally understand the need to focus on music. The challenge with future versions of Saga is to make it as effortless to use it as it is to submit your work to a centralized platform like Soundcloud. Up until now the focus has been on proving that this concept will work, and the next step is to lower barriers to access. Normally people raise money and have an office of staff working on that problem, however this is a personal side project that I also struggle to budget time for between other projects that pay my bills.

On a greater level, I think that how your work enters the world is also a large part of the work itself. In the case of music, the people who tend to establish themselves largely assume a great deal of influence over the world around their music - they start club nights, have regular collaborators, develop a visual language, etc. These are all attempts to distinguish the work, and make a huge difference in how the work is perceived. Why have that distinction end at the point of viewing the work online?

It's not only the principle of the matter - that controlling your work in this way protects you in ways that even the law will not - but also the creative potential; seeing your work as an extension of yourself online, and finding ways to express yourself that are distinct to your vision. There are also financial incentives to thinking about self publishing. Saga is no panacea, but it opens up a few interesting possibilities that did not exist before, and also alludes to developments that may soon become commonplace with the ascendency of decentralized web services.

This project was very much started as a response to a general feeling of powerlessness I have witnessed within artist communities. If you feel comfortable with posting your work for free to platforms who will profit from it, then more power to you. If you see opportunities in self hosting and dictating your own terms, then Saga is one gesture to help you get closer to that, and hopefully the next gesture will be far easier to get your hands dirty with. I don't blame anyone for taking the options available to them at the moment, however am principally concerned with building a better alternative with independent artist's interests at the core.

The decentralized web is coming. Many people are not aware of it, but there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent determining how that infrastructure is built and whom it will benefit. I think that this could represent a new paradigm for independent artists, and think it's in everyone's interests that we begin to have discussions about it now.

You can find out more about SAGA at aCCeSsion Journal, or check out the project on GitHub.

Find out more about Mat's work at his website.

This interview was conducted by Ian Maleney for Fallow Media.

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Fallow Media | 2015