Freeness was a project fronted by the artist Chris Ofili, funded by the Arts Council with the (now defunct) Observer Music Monthly. All very smart; influential, too, you'd have thought. Here's how it was reported in The Guardian:
Freeness, will see Ofili touring the country during the next two months, holding a series of "open submission" nights where musicians of African, Caribbean, Asian or Chinese origin can bring CDs of their unreleased tracks and remixes for public airing.
Freeness is looking for material that doesn't fit the "urban music" label foisted on artists by the music industry, Ofili says. "It's a celebration of creativity, and that's the basis of what I'm trying to do with my life. I felt that the urban music category was restrictive of that. Somebody of black, Asian or Chinese descent can really make any kind of music, and we shouldn't be placing those restrictions upon them. "I don't quite know how the urban music category came about, but I suspect it had something to do with trying to maximise sales."
He insists the shows will not be talent contests or Pop Idol-style eliminations: "We're trying not to place any kind of value judgments on the music. I'm working with two DJs and they run a regular night in London called CDR. This Freeness project is based on that model, which invites people to bring their own music. It's more like a listening experience, like an audible gallery."…
After the Freeness tour, which starts this month [January 2005] and will visit 10 cities, a selection of tracks will be compiled on to a CD and given out free in music shops and colleges.
There's more on the BBC Collective site (also now defunt — do you see a pattern here?).
Going back to Sheffield's Red Tape recording studios (originally set up and owned by the City Council) there's a growing trend of public subsidy for the fiercely and proudly commercial domain of "popular music". Most of this comes from regional regeneration and European funds — as in the case of the Independent State of Yorkshire — or national cultural exchange agencies like the British Council or the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. However, the Arts Council has no remit or constituency for "popular music", and no history of supporting it — the usual argument being that they intervene only in the arforms that need their kind of cultural patronage. The condition of their funding the National Centre for Popular Music was that it become architecture project instead ("We won't support the £7 million project you've submitted," they said, "but if you make it into a 'landmark building' and resubmit it as a £15 million pound project, we'll support that" — they got their landmark; there never was a national centre for popular music). Maybe they could have turned Freeness into an exercise in reconceptualising the CD as a physical object (several of Ofili's paintings look to me like designs for the covers of albums influenced by Bitches Brew).
The double-CD package is good to look at, good to touch — yes — but it's not revolutionary. So how did this "celebration of creativity" make its presence felt? What came out of this "public airing"? Sadly it looks as though little of this music made its way through the aether to reach a public. I used my standard, ready-to-hand metric of plays on Last.fm (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Of 29 artists on Freeness, Volume 1, four have names that they share with other bands or artists, so it's not possible to identify how many times they've been played. Of the remaining 25, six have more than a hundred listeners and have been listened to more than a thousand times. Of these, the median figures are Netsayi with 6,710 plays by 907 listeners and Zuba with 4,162 plays by 1,109 listeners. Over six years, those figures are still pretty low. But what really shocked me is that the remaining artists all have less than a hundred listeners and less than a hundred plays (the one exception to this is Emeson's track Gone, with 249 listens by 41 listeners, but he, uniquely, made this track available as a free download to encourage more people to hear it).
Now these figures aren't rigorously scientific, and there's definitely an argument that Last.fm's user base is skewed towards white listeners (I assume it is, based on the dominance of U2/Radiohead/Coldplay in their charts). But even so, in terms of getting music out there and giving it some exposure, some chance to grow in the sun and the air, these figures are tiny. They're way behind the Independent State of Yorkshire promotional CD, and on a par with Hear Iceland!.
Why didn't they take more creative measures to give this music a public airing beyond the people who came along to one of the ten events and/or received a free CD? The Wired Creative Commons CD had already shown by then another way of getting audiences to engage with and spread music. Freeness did have a download store as a partner, I recall, but — you guessed it — they became defunct shortly afterwards. The Freeness website no longer exists, either, but it's last recorded message, two years ago, began:
Freeness has given innovative UK music makers the opportunity to show that their creative endeavour has value in and of itself, regardless of categories and expectations imposed from outside. We have been successful in giving these musical innovators a non-judgemental, non-profit making avenue for expression and exposure.
We worked hard to direct funds towards our aim of creating opportunities for these musical expressions to be heard. We have enjoyed the journey, in particular meeting the many determined souls whose music we believe in.
The music on these CDs is diverse, interesting and exciting. Hear it, if you can.
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