For those who don’t already know, my Masters thesis, and also my first short documentary on remix music culture has gone live.
Check out Remixing Culture, and help me further the discussion on remix and mash up art!
Final Feature Submission
My living room is throbbing with the posthumous glory of my favourite dead music star. It’s a mashup party for one. The strained and tortured sound of Nirvana laid against the funky, soft-core porn beat of the Supermen Lovers is streaming through my Internet browser while I eat corn flakes for dinner. French master of mashup Overdub has reinvented and repurposed the meaning of Kurt Cobain’s agony and has turned it into something new and surprising, and, for me, this pleasure is free. If creativity is a battle between the right to create and copyright laws, the remixer is a mashup mercenary.
Overdub isn’t the only condottiere of his genre. Mashups are everywhere today, and litter the streets of human intellectual history. Politics is a mashup. When communism and capitalism collide you get Marxist socialism. Literature is a mashup. Out of post-World War II conservatism, the beat generation was on, and William S. Burroughs was testing out his cut-up technique. Cooking is a mashup that gets better the more mashed up it is. A turducken is a delicious roast consisting in a chicken stuffed within a duck stuffed within a turkey. Someone must have laughed when they invented that mashup.
The bottom line is the mashup is a cornerstone of collective human consciousness. Remix is a recipe for cultural progress. Only now, it’s facilitated by technology, open source software and endless possibility. Truth be told, mashup is going to get even better, because people are creating new software to remix and create entirely new digital sounds, and all of this is available through a simple download. Imagine taking a speech delivered by George W. Bush and mashing it up with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. At the 2009 Vancouver New Music Festival, one artist made a video mashup using clips from Apocalypse Now, where the Americans were bombing Vietnam, and set it to the tune of Julie Andrews singing “The Hills Are Alive” from the 1965 classic film, The Sound of Music. The crowd went berserk. It was irony in the flesh. Two different cultural artifacts were being manipulated to the point of absurdity, but it was as enjoyable as ever. The mashup today is merely the platform for bigger and better — more culturally varied — mashups tomorrow.
Perhaps one the greatest things about mashup culture is that it encompasses a community that wants other people to take their work and mash it up too. It encourages cultural adaptations, mutations and re-adjustments to a pre-existing artwork. For the most part, there’s no licensing needed, no big companies to go through to get permission: all you need is a computer and an Internet connection to get your own mashup party going.
It was only a matter of time before the music recording companies realized that they were missing out on this huge potential to make money off mashup artists. Culture-mashing other people’s music opens itself up to possible commodification and copyright violation, all of the things that the music industry depends on. To protect the music recording industry, a top-secret government treaty that could ban people from the Internet for a year for downloading movies, software programs or even a single mp3 is currently being drafted.
It’s called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an offshoot of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which our American counterparts have been pushing to the north to combat the sweeping wave of Internet piracy that makes up the fabric of our cultural consciousness. If you or someone in your household is suspected of illegally downloading any files you haven’t paid for, you could all be banned from using the Internet for a whole year. That means not having access to source material without paying the big media companies. For remix musicians, the inability to access free source material to mashup could threaten their art. It could be the end of remix culture as we know it.
Under the rules of ACTA, all Internet service providers like Shaw, Rogers and Telus would be forced to become “copyright pigs” — spies if you will — to seek out and filter through downloaded content and the downloaders from their networks. They will hand over your name, address and they will find you. It’s George Orwell’s prophesy realized:
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
The martyrs of Big Brother
We live in a digital world, where every iota of information is disposable at our fingertips. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection. We have the freedom to download programs, video games, movies and any song from any album that was ever recorded. The totality of human creativity, thought and action has been categorized neatly, thoughtfully, and can be traced with the easiest Google search. We live in a world of digital archives, a massive information cloud where we can take, share and proliferate information by free will. It’s the largest democratization of culture in the history of the world. Remix music has thrived because of it.
Thriving during the twentieth century was a very different thing. For the first time in history, art and artists were closed off by companies and licensing laws. If you wanted to be a remix musician, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the legal permission and licenses necessary to put out a mashup album. There were no YouTube musicians, because people couldn’t afford the technology to record and broadcast their work. People didn’t live through music, they were consumers of music. People bought CDs, propping up big media companies like EMI and Universal, took their CDs home and listened to them. You couldn’t engage in the music-making process because it was limited to professional musicians and the unfathomable cost of recording an album professionally. As a result, people were passive to the remix process because it meant licensing something in a closed-off, heavily guarded cultural vault.
The bolts were ripped off the vault door when the Internet bomb detonated in 1999. College dropout Shawn Fanning created Napster, a peer-to-peer file sharing program that allowed people to download music from others, for free. Now anyone with a computer could get their music, and manipulate it however they wanted to. It was the birth of digital mashup.
This sent shivers through the bodies at every major music label boardroom. With the advent of user-generated programs, websites and collective licensing, the big media companies lost control of something they didn’t even create. They’re the unlawful gatekeepers of cultural trends that don’t comply to their business models, and rather than evolving their industrial view of production, they are completely missing the point of cultural democracy. They’ve lost control and their trying to get it back.
If culture-mashing without a costly license from a record label, we are in trouble indeed. Mashups are intelligent culture play. Interpretation of art through remix methods are integral to the development of more art, and the advancement of technology has improved the game space of these artists. For the government to curtail these interpretations solely to protect the interests of the music corporations is an abhorrence to democracy as well as art. Limiting mashup musicians by cutting off their access to source material will place them in a vacuum — and that’s just not how art is made. If remix is the recipe for cultural progress, ACTA is the poison.
Mashup martyrs aren’t going to let that happen quietly. Steve Anderson is the coordinator for the Stop the Big Media Takeover, a community of activists defending the openness of the Internet and the social innovation it brings. He’s an attractive, twenty-something year-old writer who’s adorably diffident despite his accomplishments. He’s upset too. Media companies, or as he calls them “the middle men,” are controlling the creation of culture, and turning it into a dry business of who-owns-what. The Internet wasn’t supposed to be closed off: the idea of it would be an existential paradox.
“The middle men are governing our world,” he said angrily at the 2009 Vancouver Media Democracy Day. He made a tight fist with both hands. “The telecom companies didn’t create the Internet, they just reacted to it. Now they are delivering it, and making a lot of money from it. In the same way, a lot of big media companies didn’t create our culture, they just took it and monetized it. Now they’re losing control. These middle men are scrambling and falling apart and trying to take back culture… this is where the battle begins for us.”
Web 2.0, by virtue, is based on information sharing, user-centre design and collaboration. Interactivity has spawned Wikipedia, web hosting and social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube. Affording everyone with the opportunity to be an amateur writer, a citizen journalist, a microblogger, and to partake in thousands of virtual communities, it opened the doors to creative avenues that will only become more innovative and interactive as the technology gets better. Amateur writers can vent. Music lovers can now become self-made musicians with the ability to write, record, produce and stream their own work through hundreds of free software programs to choose from. With a basic Djing program like Panatone, you can learn to edit and remix your favourite songs. And it’s all free. Just click click click, download what you want and you are a self-made artist.
Lawrence Lessig takes the same approach to remix culture. As a law professor at Harvard University, he’s calling for a copyright rebellion. Copyright law may have been intended to protect the intellectual property of creators, but it shouldn’t accommodate businesses that are trying to line their pockets rather than giving the advancement of human culture room to breathe.
At the Free Culture Conference last November, Lessig described the industrial monopoly on culture during the twentieth century as the single most destructive maneuver to destroy culture as we know it. “We didn’t know what would become — couch potatoes, passive recipients of culture, not creating it, not doing things with it… there were extremely important kinds of culture, like film or recorded music, that most people couldn’t have any real connection to,” he said. “You couldn’t make a great film, you couldn’t make a great record, because the technology was so far removed. We became passive relative to this culture.”
For the first ten years of this decade, culture managed to evade this material question of licensing, and people mashed away. A Google search will yield 1.5 million results for music mashup. That’s quite a sizable army.
You + me + Stephen Harper
People like Anderson and Lessig feel that culture builds upon what came before it. Whether it’s a rejection of what came before, it is impossible for any artist to not be conscious of the cultural sensibilities they live within. That’s how culture is built — it’s a never ending Hegelian synthesis of observation, analysis and remix — of repurposing and readjusting. Multinational policies like ACTA just don’t fit this organic model. Nor do the corporate models of large music recording industries.
“They’re losing control, and they don’t like the fact that we’re sharing files and not buying their music,” Anderson says. “Right now, we’re making our own music and we’re taking back control of our culture. That is where the battle must end. We must collectively make a decision. Do we want to let people be awesome and create what they want to create, or do we want to clamp down and create a limited, top-down culture?”
Lessig takes the stance that rewrite culture is an empowering, educational realm for amateur as well as professional artists. “It’s a kind of cultural literacy. You know, if you’re 20 years old and you can’t make a film, there’s something wrong with you, right? I mean if you can’t remix using digital technology, you’ve been somehow deprived in your education, and what we need to recognize is that this generation is radically different from mine. My generation was kind of embarrassed by the idea of creating, but your generation and the generation that will come after you is a generation that celebrates creating, and that’s something that the law’s got to begin to encourage.”
“Just think about Nine Inch Nails or Girl Talk, who are releasing content, explicitly encouraging people to do stuff with it, explicitly licensing them to do it with it, and licensing it in a way that guarantees the creators own the rights. They don’t own Girl Talk stuff, they don’t own Nine Inch Nails stuff, but they own their remix. They are creators, that’s the right of creators, and that kind of hybrid relationship I hope will fight to make sure it defines the future.”
Tech nerds, DJs: the mashup mercenaries
Jason Sulyma is a Vancouver original. He’s one of the residents at the infamous Biltmore Cabaret, an old-time-dive bar turned into a classy venue adorned with French country wallpaper and an deer antler theme. Toting the stage name My! Gay! Husband! (MGH) the shy, contemplative DJ defends his art as being a purely creative act.
“I’m not a proper producer or remixer; I just make hood East Van dance edits for drunk people when I’m bored at 4 a.m,” he says. He’s not in it to make money from selling CDs, but rather, making a party for his friends and neighbours.
He may be humble about his work, but Sulyma’s crafted some pretty infectious tunes. By mixing popular reggaeton, hip-hop and old-school rock by the likes of Lou Reed and the Beatles, MGH’s musical creations are downright feisty, creative and nostalgic. Remember the Muppets? He’s even got a song for that, a teched-up Muppets theme with a fat throbbing dance beat where Kermit keeps repeating “It’s time to get things started” in a way that automatically gets people dancing. Despite the popularity of this culture-mashing, Sulyma admits there’s hostility directed at his art.
“There are so many DJ, remixer and producer haters out there that I don’t want to give any more ammo. I think a majority of remixes are garbage and ego strokes, and I only do it because it gives me some alone time with the music. It’s just for me, those songs,” Sulyma writes in a Facebook message.
There are a lot of “haters” indeed. Aside from copyright zealots who defend the notion of intellectual property as the be-all-end-all of real human creativity, there’s animosity within the music world as well. This stems from the d.i.y nature of the mashup ― from dorm rooms to basement studios across the world ― literally anyone can tap into the art of the remix without needing to know much, if anything at all, about music. The lack of a price tag to this kind of freedom pushes the buttons of any corporation wanting to make money off this phenomenon that they don’t even belong to.
Eric Hedekar, a.k.a. Eric The Red, is a tech-savvy DJ who designs his own software to make his remixes. Classically trained in composition at Simon Fraser University, he got a fair share of criticism from his professors when he composed and arranged a mashup piece using Radiohead and sound bites of “bitches and hos” for his exam.
He’s optimistic though, and understands the value of technology and the cultural benefits of remixing, even if its not everyone’s cup of tea. “It’s something culture needs to do,” he explains in his 400 square foot basement studio in New Westminster. “All the creative minds in the Bronx in the 80s were looking at the turntable and saying, “Hey, this is more than just a record player” and learned they could adjust the record and make these new songs, or that they could put two songs together that hadn’t been played together before. That’s how hip-hop started, and there are countless examples of this kind of mashing everywhere. The Beatles played with their technology too when they used magnetic tape and played it backwards for “Revolution Number 9.”
Remix culture is the recipe for cultural progress. We need to protect the history of sampled music in order to show how far we’ve come. Technology is the tool for redesigning, tweaking and re-arranging art, and if government starts to monitor and punish Canadian citizens for enjoying the collaborative fruits of remix, we are surely done for. Corn flakes without Overdub booming through my speakers just isn’t the same.