Sunday, May 17, 2009

MashUps and the Reuse of Music

Mashups are a form of culture which take small pieces of pre-existing songs and blend them together to make something new. Perhaps the most well known artists in this field are Girl Talk and DJ Danger Mouse.

This form of culture has developed from rap and hip hop music which has traditionally used repetitive samples as additional parts in new songs. Samples themselves have long been part of our oral tradition. Indeed in everyday language we sample speech from each other through the use of catch phrases. The more recent composition method of mashups, have a tendency to include no new parts to the composition rather bleeding together material from a range of other sources.

The first time I ever experienced a mashup was in an interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig (formerly of Stanford University and now with Harvard University) in the film Good Copy Bad Copy that featured Bush and Blair footage cut to sit with the song Endless Love. This was a film clip about the close relationship between the USA and the UK on foreign policy. But to Lessig the clip also demonstrated the malleability of digital culture and the ability of old material to be used in a way that comments on new situations or events.

But what of music?

There has always been some resuse of music – most typically bands have played songs that others have already composed and released – those that do only this are commonly referred to as cover bands. These bands often offer a new interpretation of the song and sometimes play it in a new style. In other examples of the resuse of music, slightly more adaption takes place – one recent example are the artists Santagold and Diblo who adapted the Clash’s Guns of Brixton and released a version titled ‘The Guns of Brooklyn’. The original song reflected on the socio economic and social conditions of African immigrants in the UK and the intention of the derivative released by Santagold and Diblo was to further comment on the socio economic and social conditions of African Americans.

The cultural benefits of reusing music are profound. Culture allows us to see the world, to express the demands and events that take place in it and allows us to imagine and create a better future. Music that has a pre-existing association with social events and conditions that is then relocated from the past into new circumstances, allows audiences to make an immediate connection between the two spaces in time. The public are able to relive old sentiments, memories are triggered, feelings and emotions of an era past return and the perspective they had at that time can be used to view the contemporary world. The music is re-contextualised.

One example of this is DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, a remix of Jay-Z’s Black album and The Beatle’s White album which was distributed over file sharing networks. Whilst not sued, the artist, DJ Dangermouse, was threatened and sites hosting the file were subjected to take down notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Despite the efforts of the copyright holders, the tracks were quickly spread by internet users and a civil disobedience campaign launched to protest the inability of artists to remix music. The mashup itself was a form of political expression reflecting the need for racial harmony.

The institutional mechanisms of society, particularly law which is supported by capitalism, have not readily adapted to new forms of culture. While most forms of copyright legislation provide compulsory licensing mechanisms for cover songs, there are varying degrees and certainty to which samples can be used without a license under the protection of fair use/fair dealing. Typically licensing agreements are required which are expensive and take long periods of time to secure. In protest of the current state of the law a German Avant Guarde musician, Johannes Kriedler mashed 70,200 songs in 33 seconds, completed the necessary paper work and delivered it to the German Music Rights Organisation, GEMA.

In his text Remix Lessig notes that digital technologies have seen a move away from a Read Only culture to a Read Write culture where anyone is able to use cultural expression and mash it into new forms. Lessig suggests that there is a generational difference in the way in which culture is viewed with the older ‘couch potato’ generation unable to appreciate the need or desire of the younger generations to access and recreate existing works. We must be active in ensuring that the law catches up to technology, embraces new, transformative, cultural forms and does not inhibit their growth.

More Information

MySpace, Girl Talk (2009) <>at 17 May 2009

YouTube, Bush Blair Endless Love (12 April 2006) <> at 17 May 2009

Imeem, The Grey Video by DJ Danger Mouse vs. Jay-Z vs. The Beatles (2009) <> at 17 May 2009

You Tube, Santogold - Guns Of Brooklyn <> at 17 May 2009

Wikipedia, The Grey Album (20 February 2008)<> at 22 April 2008

P2p Blog, Musician mashes up 70,200 songs, delivers lists to rights holders by the truck load (21 August 2008) <> at 17 May 2009

Good Copy Bad Copy <> at 22 April 2008

Wikipedia, Good Copy Bad Copy (30 March 2008) <> at 22 April 2008

OCA Research Review, Remix (27 October 2008) <> at 17 May 2009

OCA Research Review, In the Matter of Mashups (2 September 2008) <> at 17 May 2009

No comments: