Sunday, January 2, 2011

Free music for the people

Welcome to the dystopian techno-age, where the effects of cyber-criminals can pose a very real threat to the humble citizen, where what is most valuable to our people are not our land and our community, but our identity, and where there is a rapidly growing divide between corporate powers and the budding techno-youths of the world.

I'm being a tad dramatic there, but believe me when I say that I've done that to make a relevant point. With cheap and easily available technology through a large portion of the western world, it seems all too easy to create, market and distribute your media. And if you play your cards right, you might just break through. It seems everywhere you look, Andy Warhol's prediction of everyone's fifteen minutes of fame is ringing true. Just as one teenage pop sensation fades, another one is brought into the spotlight.

I'd like to point out two types of producers and consumers here. There's the commercial record companies. They churn out gold records like they're yesterday's news and print it like it's the second coming of Jesus. They can set your career up to be a surefire success if it's what they want. There's the independent companies and producers. Bedroom musicians. People who work two jobs then go out and do their gigs.

When it comes to consumers, you get the people that feel compelled to pay for their music. I, for one, feel like it's a legitimate method to show my support for a musician. A tip of the hat to their intellectual property. However, if it's come from a commercial record company, there's a good chance that the intellectual property has been funneled through so many commercial filters that it just becomes a part of the machine. A product of the company, not the musicians. Then there's the pirates. You know who you are. You feel the music should be free for all. The musicians don't make their money off their records anyway. You're not really cutting into their profits.

Now, I don't have my facts all down, but a lot of this stuff is up for debate anyway, and the debate is really what I'm here to talk about. When it comes to intellectual property, where do you draw the line? Should people pay for someone's ideas? Patents have been saying yes for a very long time. But when intellectual theft is involved, theoretically, the law should step in and protect the individual who holds the patent or copyright, or whatever it may be. But when it comes to the commercial record companies, they're protecting their franchise. Call the musician an investment. Sure, the musicians are the intellectual creators, but the contracts don't always agree. And the commercail record companies have the resources to sue the shit out of you.

So with people downloading music illegally, amongst the masses, there are bound to be a few casualties. And the record companies send a vital message: they don't like being fucked with. I guess to a point, it's fair enough that a musician wants to protect their intellectual property, but the money the record companies are asking are far more than just an album or two.

And now I get to the specific example I've come to write about here: Sampling and Mash Ups. And more specifically, Girl Talk's new album. I first took an interest in this guy when his previous album was all over the radios. At that point in time, I didn't bother buying his CD or downloading it, but was quite content just listening to it on the radio. After all, he just takes songs from other people and blends them with each other. Then I watched a documentary which was not entirely focused on Girl Talk, but featured him heavily enough. And here it is:

Watch it all now if you like, or go back to it after reading this, I'm not really concerned. But I'll say that it is a very interesting film. I watched it for a course on consumer cultures at uni. It certainly got me thinking differently about music and intellectual property.

And then I caught wind that he just recently released a new "album" that is a free download that is the same as what he's done for his previous albums. Mashups. It seems he's got a method down. A lot of rap/hip hop up against pop/rock riffs. A lot of modern mainstream pop and dance motifs and a lot of classic rock motifs spread throughout. And a bit of more interesting stuff. Things you don't expect to hear together. I can understand that this sort of thing is not for a lot of people. I know many people will not consider it genuine music. Some people may think he's desecrating on the classics. Stealing from legitimante musicians to make his paycheck. But he's not on a commercial label. The music he's using requires a shitload of cash on top of the ok to use each sample to line the record company bigwigs' wallets with gold and diamonds. I think the movie linked above calculates the royalties required to clear his last album up at around a couple of million dollars. It probably wouldn't be hard to strip this guy of all he's got.

So why haven't they already? Free music taking from the intellectual property of others. Maybe it's just sheer luck he hasn't been dragged to the gutters yet, but maybe I think the commercial record companies can feel power slipping from their hands. Slipping into the fingers of the consumers. The pirates. They want free. They want something that can be shared without fear or guilt. They raise their middle fingers at the record company bigwigs en masse. The record companies sent a message to the public when they voiced their disapproval for pirating. And when the public kept right at it, that was their way of saying "we don't give a shit." Sure, it makes things harder for independent musicians trying to make a living, but it makes the creative process a lot more open-ended. Creative commons, sharing the intellectual property. We live in an age of remediation, where everything is an intertextual reference. Everything is recycled from somewhere else. Share the music. Let your identity expand and blend with this rapid-growing society of remixers, become part of something bigger. If nothing else, Girl Talk serves as a reminder that the big American corporations are becoming less and less dominant the more they try to hold society back. Why else is he still doing what he is? Creativity is not something to be bought and sold and traded like on the stock markets. It's not something that's entirely mine or yours. It's a product of identity. It grows and changes and lives and breathes.

My entire life is built upon ideas. I find myself constantly doubting where that could lead me. Corporate America doesn't make things easy, but I guess there's just one thing I need to remember; that true intellectual property is that without compromise. You can listen to Girl Talk's new album and tell me it's just another mash up, but to me, it's not about the music, it's what that music represents, and I think that's something that's bigger than all of us.