In light of the official Beatles mashup album ‘Love‘ by Sir George Martin and son, Giles for the similarly named Cirque du Soleil show, it is time for us to credit the evolution and creation of this to those before them who paved the way and were celebrated by music lovers but have been reviled and persecuted by labels.
So what exactly is a mashup?
“Mash-ups involve blending samples from two songs - generally, one song’s vocals atop another’s instrumental or rhythm track. The sum of the parts often surpasses the originals. The more disparate the genre-blending is, the better; the best mash-ups blend punk with funk or Top 40 with heavy metal, boosting the tension between slick and raw. Part of the fun is identifying the source of two familiar sounds now made strange - which appeals to the trainspotting instincts of music buffs.” (Salon.com gives a great intro to the genre here)
Not everyone knows that behind the crazy success of Gnarls Barkley was the man that EMI were going after with such aggression to put him down - Danger Mouse of The Grey Album fame. EMI tried in vain to impose its legal might to obliterate The Grey Album from our consciousnees, but in a landmark case of people power, netizens united and actively distributed the album freely on Grey Tuesday and thwarted EMI’s misguided powerplay attempts. In fact, cases like this even resulted in a website set up with the exclusive purpose of distributing banned music to music lovers called er, Banned Music
As a result of EMI’s spectacular failure, and Danger Mouse’s elevation to mainstream success, he has become the posterboy of the mashup scene. However, the geniuses of the mashup scene have to arguably be, the Kleptones. Their mashups are highly imaginative and will take your breath away including a mashup of Queen’s A Night at the Opera with hip hop and other contemporary sources. My favourite has to be their mashup of George Michael’s Careless Whisper and Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive - now, who could have thought of that one? I would recommend a more thorough examination of their work here
Eric Kleptone (the name itself being a clever derivative of Eric Clapton!) himself is pretty clear about his legal status and his approach is not only admirable but in itself serves as a guide to all other mashup artistes on how to stay on the right side of the line in serving the art. He states in his blog:
“As all downloaders are aware, this stuff does not belong to us. We have virtually no right under current copyright law to redistribute the sources we use in the manner we do. It’s a debatable situation, and one we’d rather not be arguing in a law court, thanks. We’ve been very lucky so far that no one has seen fit to make a determined effort to stop us. (Waxy’s Cease & Desist, we think, was an unfortunate shot across the bows. So it goes.) However, the time that we have to do this is limited, as we have to convert a large chunk of that time into cash, so we can pay the rent, eat, and get the beers in from time to time, just like most other people. We’d like more time to do more stuff, but hey, wouldn’t everyone? So, the conclusions we’ve come to are these: If you want to donate some money in payment for any of the albums you’ve downloaded, we’re sorry, we can’t accept it. We don’t own the rights to the sounds we use, and therefore are risking infringing on people’s copyright in a far more personally damaging way if we accepted payment for it. We believe that people should have the right to make not-for-profit derivitive works, remixes, parodies, social commentaries, whatever, of music that they own, therefore accepting money in that way is virtually impossible, sorry. One day, things will improve (we’re optimistic), but till then”
The arbitrary nature of music copyright laws with regard to digital use has led to strong-arming tactics by labels on the one end and extreme views by other misguided mashup artists who think that it is their sole right to sample other artists’ work and profit from it exclusively without sharing their rewards with the original artists. A clear and fair line has yet to be drawn for now, but in Darwinian terms as the official Beatles mashup Love has shown, and the begrudging recognition of the existence of artists like Dangermouse and Kleptone by the labels indicate that we are making progress . At the recent Web 2.0 conference, EMI Music Vice-Chairman David Munns even engaged Eric Kleptone in a discussion (audio here) on the topic (The Pirate and the Suit) and the former’s response eventhough it showed certain positive openness, it also covered the typical label loanshark kneejerk reflex:
“We realized it was pretty creative, very interesting, the consumers liked it. After we got over the ‘what have they done to our beautiful Queen record,’ we began to think about whether and how we should get paid for it. And that’s still ongoing. We’re opening to licensing for things like this. This kind of thing is becoming part of our business.”
However, EMI’s bludgeoning of mashup artist Clayton Counts for his innovative dissonant mashup of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds which he released as The Beachles’ Sgt Petsounds is symptomatic of labels’ arrogance and questions their openness to negotiate fair licensing terms. In addition to their cease and desist letters, they also demanded that Clayton
“provide Capitol with information regarding downloading and/or streaming of the Beachles Mash-Up Recordings and the Other Mash-Up Recordings to date, including but not limited to: (i) the dates on which those recordings were streamed and/or downloaded; (ii) the number of times those recordings were streamed and/or downloaded; and (iii) any and all available information regarding persons who streamed and/or downloaded those recordings;”
Their aim to threaten and scare all these downloaders into submission is pretty clear. Clayton’s rant can be read here
Rest assured that with the Beatles ‘Love’ giving greater legitimacy to mashups, the craft is set to explode into the mainstream. The next major label mashup release is slated for February 2007 by Mark Vidler’s Go Home Production.
A revolution is taking place as there is a grudging acceptance of the existence of mashups slowly taking root. The revolution that I speak of is not one that involves a mass audience, but just enough to constitute a ‘mashup’ genre. Just as DJs defined the whole house scene and its many variants and offshoots, mashup artistes will also move from the bedroom/studio to live ‘performances’ and it is their nature of performance that will set them apart from current DJs. DJs like Sasha are now ‘performing’ using Ableton Live and multiple computers, and they are already incorporating elements of mashups within songs as the computer software allows them the dynamic flexibility to do that instead of just topping and tailing songs as they used to do before. So on the demonstrative ‘live’ side, we will eventually see such a change and with it the growth of mashup sub-genres just like we had jungle, dnb, trance etc. Also, more mashup producers will eventually be co-opted by studios to develop cross genre/artist tracks.
But will the labels and music publishers allow such a revolution to take place? On the one hand, they absolutely hate what the mashup artists are doing as they think it is stealing their music, even though the mashup artist might not even be selling it and instead is giving it away free. And yet when the mashup artist asks for clearance of rights, they will still not agree as they are unwilling to give up control. Also, with mashups, they live in fear of little practical things that their old school heads cannot handle - namely the micropayments to multiple publishers and labels. If they had their way, they would certainly do all they can to stunt the growth of mashups and will only allow controlled experiments like what they have done with Beatles and Mark Vidler.
Labels and music publishers have to realise that mashups like these stimulate further interest in the original work and that significantly, the contemporary settings that mashups employ introduces a whole new generation to back catalogues and their ‘dad’s music’ or new genres that they would not ordinarily touch. And moving in the opposite direction, old fogeys might also learn to appreciate the nuances of hip hop and other genres when their favourites are dressed up in new forms. Labels and music publishers who are still trapped in their old school methods have to realise that they will have to quickly learnt to adapt to easily available technology to help them manage the necessary micropayments for efficient revenue allocations to the multiple artistes and composers that will be part of each mashup. Or else they will have to find simpler business models to make it work.
And this is where the popular culture in the true sense of the word will force the labels to eventually accept that mashups are here to stay and they will eventually jump on the bandwagon, but not without giving everyone a lot of grief first.
And with mainstream acceptance one day, just as the rap/hip-hop movement themselves moved into the majors, who knows, we might even see an erstwhile mashup artist head up a major label offshoot, just like Jay-Z himself
a) Hippocamp Ruins Pet Sounds is a set of remixes of the Beach Boys’ classic album, Pet Sounds, by a group of remix artists to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the original album’ss release. It was not organised by the net music label Hippocamp, but rather was organised by the electronic musicians on the Hippocamp web forums.
b) Mutation by Sacred Cowboy with 5 incredible versions: 1. Twisted Shout2. Norwogian Weed3. Assault On Pepper4. Love From Abbey Road5. Fabtasia
c) The Double Black Album by Cheap CologneA remix of vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with music built from samples of Metallica’s Black Album - an interesting variation from Danger Mouse’s approach. Jay-Z’s Black Album has now become such a huge target for mashing and sampling that it has even spawned a Jay-Z Construction Set website which is a toolkit with all of the necessary software and raw material to create a new remix of his Black Album. It includes at least nine different variations on the Black Album!
d) djBC’s Beastles: The Beatles plus the Beastie Boys which provoked yet another EMI witchunt
e) Mashuptown: a collective of DJs, producers and mashup artists who have taken this to a higher art form and includes DJ Earworm who has even written a book called Mashup Construction Kit published by, get this, predominantly educational book publisher Wiley & Sons. Mashups have now progressed into the realm of organized educational and instruction manuals and is set to propagate itself further.
f) And the roll call of current eminent mashup artists:
A plus D
Divide & Kreate
DJ Max Entropy
DJ Mei Lwun
Flying White Dots
Go Home Productions
King of Pants
Loo & Placido
With special mention to Re: Mixology on the WFMU in the US and The Remix on London’s XFM, pioneers of mashups on radio(courtesy of Mashuptown.com)