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June 21, 2007

Filed under: music»business

The Big Three Killed My Baby

I had to stop reading Boing Boing at some point. The air of wide-eyed technofetishism just got to be too much for me--one more adoring post about some hipster-kitsch art piece or ridiculous Web 7.0 application, and I might have been forced to hunt the whole bunch of them down with a meticulously-crafted clockpunk chainsaw somebody made at Burning Man.

That said, sometimes I still peek in, because if you can sort out the nonsense they do tend to be a clearing house for a certain kind of web zeitgeist, and a couple of days ago I followed a link to Good Copy, Bad Copy, a Danish documentary about copyright--particularly as it applies to music. You could be forgiven for thinking that not much new could be said on the topic, because most of the dialog about copyright and music in this country centers around the music industry's complaints of lost revenue, copyleftists scorning the industry's antiquated business model, and everyone else trying not to get caught. Good Copy does spend a slight (and tedious) segment on this, including everyone's favorite ex-IP lawyer, Lawrence Lessig. But the intriguing part of the movie, and the thread to which it devotes most of its narrative, is following the path of a piece of music around the world as it is digitally reinterpreted by a series of artists.

It starts with Danger Mouse, who created the "Grey Album" out of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album. That was an Internet hit, and then it was basically cease-and-desisted out of existence by the labels, but Danger Mouse goes on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, and release a hit single named "Crazy." Halfway around the world, that song is then sampled and remixed by a Brazilian producer into a genre called techno brega, which is basically "cheesy techno" based on '80s electronica. The producer gives the new .mp3 to a pirate vendor for free, instead making money when the music attracts dancers to their gigs. Finally, the Brazilian version of "Crazy" finds its way (in a scene that may have been prearranged, but is no less clever for it) to Girl Talk, a.k.a. Greg Gillis, a goofy-looking Philadelphian known for producing illegally sample-dense remixes. So that's three or four layers of continuity taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.

Having read Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music lately, I was struck by not just the chain of events, but also what it said about the musical climate. Faking It (which I highly recommend) spends some time talking about the "authentic" music of Leadbelly and other primitive blues musicians, while noting that those musicians were actually carefully selected by White record companies as a way to present the most primitive, savage portrait of Black music possible. Fast-forward to only a few years ago, of course, and we find Kurt Cobain playing Leadbelly songs live to tap into that same mood. Yet many of those early recordings were of folk songs or traditional songs--stuff like "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," for example, or "Stagger Lee." No-one knows the exact provenance of those pieces. Hundreds of different versions were recorded, by artists both White and Black, in the genres that we now would consider blues, jazz, country, and rock. They have no copyrights. I find that fascinating.

As a rock musician, I don't normally sympathize with the copyright-fighting proponents of sampling. I'm not vehemently against them, understand, but I don't have a deep appreciation for the traditions of hip-hop, so I prefer to make my own noises most of the time. My common ground is the realization that there is no rock "Stagger Lee." If someone had written it now, that song would be owned by a major label and no-one else could have played it. We have no music that is community property, that anyone can reinterpret and claim as part of their personal culture. I think that's unfortunate. It would be an interesting project to hunt down those songs, reinterpret them, and reintroduce them into the musical community, to see if they could act as raw material again. And I would hope, with the spread of Creative Commons and other licenses, that we might be more likely to see music isolated from its creators, twisted, and changed along an almost oral tradition. That way, music becomes something people do, and not something that they own. It stops being a noun, a piece of property, and becomes a verb, which is all the more thrilling in its transitory action.

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