DJs and producers are mixing different songs together into new works of art called mashups, blends or cutups. But what does this mean for the record industry and the idea of intellectual property rights?
The history of innovation clearly proves that new technologies can have very disruptive effects on social and economic systems. Just think about how the advent of aviation changed the world into a truly global arena — now for most of us.
Information technology is revolutionizing the way we think about music creation and distribution. The music industry is always ten steps behind the development, and seems totally incapable of understanding that the old world based on record sales and radio play only is gone for good.
Apple’s Steve Jobs forced them to accept online music downloads as the business model of the future, but this is only the beginning.
Many artists are now bypassing the record companies altogether, producing and distributing their music themselves. Many of them realize that the real money lies in concerts, given all the illegal downloading, and is giving away much of their music for free.
I have recently been studying a new trend that have reached the Web, that can be equally disrupting, namely music mashups.
Disk jockeys have for a long time remixed tracks in the discos and clubs, slightly altering the pitch and tempo to make one song glide seamlessly into the other etc. No record company has found this to be an infringement of their copyright.
Nor did they, as far as I know, protest when some DJs started to merge song, normally putting the vocal track of one song over the instrumentation and rhythm track of another.
However, they did wake up, when some of them recorded these “bastard pop” tracks and put them up online or on bootleg albums. And a large number of record company representatives are now hunting them down online, arguing (probably correctly) that this is a copyright infringement.
The fact is, however, that given the nature of the Web, it has proved impossible to stop these mixes for resurfacing. As soon as one source disappears, another one pops up.
A new work of art
Furthermore, some of these mashups (or blends or cutups as they are also called) are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. We are no longer only talking about producers putting the a capella track of one song on top of a dub or 12 inch mix of another.
Modern software (like Cubase and ACID Pro) makes it possible to deconstruct stereo tracks through beat-mapping (in essence adding a code to the digital file that identifies the beat), changing the pitch and –even- removing parts of the sound spectrum in order to isolate instruments and voices.
In addition software based synthesizers makes it easy for the remixer to add new sounds and rhythm tracks.
Because of this some mashup artists are able to make seamless blends of as many as six to eight songs, with one common “atmosphere”. In short: they constitute a new work of art.
Here’s one example from a 23 year old Norwegian mashup artist that goes by the name of “Norwegian Recycling”.
He has mixed the following songs into one: 1. Jason Mraz – I’m Yours 2. Howie Day – Collide 3. Five For Fighting – Superman 4. Angela Ammons – Always Getting Over You 5. Boyzone – All That I Need 6. 3 Doors Down – Here Without You.
And he has also, for good measure, merged the relevant videos into one coherent whole:
What should the record companies do to cope with this?
Honestly, I have no clear answer. It seems to me that we are entering a new era, where the concept of “fair use” of works of art will be expanded, whether artists and record companies like it or not. In war terminology: It becomes a fact on the ground.
(Jonathan Letham has a very interesting article on this over at Harpers Magazine — an article which is, actually, a mashup in itself).
Maybe the record companies should become more proactive. YouTube’s and MySpace’s distribution of (mainly illegal) copies of music videos have proved to be a very efficient means of branding and advertising of music acts. The increasing popularity of mashups can also be considered a form of marketing.
Using mashups as a marketing device
People listening to a mashup with their favorite artist will get to know the other artists included in the blend, often encouraging them to buy their records. If the relevant original tracks are available online for a reasonable price, many of them will buy them — and whole albums.
Some record companies have clearly understood this. Here is a commercial for the first legal, non-bootleg, mashup album I know of:
The album also contains the popular mashup of Mylo and Miami Sound Machine (Doctor Pressure) which was released as a Mylo remix single. Although this is not one of my favorite Mylo tracks (a great band, by the way) I highly recommend the mashup album. You can buy it from Amazon.com:
Mashups and soft drinks
Other industries have apparently also understood the marketing effect of mashups. How else can you explain the presence of Mountain Dew in this hilarious presentation of the mashup concept, courtesy of Mashuptown.com, probably the best site on the subject?
In order to get some help in my survey of modern mashupping, I have set up a Mashup spot over at Fanpop. I have included links to several online mashup resources.
One other Fanpopper, LisaS, has added a large number of mashup videos. Take a look, if you find this topic interesting, and please do contribute!