war@33.3: The Postmodern Turn in the Commodification of Music

March 12th, 2004 | Category: Essays

TurntableWe live in a realm where once clear boundaries have been reformed, pushed back, reconfigured, and often blurred beyond recognition. The age-old stable image of photography — once considered by most as a reliable visual representation of some brief slice of reality — is now suspect due to digital editing techniques. The same fate has fallen on film, the word, and music of all kinds.Whereas modernism adheres to the idea that there exists but one real “truth,” postmodernism sees all things shifting according to perspective. It finds no central truth, only changing points of view. As we will see through the course of this essay, the commodification of music has gone through a similar change — from a stable central authority to myriad shifting forms.

Where all of the aforementioned forms used to come down to the public from one source, like the divine word of God, or the idea of one central “truth,” the digital now allows most anyone to create, recreate and distort coded information of all kinds. In the music of the marketplace, the center of power was the record company. The decree was the packaged product — the record album, the cassette tape, and the compact disc.

Band of the Hand

Twenty or so years ago, the Hip-hop DJ emerged as a vigilante on this landscape of music as commodity. While remixing and recontextualizing the product, he decentralized the power of the record company. DJs break the code. They reorganize the power structure in the world of sound. The product is no longer the be-all, end-all, but just another piece of the new story. The center does not hold:

The DJ cultivates and manages singularities: the bifurcation points on the edge of chaos, where dynamical systems manifest their emergent properties and transcend the sum of their elements. The speakers emit alchemical sounds, cut and pasted by needles in deep grooves, manipulated by human hands on black wax. It is a pastiche of ever-shifting, hand-engineered, sonic references. The dialectic of the two turntables unfolds in time. Beats juggled for the meat jungle. Scratches snatched for the daily catch. Crowd control, cruise control, remote control, the discotheque as Panopticon: A command-control system with the DJ at the helm. Several systems work at odds and in conjunction to make waves in the scene. This is a language sans nouns; a lingua franca consisting only of verbs: motion, phase transition, aural morphology, all moving at the speed of left and right.

As the Universe of sound finds ears, vibrating shards meld into sonic calling cards: An ever-shifting musical identity that gives way to unrelenting multiplicity. Thanks to technology often perceived as obsolete, the entire history of sound is available for data-mining. The DJ is an archeologist of vinyl plates. Digging in the crates, (s)he returns with pieces to the amorphous puzzle. A cartographer of soundscapes unknown and yet unformed, the DJ makes the maps and the terrain simultaneously on the fly.

Sound manipulation is the foundation of all musical forms. The individual control of audible vibrations is what allows musicians to create aurally aesthetic sounds. As Paul D. Miller writes, “When Thomas Edison first recorded the human voice onto a tin foil roll singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ on December 6, 1877, history changed. It became malleable in a form never before seen on this planet. Experiences of events, and the moment-events themselves could be captured, edited, sequenced, and distributed. What Edison did was take the voice and reduce it to its basic component: sound.”[1] This is what the DJ in Hip-hop does when he combines and reanimates bits and pieces of old recorded history to create entirely new compositions. The music represents a future without a past.[2]

The Ones and TwosSurf, Sample, and Manipulate

Where turntablism was the most exciting thing happening in music at the turn of the millennium, the art of the remix has moved online. The power of the record company has suffered another blow as the power of the DJ has been networked. Call it “uploadphonics,” “bootlegging,” or just plain “remixing,” but whatever you call it, it is a war of intellectual property, a war of copyrights, a war of the freedom of speech and most of all a war of sound. Online, underground remixers like 2 Many DJs, The Evolution Control Committee (whose slogan reads, “We’re so next year.”), Rick Silva a.k.a. CueChamp, Cassetteboy, Bit Meddler, and many others “surf, sample and manipulate” (in the words of Mark Amerika).[3]

Rick Silva calls uploadphonics “a tight spiral outwards of creativity that makes a music in tune with the ideals of the internet, a soudscape to fit the netscape.”[4] Record companies, in an effort to retain control, are fighting a moving target. Indeed, a moving target made up of moving targets: peer-to-peer networks are completely decentralized. The file trade is made from node to node, without central control. The center does not hold.

As I write this I am (re)mixing music. Through my KaZaa Lite P2P client, I’ve downloaded a cracked version of Sonic Foundry’s Acid 3.0 mixing software, as well as a plethora of songs in MP3 format. In the past few weeks, I have been able to literally re-work many of my favorite songs. Lifting a beat from one, a guitar lick from another and vocals from a cappella versions, I’ve made entirely new compositions that none of these artists ever intended, and then uploaded them for distribution to others. Anyone with a connection to the Internet wields the same power. Think of it as a massive, collective phase transition: the record companies put out solids (records), the Hip-hop DJ melts them down into liquids (remixes, etc.) and the home-computer remix kids boil the mass into gaseous vapor (molecules of sound, splitting and recombining without end). While there is still product coming down from on high, the “central truth” no longer holds ultimate power. There is no divine sonic word. There is only sound and infinite ways to put it together.

“In a recent post to boomselection.com an assignment was given out,” writes Rick Silva in an article from 2002 on online remixing, “a call to remix Eminem’s latest track was followed by a link to the MP3 of the a capella version. A week later boomselection released a subsite dedicated only to the Eminem remixes because the response had been so positive. The tracks were rated and posted. The number one track was number one mainly because of its amazing turnaround time. Within ten minutes of the assignment, someone had turned in a bootleg. The remixer took ten minutes to download the a capella, find a track roughly the same BPM, sync it, record it, encode it to MP3, FTP (upload) it, and mail out the link.”[5] All of this is good fun for fans and remixers, but a virtual nightmare for the recording industry.

Two weeks prior to the release of Eminem’s 2002 record, The Eminem Show, an advanced copy found its way onto a popular peer-to-peer network. As widespread downloading ensued, Eminem’s record company was forced to release his record a week before it had originally planned. “The source of this conundrum is as simple as its solution is complex,” writes John Perry Barlow on the digitizing of intellectual property. “Digital technology is detaching information from the physical plane, where property law of all sorts has always found definition.”[6] Since the replication of a file in digital format doesn’t decrease its quality, nor does it have limits, this is where the ideas of copyright, intellectual property, and digital bootlegging collide head-on.

Jay-Z / Dangermouse — The Grey AlbumNo one has brought this collision to the attention of the mass mind like DJ Danger Mouse. His Grey Album, which meshed the a cappella vocals of Jay-Z’s Black Album with music lifted from The Beatles’ White Album, was an internet sensation that set off a shitstorm in boardrooms and bedrooms everywhere. Record company suits were scrambling to kill it, and bedroom remixers were scrambling to outdo it. The record (in its modern form: the physical compact disc) was squashed by a cease and desist order from EMI (who own the rights to The Beatles record), but its children replicated: The Brown Album, The Rainbow Album, The Slack Album, etc. (the latter of which is an amusing blend of Jay-Z’s vocals and music from Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted record by DJ n-wee). The remixing continues — and so does the battle to stop it.

The United States Copyright Act states that “the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means… for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”[7] The art collage band Negativland tested this clause long before Eminem was asking the real version of his oft-remixed song “Without Me” to “please stand up.”

Negativland — U2In 1991 Negativland released a single titled “U2” which sampled the Irish supergroup’s hit single “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song and the release of the single were both part parody, part critique, and part media prank (some off-mike comments by Casey Kasem were also a part of the composition). It was quickly sued out of existence by U2’s label, Island Records.[8] Not to be beaten so soon, Negativland released a magazine in 1993 chronicling the court case. “The Letter U and the Numeral 2” was sued out of existence by Negativland’s own label, SST Records (also for alleged copyright infringement: Negativland used SST bumper stickers and press releases in the publication).[9]

“We live in a world where nothing is what we were taught it was,” Negativland write in the introduction to their 1995 book on the ordeal. “Art is business, business is war, war is advertising, and advertising is art. We are bombarded with information and entertainment. Negativland responds to this environment by making music that uses fragments and samples from existing media of all kinds.”[10] For Negativland, if it’s on the airwaves (or the internet), it’s fair game for fair use.

Bits and Pieces

While the legalities of remixing are still squirming under the weight of innovation, the format of music has shape-shifted as well — from atoms to bits.[11] The advent of the Compact Disc changed recording in many ways, but the fact that a band could now do over an hour of music (without having to release a double LP) was one of them. Where the CD killed the LP, shrunk cover art, and caused the public to buy all of their albums on a new digital format, the MP3 ends the tyranny of any multi-song format of the past. We’re now back to the single (without a B-side). A single made of bits, not atoms. A single awaiting a home on the mass storage device of your choice. A single awaiting a new beat, a new vocal track, or a new time signature.

“Just as a Powerbook is a processing-machine,” writes online remixer Tim Jaeger, “and Max/MSP is audio software with which users can program, code, and construct their own virtual instruments, combined they become meta-samplers and schiz-machines. Max/MSP consumes other instruments only to turn them into new, different instruments for others to use and produce new instruments with. The same with turntables, or small CASIO keyboards spitting out sampled rhythms from old New Order records.”[12] It’s music as shareware, open source sound, armed audio warfare… Embrace the postmodern: Reduce, reuse, recycle. The future of music is in our hands: Let’s remix it.


1. Cumulus from America; Cartridge Music: Of Palimpsets and Parataxis, or How to Make a Mix by Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid).
2. Band of the Hand by Roy Christopher, Born Magazine, 1997.
3. “Uploadfonix” by Rick Silva, 21C Magazine.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. “The Economy of Ideas” by John Perry Barlow, 1993.
7. United States Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 107, 1988 ed. and Supp. IV).
8. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 by Negativland, Seeland MediaMedia, 1995.
9. Spin Magazine, May 1993.
10. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 by Negativland, Seeland MediaMedia, 1995.
11. Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, Vintage, 1995.
12. “Scatter(ed) Dynamics” by Tim Jaeger, posted on the macrosound discussion list, January 3, 2003.

[Media Reader, #8, 2005]

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