Cut It Up: Copyright, Creativity and Global Remix Culture

girltalkEach new era brings fresh offerings to the creative marketplace in the form of cultural goods, be it through the medium of music, film, art, the written word or cross-disciplinary genres. Likewise, technology is constantly evolving, not only changing the way we create art, but also the means by which cultural goods are promoted and disseminated. Two interesting phenomena that bisect in this arena are the emergence of the “mash-up,” and its fundamental ties to the Internet and file-sharing technologies. This has resulted in a truly global cultural movement marked by creative significance, legal controversy and innovation in the means by which music makes business.

The “mash-up” is a music and multimedia style that emerged from electronic music’s tradition of remixing and the practice of “culture-jamming,” meaning any activity that comments on popular culture through subversive means, such as guerilla communication. Artists either upload music from their record collections or download music from the Internet and copy small sections from a song (called a “sample,”) that they manipulate with editing software and combine with other samples to create new songs. A mash-up artist might sample just the drumbeat, a horn, a fraction of a second of many layered instruments, or part of a lyric from a pre-existing source. In other cases the artist might sample all the sung lyrics of a song or a complete instrumental backing track, as American producer Danger Mouse did when he took the vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and layered them over The Beatles’ instrumental tracks from The White Album. A stunning sociopolitical commentary on modern race relations, the album was not only a creative masterpiece, but also quickly went “viral” when it was distributed for free on the Internet. Not Danger Mouse, nor Jay-Z, nor the Beatles made a cent on the project because none of the samples were cleared through publishers or performing rights organizations.  The only people that made any money were the intellectual property rights lawyers who tried, (unsuccessfully,) to sue Danger Mouse for infringement of copyright.
Mash-up artists believe they operate under the protective banner of “fair-use” forms of copyright. “Fair-use” is characterized by the lack of commercial gain from their copies, as well as the non-competitive nature of their derivative works. Originally fair-use was devised so that consumers could make copies for their own personal use, but has come under attack from the entertainment industry, which is quickly expanding the legal definition of “piracy” and “illegal” downloading to include instances of fair-use copying because of the perceived financial losses from such. This hinges on the view that music fans are simply “consumers” in an economical sense, instead of seeing music as a medium that is actively used in a social context. Mash-up artists seek to co-opt commercial products and restore the interactive nature of art to stimulate proactive listening, social engagement and collaborate practices.

Now to Belém do Para, Brazil, where the birth of a new form of remix culture flares at the scene of a Treme Terra Tupinambá sound system party. In the northern regions of Brazil a genre of mash-up music called technobrega (loosely translated as “techno cheese,”) has become popular with the youth. Featuring samples of American pop music from the 80’s and 90’s backed by calypso beats and Portuguese vocalists, producers labor in bedroom and basement studios, using similar technologies and techniques as American mash-up artists to create this syncretic style of dance music. Because of the lack of American entertainment products in the Brazilian marketplace, the majority of raw material for remixing comes from pirated songs from street market vendors, Internet sites and file-sharing P2P networks. Due to the absence of local enforcement of copyright law and limits on international regulation of such, there is a distinct lack of legal recourse for these producers when they download, edit and re-sell their derivative creative works.

One of the most interesting aspects of this Brazilian remix culture is the new model of music distribution, performance and profit that has grown out of a culture traditionally reliant on piracy for access to cultural products. Because extensive networks of street music vendors already exist, the producers of technobrega have a built-in and familiar system of distribution for their music. These vendors, who not only act as sales points and mechanical duplicators of musical products, also serve as a means to popularize and create consumer demand. Once in the marketplace, chances are the song will be featured at one of these large “sound system” parties, where thousands of teenagers and young adults go to dance, socialize and hear the latest technobrega releases.

The “sound system” crews are fiercely loyal and competitive, with not only profit but prestige gained by the size, volume and quality of their productions (via their access to new remixes, extensive P.A. systems, stage set-ups, video/light shows, dancers and live performers.)  Many times particular sound crews will have affiliated producers and musicians who they support and promote, introducing new systems of artist patronage. This business model recognizes the use of the musical product basically as an advertisement for the parties, with less emphasis on the value of mechanical copies and more focus on the greater profits gained from admission fees, concession sales and corporate advertising present at their events. The sound crews also release the soundtrack from the party to the audience so they can have a recorded version of the show, a marketing tactic employed in Brazil almost 4 years before labels started doing this in the US.

Around the globe, mash-up artists such as Diplo, 2 Many DJ’s, and Girl Talk continue to sell massive amounts of digital downloads via new models such as “pay what you can” and value-added “special” edition releases, featuring not only complete albums, but alternate versions, b-sides, celebrity remixes, video mash-ups and exclusive band merchandise.  These special features are included to counter the perception that the value of recorded music has declined—a phenomenon illustrated in consumer behavior and ultimately, the bottom line.  Record companies are starting to see that people aren’t willing to pay what they once did for music, and that they can never compete with free.  Piracy can in some cases be shut down or penalized, but it will never be destroyed. The global reach of the Internet along with the nature of its users ensures that the destruction of one P2P network will only inevitably result in 3 more popping up somewhere else.

Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis suggests social factors as partially responsible for the decline in consumer engagement with the current music industry business model. The experience of buying albums from a physical store, as was the norm up until about the mid-90’s, is now something alien to most young people. The result—a whole new generation that has never experienced the adolescent thrill and romanticism of buying a record and all that comes with physically consuming a tangible product. This cultural tradition of individualistic music consumption has effectively become obsolete for one of the largest consumer markets in the developed world, and the entertainment industry has been painfully slow to adjust, even though consumer trends indicated a new model was needed many years ago.

labels and independent artists must participate in adding value to their products via benefits or technologies that can’t be downloaded, as well as rethinking the basic structure of their distribution systems. The shift from the “meat-space” marketplace to the virtual one dispenses with many of the inferred benefits of selling a physical product, and the notion of corporate control inherent in that system—but it also creates a whole new area of opportunity for innovative, independent artists to establish themselves if they utilize the new leveling technologies available.

Along with new technologies and means of communication comes the re-emergence of symmetrical participation and amateur production. No longer strictly consumers, people are creating digital content that can be easily shared, enhanced by practices of collaboration and contributed for the benefit of a global spirit of creative collectivism. New copyright conventions like Creative Commons serve to foster sharing, collaboration and the creation of derivative works. To follow conservative views that tighter controls are needed for copyright and its enforcement would dramatically reduce potential fair-use of copyrighted material. Not only this, but stricter copyright laws are counter-intuitive when looking at the example of modern technology and global remix culture, which has shown that freedom and access to information drives innovation and creativity.

Counter to this argument, proponents of more militant copyright legislation such as John Kennedy (chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry,) claim “You need copyright as an incentive to create.” This argument hinges on the presumption that artists will not make art unless they are making money off it, but history has proven that artists will make art regardless if they’re getting paid or not. The stereotype of the starving actor or musician does not exist because file-sharers or mash-up producers copied their art. Artists do it for the love of creating and the pleasure in sharing their work with an audience, something they were doing before they entered the commercial industry, and something they will probably continue after. This argument by conservative copyright advocates also operates on the false premise that copyright protection ensures fair remuneration to the creator. The commercial music industry is a great example of the exploitation of musical artists that occurs when negotiating payment for performance, sync and mechanical rights in contract. Often artists receive only pennies per album, or fractions of a cent per song, with the remainder going to their label to “recoup” the costs of production, “investment” in artist development, or to line the pockets of rich record label owners and their overpaid stable of lawyers.

Some solutions to file-sharing and illegal downloads put forward by intellectual property lawyers and entertainment industry lobbyists include the introduction of a blanket/global license in the form of fees included in telecommunications billings that everyone would have to pay in exchange for access to free copyrighted material.  Not only would this would be penalizing those who do not fall under the category of pirates, counterfeiters, bootleggers or file-sharers, but it would be totally ignoring the scale and commerciality of what unauthorized copying is actually taking place. Other solutions include harsher penalties for those caught and convicted of copyright infringement, including fines and jail time for repeat offenders. A lot of industry advocates believe that this will act as a deterrent for the “average” consumer, but this also fails to address the more organized criminal element of illegal copying. Should a college student who copies an album for a friend be subjected to the same punishment as a Mafia-type operating a million-dollar international counterfeiting ring? And how do you suppose detection of illegal copying and downloads will happen? Not by an invasion of our online privacy, surely!

So for now we have an industry desperately grasping to regain control of the marketplace, either by placing levies and Digital Rights Management (DRM,) restrictions on various media, lobbying for international power and exploitation of the basic right to online autonomy, and pursuing harsh legal action against its own supporters. These draconian measures, which signify a resistance to change to a completely new model, are highly indicative of the lack of mobility, innovation and willingness to compromise that characterize the “old school” of the music business. The impact to music fans globally, as well as new forms of cross-genre performance is yet to be fully evaluated—but as more individual cases are brought before the courts I predict we will start to see the unification of various global cultures (such as the remix tradition,) gain momentum and success in defending their rights to fair-use and democratic technologies as supported by the ethos of collaboration and collectivity present in new art forms.


Marshall, Lee. Music and Copyright. 2d ed. Ed. Simon Frith. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Rosforth (Producer), & Andreas Johnsen, Raf Christensen, & Henrik Moltke (Director). (2007) “Good Copy, Bad Copy” [Motion Picture]. Denmark: LittleMachine Productions.
The Informed Dialogue about Consumer Acceptability of DRM Solutions in Europe (INDICARE). (2005) Digital Rights Management and Consumer Acceptability: A Multi-Disciplinary Discussion of Consumer Concerns and Expectations State of the Art Report. (First Suppliment). Karlsruhe: Natali Helberger, Nicole Dufft, Berlecon, Margreet Groenenboom, Kristóf Kerényi, Carsten Orwat, Ulrich Riehm.


One Response to “Cut It Up: Copyright, Creativity and Global Remix Culture”

  1. More evidence that we’re witnessing the dying days of major record labels and superstars! Twenty years from now celebrity culture will be severely dented, with the movies acting as the last refuge of the damned!

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