RIP: Not a ‘Remix’ Manifesto, a Moratorium

You probably had one of a few of reactions to the above video.  Perhaps you watched the whole thing, cracking smiles at all of the references, and nodding your head to the narrators points, feeling that he was reaffirming something you already accepted.  There are a lot of people that fall into that category (see the comments on the vimeo page).  On the other hand, perhaps you snickered at the very notion that “Everything is a Remix” opting to not even bother watching.  Or maybe like me you gave it a reluctant shot, but had to turn it off within thirty seconds, because of the glaring amount of bad information being presented.

For me this was the tipping point.  A couple weeks prior to watching I had already been proclaiming a need to kill the word ‘remix’ and watching this video only served to reinforce that opinion.  I know, I know… you’re scratching your head… “How could he possibly have something against the remix?” To be clear, I’m trying to kill the word, not the practice or practices which are interpreted as being ‘remixes’.  And with that it should be clear that I’m arguing semantics here, but contrary to popular belief, not all semantics are trivial, and indeed in this case a lot of serious issues can get lost in the semantics.

So lets get into it.  The first flag in the video is the very definition of ‘remix’ – “to combine or edit existing materials to produce something new.”  The filmmaker claims that the word “rose to prominence late last century during the hey day of hip-hop” which he says was the first popular form to incorporate samples from existing recordings.  While there is some truth in this, it is extremely misleading and wrong in its implications.  His definition is not one of a remix, but rather a definition of collage.  Perhaps if he replaced the word remix with the word collage throughout the piece it would have held more weight (maybe not), but because he didn’t it leaves the whole piece open for harsh criticism.

The word remix began as a technical term amongst mixing engineers.  It was born from the introduction of multi-track recording where the various elements of a song were recorded onto individual tracks and as such could be mixed, after recording, to produce the final record.  A mix then (which predates DJ mixing), was the final combination of recorded elements into a single audio track.  Those elements include the arrangement, stereo panning, equalization  and additional effects.  A remix then is to take those recorded elements and mix them again, altering or even rearranging the order of them, to produce a new version of the same song.

In the early days, remixing was something the consumer was rarely privy to as it was done in production before a song actually hit the market.  An engineer would mix a song, play it for the artist or the label, who, not completely satisfied with the results would ask the engineer or another engineer to go back and remix the song.  It became a part of the public vocabulary with the rise of the 12″ single during the hey day of disco, before hip-hop, when the two main outlets for promoting music were the radio and the discoteque.

Radio still placed limits on song lengths that maxed out at about the 4-5 minute mark requiring labels to release radio edits that conformed to those standards.  In the disco however, DJ’s were far more willing to play extended mixes of songs which kept the dance floor moving.  These could clock in at over 10 minutes in length.  Then there was the album version which could be anywhere within these ranges so long as it fit into the context of the album.

Practically this meant that a song that was released as a single for an album could easily have three different mixes.  It was through this that the creative aspect of mixing began to gain spotlight, and individual engineers began gaining recognition for their signature mixes or remixes of songs.  Now a song could end up with an album mix, a radio edit, an extended mix and remixes by the popular engineers of the day.  But make no mistake, these were all versions of the same song not considered new songs.

This of course is not what the video is referring to when stating “Everything is a Remix”.  It doesn’t even bother with the etymological history of the word, but rather provides a meta definition and then goes forth from there.  Hip-hop is cited as remixing because of sampling under their definition, but the example they use is flat out wrong.  Sugarhill Gang did not sample the bass line from Chic’s “Good Times” for “A Rapper’s Delight”.  They actually had the in-house band replay, the bass, drums and keyboard parts, which while similar are notably different from the original.  But these technicalities are disregarded to make the point about what they wish to call a remix.

The crux of evidence presented in the video centers around the group Led Zepplin who, by the video’s account, were great remixers.  Yes, that makes absolutely no sense.  The video does nothing to show that they were remixers, but rather shows some of their material was plagiarized from other artists, something people have been talking about for decades.  But now these acts of plagiarism are supposed to be predecessors to sampling in hip-hop, which can both be referred to as remixing, which should be accepted as a cultural practice because everything is a remix.  Yes, that makes absolutely no sense.

So who is to blame for all of this poor logic?  It’s easy to target the creator of the film, but the truth is that there is a culture of people behind this ideology; they call themselves the remix culture.  The godfather of this culture is lawyer Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and author of “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy”.  To his credit, I doubt Lessig would vouch for this video, though it could be called a derivative of his own work.

I had the privilege of seeing Lessig present his infamous slide show during the years Creative Commons was being hashed out.  The type of connection being made in this video draws from Lessig’s opening slides in which he would explain that if copyright laws were being interpreted in the past as they are today we would have no Disney.  Unfortunately the remix culture has taken the talking points from Lessig without doing diligence to understand the history or complexities of the issues.

"Remix is artistic conversation, the act of response, and thus blurs the line between artists and audience."

It was a tweet that ended up in my twitter stream a few weeks back.  On the surface it sounds very well intentioned but what exactly does it mean?  It clearly isn’t referring to the remix I’ve given some history to here.  Is a remix in that context an act of response?  No, it was commissioned versioning, and as I explained it had very little to do with the audience.  The tweeter is obviously referring to a definition of remix which is closer to the one presented in the “Everything is a Remix” video and in line with current remix culture thought.  But art itself is a conversation between artist and audience. So what is supposed to make the remix so special?

Remix culture likes to fashion itself as a political position, taking Lessig’s points of contention with copyrights to the extreme.  Their definition of remix was born out of the technological developments of the last decade and a half which have provided the consumer with access to tools not just for remixing but for sharing.  Indeed the remix culture can be seen as a reaction or second wave of the download culture that preceded it.  Indeed often they actively ally themselves with the download culture. The title for this piece borrows from the recent documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto.  You’ll note, that unlike my version of the title, “RiP” in the documentary is not a reference to Rest in Peace, but rather to the term ‘rip’ from download culture referring to the digital copying of a CD.  Where the download culture argued for their right to share the art, remix culture fights for their right to share in the creative process.

At the center of the documentary is one Greg Gillis aka Girl Talk, a mash-up artist revered in the remix culture.  It is the contention of the documentary that Gillis “repositions popular music to create a wild and edgy dialogue between artists from all genres and eras.”  As a live performance artist, Gillis brings that conversation to his audiences, who, familiar with at least some of the references, react and respond to them on the dance floor.  But he also has recordings of these mash-ups and that is where his work enters the murky area of copyright (though there are issues with the live performance of them as well), because his methodology for creating this level of interaction with popular culture is sampling, in particular appropriative sampling.

In the piece “Bridgeport, Transformation & Sound Recordings as Art” I discuss the distinction between appropriative sampling and transformative sampling.  In appropriative sampling the sampling artist appropriates the the musical context from the sample, while in transformative sampling that musical context is transformed into something new.  The current laws treat both equally, and when it’s appropriate remix culture likes to ally itself with its more creative cousins (see “Everything is a Remix” as a reference).  It is having retroactive affects too.  Have a look at the description for the Museum of Modern Art’s “Looking at Music 3.0” exhibit which focuses on New York in the 1980’s and 1990’s but makes no direct mention of hip-hop music.  Instead tacked onto the end is this interesting sentence:

“Appropriation, also known as remixing, thrived.”

My mind was absolutely blown when I read those six words.  First the remix is equated with appropriation, again disregarding the history of the word which predated the period in question.  Even more, considering it is an exhibit on music, one must assume that the appropriation they are speaking of is in fact sampling, and while there were other genre’s and artists that utilized sampling during the 80’s and 90’s, it goes without question that the most impactful was hip-hop.  And so in six words hip-hop has been reduced to appropriative remixing.  This isn’t from one person’s pet video project, this is a statement from one of the leading art institutions of the country.

I do not want remix culture appropriating the political positions of transformative sampling, because as appropriative samplers, the leg they stand on is rather weak.  If you appropriate musical context in sampling for a sound recording you plan to release, then the artist you are sampling must be involved.  I do believe the current laws for appropriative sampling are unfair, but in my opinion fair in such cases includes the sampled artists say.  There can be no free reign for appropriation.  I believe Lessig would agree with this as well, which is why rather than fight for appropriation rights, he set up Creative Commons as an alternative where rights can be given away for free.  It is a great service which has developed a subculture of its own, but it still doesn’t deal with almost a century of recorded work which is ripe for transformative sampling.

On more than one occasion I’ve been asked, “Why sample illegally when you can use all these Creative Commons Samples Legally?” It’s a question that muddles the issue. Transformative sampling is about the act, not the source. The source can be anything. The act of transforming it into a new context, that is the art.  If you can clearly create a work of transfromative sampling from a Creative Commons source, than you can clearly do the same with a copyrighted source.  One should not have to work exclusively with Creative Commons samples or ‘field recordings’ to create their art within the law.  As far as I am concerned, if you are a sample based artist that actively does not sample copyrighted material (self censorship), then you are politically and artistically inept for letting unjust laws place limits on your creativity.

Now what does this have to do with killing the word remix? Muddled language and grey definitions are the number one reason we can’t get these laws right.  When hip-hop is considered remixing and all sampling appropriative, it is easy to dismiss a very deep history and place it all in the illegal category.  Ultimately I believe all the issues around proprietary art can be resolved with the proper handling of sample laws. But artists are scared, lawyers are scared, and there are no lobbyists.  The case for transformative sampling is strong, and in my opinion could have positive repercussions for appropriative sampling as well.  But we cannot let the remix culture appropriate the debate because it weakens the argument.

So for me, and I would suggest for you too, the word remix as used by remix culture is dead.  I am looking at anyone that uses it in that regard as someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about.  They are not radical, political or champions of free culture.  They are greatly misinformed, and I see their ignorance combined with their habit toward voicing that ignorance as a threat to the causes which I work for.  It was fun while it lasted, but it’s over now.

RIP Remix Culture 2005-2011

Author’s Addendum: As of this writing Reality Hunger is still on the market and unless I’m mistaken Mr. Shields has not been sued for copyright infringement. Meanwhile cease and desist letters were sent to at least one hip-hop producer in the last week.

Written by avanturb


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