Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about mashups – a way of joining together songs or videos to make something wholly new.
Read on for my notes and links.
[opening music – American Edit, track 2 – fade after 1:45]
Q: Colin Jackson of IT.GEN.NZ joins us now. Colin – what on earth have we been listening to?
A: Fun, isn’t it? I caught the US President, the Daleks, Green Day’ Holiday, and an old track by the Timelords called Doctorin’ the Tardis, which itself quotes an old Gary Glitter song. Collectively, it’s a mashup – a couple of clever guys put the thing together. There’s a whole album of it, based on the track on Green Day’s American Idiot – the mashup album is called American Edit by Dean Gray.
Q: Is it any good?
A: I find really enjoyed hearing it anyway. It’s partly the humor of it, partly the creativity of what they’ve done, and also it illuminates the original material – I can hear the lyrics on this version and it gives me a better idea what the Green Day song was about.
Q: How can people make something like that?
A: Technically it’s not hard with a decent computer and some software. Maximum outlay, say $5,000. Creatively, I have no idea – but then I’m not a musician. And to add to the difficulty, the two people who made this – or who are rumoured to have made it, Dean Gray is obviously a nom de plume, or perhaps nom de iPod, live on opposite sides of the planet and presumably did the actual work over the Internet.
Q: So this is sampling, taken to the next level?
A: Pretty much. If you look on the Wikipedia page for the album – I’ll put it in the links, there are literally dozens of bits of music incorporated into it.
Q: This is all other people’s music! What do they think?
A: The record companies own most music copyrights, and they tend to get wild about this kind of thing. You can’t buy American Edit for that reason. The music companies used legal threats to keep American Edit off the Net, but there was a sort of mass disobedience on 13 December 2005 when a large number of sites around the Internet all hosted American Edit for 24 hours.
Q: So it’s out there?
A: Apparently it is. And I’d be really surprised if it reduced sales for the music that went into it. I’ve spoken to people who say they have gone out and bought the original Green Day album on the strength of listening to the mashup.
Q: What if one of the original artists objected on musical grounds?
A: But that’s sort of how our culture progresses, isn’t it? We build on what’s gone before. That’s my point really, that we must not let copyright get in the way of progress. If I were being cynical, I might say that there was a generation out there – the boomer generation, that grew up through the summer of love and believed in free everything – that is trying to lock down culture for their short term profit at the expense of future generations. Just look at the way Disney has used fairy tales and traditional stories like the Lion King to make its films, and then aggressively defends its copyrights – and presses for their continual extension – so noone else can do anything with these stories for fear of getting sued by Disney.
Q: Are there lots of mashups like this one out there?
A: There certainly are. In fact, in one of those coincidences that probably aren’t coincidences at all, I found myself with some background music on while putting my notes together for this programme, and that background music was Enigma’s 1990 album. Now in that album is some Gregorian Chant, all very ancient and in the public domain. But the actual rendition of the chant that was sampled turned out to have been recorded by a Munich-based choir called Kapelle Antiqua, whose record company promptly sued, the man behind Enigma wound up having to settle for some serious cash. And he got his name in the papers, which he was trying to avoid.
Let’s have the beginning of another track.
[music – Track 9 – fade after 1:45]
A: Isn’t it. And, for the record, that was the well-named Greenday Massacre off American Edit by Dean Gray – made of course from Green Day’s Wake Me Up When September Ends, and the Eagles’ Lying Eyes. There’s a about 6 other tracks mixed into it as well.
Mashups don’t only exist in music, of course. There’s a hilarious video around – I’ll link a copy on YouTube, that has George Bush and Tony Blair singing a duet.
Q: George Bush again!
A: He does rather lend himself to this kind of thing, doesn’t he? The duet is called Endless Love, and I assume it was put together in the UK to make the point that Blair was altogether too closely aligned to Bush. It’s a political statement by some British people that their interests were being subsumed into America’s.
Q: It’s satire?
A: Yes, I see it as political satire. And funny satire, as the best satire usually is. That’s a good thing – that we can create and distribute satire. Mashups are part of the same cultural strand, reusing other’s work and creating something new in the process. Humans have done that since the dawn of history. It’s just as well no-one tried to patent the wheel!
Q: Is that all under threat by copyright, do you think?
A: It could be. There’s still a copyright bill lurking around in Parliament somewhere which, if it passes in anything like the form we saw it last, will strengthen the rights of copyright holders in some ways. And unless it gets some more editing it won’t even make iPods unconditionally legal like they are everywhere else. The minister in charge of the bill, Judith Tizard, was at Foo last week, and she recognised the problem of satire and said that the government was looking at some kind of statutory protection for it.
That would leave us figure out whether or not a mashup was satire. If I mashup a segment of the Radio New Zealand news with a rap song – let’s just pause to imagine Hewitt Humphrey and Rage Against the Machine – is that satire? Is it even funny? Who gets to decide for the purposes of figuring out whether it has legal protection?
Q: So how will it work?
A: Who knows? But I think the only sane way to protect satire is to protect mashups in general. That might prove unpalatable to the music and film companies and they clearly have a huge amount of pull.
Q: OK, that’s mashups – anything else for us today?
A: Microsoft is trying to buy Yahoo. That would cost it $45 billion US.
Q: Why do Microsoft want it?
A: Because they are afraid of Google. Google has come from literally nothing in a decade to be one of the most valuable companies in the world, by finding a way to make money off the expansion of the Net. Microsoft is older than the Internet, and it didn’t spot the Internet coming quickly enough. It’s been playing catchup ever since. Microsoft wants Yahoo’s online businesses, particularly its advertising revenue.
Q: Are there legal hurdles for this deal?
A: Probably. It will have to get through a US regulator at least. And Microsoft isn’t doing well with regulators right now. In Europe it’s been fined hundred of millions for refusing to release information about its systems to competitors, and in the US the anti-trust suit that the government took against it a few years back still isn’t over with the US court extending some penalties for another two years.
On the other hand, Google has its own reasons for not wanting more able competition than Yahoo, and a version Yahoo backed by the wealth of Microsoft might be formidable.
And the other thing that would worry me if I was in charge of putting this thing together is the corporate culture clash. Microsoft is almost traditional in its approach – I doubt they make people wear ties, but they are careful to run a corporate-style coding farm with strong central control. Yahoo is more the new funky Internet style where people get a lot of freedom to do what they want. I’m not sure how you can reconcile those.
There’s a lot of press – much of it spin – being written about this one, and I’ve linked a couple of articles which mainly contradict each other whether this is a good thing from various viewpoints. Go figure.
As always, discuss this at it.gen.nz.
Enigma and its tribulations over copyright.
Tony Blair and George Bush in Endless Love.