as i mentioned in my last post, to open up the panel on "transformative use" at the future of music summit i presented conference goers with a list of transformative uses in music. in order to put sample-based approaches into perspective, i attempted to offer up a fairly comprehensive list so as to demonstrate the truly widespread and enduring practices that transformative techniques constitute. indeed, i would argue that "transformative use"--if a strategic and provisional notion--is essentially a meaningless category, given that nearly all musical practice involves one sort of transformative use or another. thus, rather than naming some special, and specially regulated, method of music-making, "transformative use" should instead, as it does for most musicians, disappear into ubiquity--into commonsense, commonplace notions of performance and (common) property.
in making my list, i tried to think about all the various ways that music is transformed, beginning with the somewhat stretchy (but important) point that we transform music in the very act of listening to it or engaging with it, never mind through the subtle but often profound differences produced by different playback technologies. at any rate, allow me to present my list, along with my opening statement, for your perusal.
- If we think of "transformative use" in a broader sense--indeed as a ubiquitous and fundamental process of musical creation, production, and performance--we should reconsider the ways that we currently tax, regulate, and restrict certain types of "transformative use" while protecting others.
Consider the following array of "transformative uses":
- Sphere of reception (imagination, stereo systems [EQ, etc.], home DJ practices, homemade mixes [for personal consumption, small-scale distribution], playlists)
- "Karaoke" (singing, whistling, humming, banging)
- Live performance (clubs [e.g. go-go bands, cover bands, repertory bands/groups (salsa, jazz, chamber music, etc.), DJs], school cafeteria renditions, freestyle ciphers, jump-rope versions, folk song, the birthday song [and the like], campfire songs, etc.)
- Use of stock chord progressions in composition/improvisation (e.g., jazz, rock, blues, classical, etc.)
- Use of allusion--such as quotations of melodies--in composition/improvisation (classical, jazz, rock, reggae, hip-hop, etc.)
- Mixtapes (commercially-produced [officially licensed and "not"])
- Sample-based music production (hip-hop, electronic, pop, classical, etc.), with a range of transformations (from screws and mashups to chop-and-stab/glitch/etc., from recognizable to unrecognizable) and including entire genres based around particular samples (such as the Amen break for jungle/d'n'b or the Showboys' "Drag Rap (Triggerman)" for NOLA bounce)
- Advertising, (political) sloganeering, muzak (elevators, malls, hold music, etc.)
- Soundtracks for film, TV, radio, theater, school/church/community events, etc.
- Studio-engineering practices (tape/multitracking, effects processing, mixing/EQ, etc.)
- Use of pre-sets/samples from drum machines, software, synthesizers, etc.
- Educational uses: parody, commentary, criticism, classroom use, mnemonic devices
[note: composition/improvisation seems increasingly to me to be a specious distinction, a false dichotomy, tending to privilege--if we indeed deem them different--the less common process and, in my opinion, the lesser art]
and although my primary sympathies lie with sample-based producers who are saddled by what amount to discriminatory regulations, my concerns extend to all of these "transformative uses" and to the paramount importance of preserving--indeed, encouraging--all such approaches for the good of society and culture. in particular, i am increasingly dismayed by the ridiculous limits placed on "parody" or "fair use" as valid justifications for the transformation, duplication, and circulation of other media, other ideas, other expressions. (my panelmate lawrence ferrara noted that, despite the compulsory licensing scheme governing cover songs, the-artist-formerly-and-now-again-known-as prince was effective in preventing another artist from covering an entire album of his. that sort of project--covering an entire album--is, however, precisely the sort of thing that screams parody, whether or not it wears its irreverence or critical nature on its sleeve.) we need to expand our notion of parody/fair-use in order to enable the fluid, nuanced forms of commentary and critique that no doubt enrich our cultural field, provoke discussion and debate, and, moreover, serve to inspire new works.
the present narrowness of status quo definitions of parody/fair-use for artists, cultural critics, and educators is not only insulting, it is downright dangerous. by so severely limiting public expression, critique, and debate, we run the risk of valuing property over freedom, of stifling the open exchange of ideas on which our democracy (uneasily) rests--but on which it should stand firm. most chillingly of all, in times of political crisis and dissent, we run the risk of outlawing the most effective, compelling, and expressive artworks--works which, precisely because of their transformation of recognized materials, speak to the moment in a way that nothing else can.
one such work that currently justifies its existence above and beyond any copyright complaints is the widely circulated--give thanks--remix of kanye west's "gold-digger" by k-otix, "george bush doesn't care about black people"--a song which so trenchantly taps into the zeitgeist that one would either be a fool or a duplicitous jerk to try to stop it.
i think we can all rest assured that 'ye gives it his blessing. but does mr.west own all the rights to said materials? i suspect that, among others, the ray charles estate and island records could go after k-otix if they wanted to. (let's hope they don't.) at any rate, i think this example brings the current shortcomings of the law/policy/practice of copyright into sharp focus: do we really want to live in a world where this kind of expression is illegal? (the answer's obvious, no?)
and although the k-otix example makes the argument for an expanded definition of parody/fair-use far more compellingly than my blog, i'd like to note that, despite what educational, critical, and/or artistic merits it might have, much of my blog is, technically, illegal. never mind about the long history of collage and its relation to critical cultural commentary: according to the law, i "shouldn't" be lifting digital pics from here or there and dumping them on blogger's servers; i "shouldn't" be linking to and mashing-up audio files; i "shouldn't" be quoting from other publications--or even from song lyrics--without permission. or should i?
i love the blogosphere--and the internet more generally--precisely because of its facilitation of civil disobedience around these issues. for a bit of contrast, consider this: i recently submitted an article for publication in one of my field's major journals; i was advised by a colleague with some experience on these matters, and with regards to this particular publication, not to submit quotations of lyrics or transcriptions of musical figures (except for the most cursory, schematic sketches) because the publication shies away from the huge, scary mess of licensing issues that besets the publishing industry. that's right: i can't quote lyrics or transcribe music (never mind include actual audio files) in an article that attempts to make sense of lyrics and music in the context of society and culture--and let's not even get into the irony that some of the issues explored in the article deal with "transformative use" in music and its relationship to copyright law. far as i'm concerned, this constitutes a major compromise in my ability to say what i want to say and to illustrate my argument and make it mean something. if that doesn't in itself illustrate one dangerous and disastrous effect of copyright strictures, i don't know what does. it seems absolutely absurd to me that scholars--never mind artists and critics more generally--aren't allowed to do their jobs because some fatcats want to milk all the money they can off the rights they (probably) illicitly acquired from some poor creator somewhere. gimme a break. (and lay it over some corporate-owned jazz, perhaps.)
because of such strictures in other areas of my life/work, i have embraced the blog as a medium and method for expressing my ideas--and, moreover, in a more multimedia, more intertextual (hyperlinks beat footnotes anyday), and ultimately richer--and thus, i hope, more compelling--way than i can anywhere else (except maybe in performance). i enjoy a freedom here that i do not enjoy in the more orthodox, sheepish world of academia and the publishing industry, and i hope to keep pushing the envelope in order to make space for creative, critical work that, like the k-otix track, compellingly justifies its own existence. i am grateful to all those out there who hold the cybertorch aloft with me. can't stop won't stop.