linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


transformative uses

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.

here goes:
    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.)

  • [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]

  • 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

surely i'm overlooking some (which, feel free to add in a comment below), but i think this still gives a sense, and perhaps provokes some reconsideration, of the commonplace and crucial role that transformation plays in the creation/performance/reception of music.

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.


Anonymous jAa said...

yeah, academic blogging! blogs seem to be increasingly important tools for academics and experts in all fields, and it'll be interesting to see how it changes the way the (notoriously slow-moving) academy functions. I highly recommend just about everything on Swarthmore anthro professor Timothy Burke's exemplary blog, http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke, but especially his posts on blogging and academia, and especially especially check out his proposal for a 21st Century College - http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?page_id=6.

+ I'm sure you'll maybe be developing this in a future post, but am interested in your comment on improvisation vs. composition - how is it a false dichotomy, and how is composition the lesser art despite this?

4:57 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

thanks for the links, john. i'll be sure to check 'em. yeah, i think there's a lot of potential here.

as for comp v. improv, i confess that my point is not terribly clear and perhaps i make it more for rhetoric's sake--i'm not sure, for instance, that i see a resolution of this argument. my basic feeling, though, is that composition and improvisation are deeply intertwined in all sorts of musical practice and it makes no sense to create such a value-laden discourse around either of them (or their separateness). so i generally try to avoid reifying either one as an isolated process, though i do recognize that the terms serve to describe what often feel and look and sound like different activities.

given the politically-freighted definitions and valuations of each at this time, though, i prefer to maintain a certain kind of militancy about their relationship along a continuum of musical creation/performance. (though perhaps they are more dialectical than that.)

at any rate, i'll probably flesh this out as i go along, but let's consider this partic comment to be a bit of good ol' anti-establishment provocation. feel free to share your own thoughts on the matter, though.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Alice B. said...

Hey Wayne,

Long time no read.

As a litigator I'd say you and even the academic journals are on the whole pretty safe because people tend to sue deep pockets. Someone may always want to make an example out of you which I know happens but on the whole, you would probably get a "cease and desist" letter first which would give you an opportunity to mitigate/cure whatever supposed infraction. That being said, I can see how academic journals would not want to have to endure the costs of recalling copies of their publications.

In other news, Jr. Gong heavily promoting a daring and rootsy album up here. I went to the release performance which I blogged about tonight and I just saw him on Jimmy Kimmel Live... He's been all over town really and it'll be interesting to see how the album does.

I'm also discovering Guadeloupean dancehall, but that's a whole another chapter that I'll be blogging on in the future... Wycleff features their rising star, Admiral T on a title called "Fanm Kreyol" in his "Welcome to Haiti" album.

2:36 AM  
Anonymous jAa said...

this reminds me of some old anarchist that said 'the object is the death mask of the idea' or something along those lines - there's a similar relationship between the ongoing life of a piece of music and the death mask worn by the 'finished' composition (though the music never really dies - just multiplies etc)...

but implicit anarchist values aside, in non-utopian practice, the process of improv and the process of composition are phenomenologically, if not always functionally, distinct - and thus, in this phenomenlogist's mind, worth keeping separate. however, from the legal perspective, esp re: sampling, the argument for a spectrum is radically dead on - why differentiate between a sample of a 'composed' p-funk break vs. one culled from an 'improvised' jam?

one answer: easier to keep track of! but digital music holds the (radical!) potential to change this, along with the rest of the debate. I don't really know how feasible this would be in practice, but it seems theoretically possible to change copyright from applying to 'compositions' to applying to *recordings*, whether composed, improvised, or completely accidental. imagine a vast database where major and minor and non-label musicians and non-musicians can upload their raw audio material - the copyright enforcers could run every new recording through their database to check for sections with waveforms that can be matched to previously uploaded recordings, with some complicated analytic metric modeled after a reasonable level of human recognizability, and then make payments (micropayments!) as appropriate on a perfectly sliding scale - 1.32284 seconds of sound will cost 1.32284 seconds of sound, no matter where it comes from or who made it (time stretched audio would be counted at the rate of the original sample - screwtapes would suddenly become more economical to make than 'normal' mixes, and supersampler Kanye's sped-up samples would be even MORE expensive - I'm sure he'll complain, ridiculously). the program could calculate the amount of sampled material in the recording and then automatically distribute a few micropennies/dollars/'credits' in exact proportion to all relevant parties. kind of radically egalitarian, in that the system could easily work for independent musicians as well as Big Music, but unfortunately useful for making those darned mixtapers and filesharers pay up too... enjoy our still relatively-undigitized lifestyle while it lasts. I'm going back to sleep!

4:22 AM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

wow, john. thanks for the latenight thoughts. i can't tell quite how facetious you're being here, but the kind of automated/DB system you describe has certainly been discussed by lots of people involved in this debate, including the berkman center's terry fisher and PE's hank shocklee.

as far as making copyright regulate recordings instead of copyright, i'm not so sure. currently, it covers both, which is one reason there's so much confusion and complication around clearance issues. let's remember that shocklee has good reasons for calling the copyrighting of recordings--otherwise known as mechanical rights--a "scam": mechanical rights have again and again allowed record companies to sue sample-based producers even when substantial similarities in composition are non-existent.

and, alice, thanks for bringing a lawyer's perspective into this. i agree that by and large we small-potatoes folks (e.g., academic journals, bloggers, independent musicians) are not subject to litigation. at the same time, what concerns me more is the chilling effect that the threat of litigation (never mind those ominous cease-and-desist orders) creates for all producers of media/art/etc. on the one hand, i hope that i--and many others--can effectively stay under the radar; on the other, i think it would be wonderful to challenge the current copyright status quo through a little brave transgression, rather than "mitigating/curing" the issue upon receiving a nasty letter in legalese.

(also, i look forward to your take on mr.gong and guadelupean dancehall.)

10:10 AM  
Blogger Alice B. said...

re: gwada dancehall, the following station is a great place to start:



try radiovibes.ovibes.net


1:53 PM  
Blogger ripley said...

and then there's composition vs. improvisation vs. assemblage/collage/juxtaposition

all false divisions, i say!

at least in some ways. at least, false in relation to merit, or other justifications for protectability.

However, somehow this connects (contradictorily) to thoughts I've been having recently about how music is created, and the mentality/skillset/lifestyle/culture/whatever associated with different styles of creation.

What is the difference between the wild-and-crazy-punk sounds of a noise band with guitars and drums.. and the wild-and-crazy-punk sounds of a laptop artists who had to carefully select, process, tweak, create and load a set of samples that sound equally hectic and spontaneous into "LIVE" before playing it (or recording it)?

is there a difference between a "bank" of sounds and ideas in your head or in your culture, and in your computer?

or the difference between Raymond Scott's meticulously controlled compositions and jazz tunes that might sound exactly the same but what sound like solos are actually improvised rather than composed?

10:14 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

i'm with you, rip. the more we try to dig down to the differences between these things, the more we realize that the differences are rather superficial whereas the underlying similarities--about the way music is made and played--are overwhelming.

of course there are different methods, and skillsets, and aesthetics, and ways of conceiving musical structure and meaning. observing this--in a culturally relativistic sort of way--is at the heart of much 20th century ethnomusicology. at the same time, i think you are right to point out that despite these differences, it seems patently false to posit absolute differences between, say, methods of musical creation, in order to justify "protection" of "property" or to impart some overarching value system.

7:01 AM  

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