Debating the morals of the mashup

Recently, I was on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe show, talking about the culture and history of the mashup. I gave my usual enthusiastic endorsement of the practice. My friend Jesse Selengut, an ace jazz trumpet player and all-around music master, had some responses.

Here’s what Jesse wrote me:

I believe I read about this in the book, “This Is Your Brain On Music.” Somewhere in there is the result of a study that listeners were able to identify pop songs after hearing only a half second of a song. Literally, just a tiny blip of sound. The reason for this is simple. The producers of these songs are able to create “a sound” or world of sounds that is unique in the world. It’s the combination of all the instruments involved, the techniques around getting those instruments recorded, and the mixing and the mastering thereof. Try it sometime, it’s a fun experiment. The song’s uniqueness gets tied up with our memories and emotions and just a small taste of that sound triggers those memories and responses. This sound is beyond normal musical concepts of melody, harmony, form etc…

This “sound” is a product of its time, be it a millisecond of Exile On Main Street with all the temporal, technological, locational, heroin infused, tax evasion influenced cultural signifiers laying within, or a millisecond of So by Peter Gabriel with a whole other set of technological, Daniel Lanois-ness, 80’s ness. This is so so much more than just a melody fragment or set of chords that I enjoy. It is a whole world of associations that an artist made that is unique and non-transferable!

There’s no doubt that a recording’s vibe and ambience conveys a lot of content above and beyond the beats, chords and scales. I disagree that the vibe is non-transferable, though. If I sample Exile On Main Street for a hip-hop instrumental, I don’t take anything away from the original album — it’s not like anyone is going to confuse the two. I find the Rolling Stones’ unattributed appropriations of African-American music way more offensive than taking an obviously recognizable sample of a recording would be. Jesse is concerned about this distinction too, but for the opposite reason.

I am attempting to make a distinction between software and hardware in music. The software is the ideas behind the music, the melody, the harmony, perhaps even the orchestration whereas the hardware is the final product, the actual sound recording, the “sound” as described above.

This musical hardware/software distinction is a good one. It’s analogous to the genotype/phenotype distinction, or whatever the meme equivalent is.

You assert that there is no music that does not develop or mutate what musical ideas have gone before and this is the history of music. Or of culture in general one might say. (And you know I agree about all this as per our Susan Blackmore memetic reading.) All those developments have been mutations on the software level: mutations of chord progressions, melodies etc. It is only since sound recordings and modern technology that the mutations have taken place on the hardware level.

A very big idea here. Before recordings, there was no hardware to sample from, unless maybe you were collaging together written scores.

Mutations and recombinations of actual sound recordings is more than a novelty, it is a whole other art form and quite a potent one. Even dropping a half-second of a hardware “sound” is enough to trigger a huge array of associations.

Yes indeed. That’s exactly the point of sample-based music.

On the one hand it is cheap. DJ Earworm did not earn the memories and associations that correspond to his use of cultural sounds. These cultural sounds were developed, created and popularized by producers and artists and the credit for triggering those associations should point to the artists that earned those associations.

Here’s where Jesse and I philosophically part company. The language of “earning” and “credit” presumes that recorded music is a form of property. That’s the position taken by US copyright law. But the law is out of step with our culture. Music existed in a gift economy for tens of thousands of years before anyone had the idea to copyright it, and such ancient traditions die hard. We still share music recordings with our friends and family all the time. For music nerds like me and Jesse, sharing recordings is one of the great pleasures of life. (I can’t begin to count the number of songs Jesse and I have traded back and forth.)

When copies of recordings were expensive and difficult to make, it was easier for me to to accept the idea of their being property — but I didn’t think of them as being the property of the artist, I thought of them as belonging to me. If I bought an LP of Thriller, I considered it to be mine, not not Michael Jackson’s. Legally, of course, the “software” of Thriller belongs to Michael Jackson (and his label and co-writers and so on), but emotionally, those songs belong to me, and to everybody.

Now that digital copies are so cheap and effortless to make, the ownership debate gets more complicated. Who does an mp3 of a Michael Jackson song belong to? If I buy it from Amazon, do I then get to do whatever I want with it? The law says no, but a strong cultural consensus says yes. Jesse would have to agree with me here; again, he and I have swapped a lot of digital music. If I can give copies of my recordings to my friends, why can’t I sample them? Jesse considers this a more profound kind of stealing.

Trading on the work of others even if combining these works in new forms is still trading on the work of others. It’s not as if the artist, like Bartok, is taking a familiar melody and putting in a new context, it is more like a collage of famous photos of famous artworks or a combination of pre-branded sounds. The merit of a mash-up when viewed this way seems minimized by its derivative and rapacious nature.

Most of the basic software of music is common property: chords, scales, rhythms, entire folk melodies. Jesse would agree with me that composition is mostly collage. So what makes remixing different? Why is appropriating a melody or chord progression a perfectly respectable and time-honored practice, while appropriating a recording is rapacious? Jesse says the distinction hinges on the “hardware,” the recorded music. If that hardware is the artist’s property, then Jesse is absolutely right: unauthorized sampling and remixing are theft. But if the hardware isn’t anyone’s property, if it’s part of the gift economy, then unauthorized sampling and remixing are value-neutral artistic techniques, no more or less morally acceptable than writing a new head for a jazz standard’s chord progression.

Jesse recognizes the complexities.

On the other hand it is genius: The great book “Magister Ludi – The Glass Bead Game” by Herman Hesse concerned itself with masters of the art of cultural re-combinations to create sublime new works that simultaneously re-tell a culture to itself while creating something new. In fact, I guess I’m even doing it now by referring to other artists to help me make my points.

I love the phrase “re-telling a culture to itself.” Sampling is a powerful tool for doing exactly that. The fact that it runs up against our values around artistic property only adds to its value as a way of making us think about those values.

Perhaps to be sampled is to have arrived in some degree in our culture. That would be the goal of any meme is to find itself being duplicated and recombined.

This is a subtle and important point: the interest of music and the interest of musicians are not always the same thing. Both Jesse and I believe that music is like a computer virus, living in our minds, using imitation (and more recently, recording) to spread itself. Music evolves semi-independently of its human hosts, like the microbes in our intestines and the tiny bugs that live on our skin and hair. Sometimes music benefits its human hosts by making them rich, famous, artistically fulfilled, beloved and respected. Sometimes music exploits its hosts, leaving them broke, drug-addicted and alone.

Jesse is absolutely right that to be sampled means that you’ve arrived. In my own sample-based music, I draw on the material that I find the most beautiful, compelling or significant. Sampling can put forgotten artists back on the map. Stetsasonic said it best:

Tell the truth, James Brown was old before Eric and Ra came out with “I Got Soul
Rap brings back old R&B, and if we did not, people could have forgot

I’m flattered whenever I’m quoted or sampled, and surprised when other people don’t feel the same way.

Jesse concludes:

I write merely to point out the big divide between musical hardware (the actual recording and its power) and software (the ideas behind the music) and that using hardware to make new art is collage and as such is very different than any other type of musical creation as you express in your “sampling is the history of music” argument.

A collagist is not necessarily a musician. If the collagist is able to recombine cultural “sounds” in a musical way (following borrowed or mutated musical SOFTWARE as well) then perhaps it can qualify as its own musical statement.

I say that a collagist is a musician. I care more about the product of creative work than the process. If the end result of collage-based production techniques is music, then collagists are musicians. Sample-based production is somewhat easier and enormously cheaper than booking humans in a recording studio. But why should that matter when considering the end result? If I’m listening to a recording of people playing traditional instruments, why should I care how many takes it took, how much tape editing took place, how many hours of mixing were involved? Axl Rose labored for over ten years on the excruciating Chinese Democracy; some of my favorite jazz albums were banged out in a matter of hours. Effort is not necessarily correlated with quality, in music as in many things.

Anyway, Jesse concludes:

Thanks for inspiring me to debate and clarify.

Thanks right back at you for all the thoughtful and insightful commentary.