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‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’

Posted on Aug 27, 2010

By Aram Sinnreich

Reprinted with permission from “Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture” by Aram Sinnreich. Copyright © 2010 by Aram Sinnreich and published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

“The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case.”

—Walter Benjamin

“The line between artist and audience is pretty much gone. I remember when I got my first digital production rig, I was like, ‘My god, man, this is like communism—the means of production are in the hands of the people.’ ”


The line separating artists from their audience has always been a bit blurry. From that moment during the Renaissance when someone first decided that a painter was more than just a craftsman with an easel, the whole idea of the Artist-with-a-capital-A has required an entire mythology just to make it seem plausible.

The biggest myth of all is the Romantic notion that artists somehow create their work uniquely and from scratch, that paintings and sculptures and songs emerge fully-formed from their fertile minds like Athena sprang from Zeus. Running a close second is the myth that only a handful of us possess the raw talent – or the genius – to be an artist. According to this myth, the vast majority of us may be able to appreciate art to some degree, but we will never have what it takes to make it. The third myth is that an artist’s success (posthumous though it may be) is proof positive of his worthiness, that the marketplace for art and music functions as some kind of aesthetic meritocracy.

Of course, these myths fly in the face of our everyday experience. We know rationally that Picasso’s cubism looks a lot like Braque’s, and that Michael Jackson sounds a lot like James Brown at 45 RPM. We doodle and sing and dance our way through our days, improvising and embellishing the mundane aspects of our existence with countless unheralded acts of creativity. And we all know that American Idol and its ilk are total B.S. (very entertaining B.S., of course!). Each of us can number among our acquaintance wonderful singers, dancers, painters or writers whose creations rival or outstrip those of their famous counterparts, just as each of us knows at least one beauty who puts the faces on the covers of glossy magazines to shame.

And yet, we believe the myths. How could we not? Who among us has the time, the energy, or even the motivation to buck the overwhelming support the myth of the Artist receives from the institutions that govern our society – to dispute our schools, our churches, even our laws? What is copyright, after all, but the legal assertion of an individual’s sole ownership over a unique artifact of creative expression? These laws, sometimes enforced at gunpoint, require us to believe the myths, or face the consequences.


book cover


Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture


By Aram Sinnreich


University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages


Buy the book

Of course, there’s a reason the myths exist. Our economy runs on the privatization of hitherto public goods. Our legal system is premised on the individual as the locus of all rights, all liability, all blame. Our society’s profound inequalities are only acceptable because we believe ourselves to live in a meritocracy, a world where a person’s success is de facto proof of his or her inherent worthiness. In short, the myth of the Artist-with-a-capital-A allows us to believe in America-with-a-capital-A.

And yet, there have always been cracks in the façade, pockets of cultural activity that fall outside the economic and legal system, and which therefore have no need for the myth of the Artist. An excellent example is Gee’s Bend, a relatively isolated African American community in rural Alabama, known for the glorious abstract quilt patterns produced for decades by the women of the town.

As William and Paul Arnett, art dealers and chroniclers of the Gee’s Bend community, describe it, these quilters never signed anything, never took individual responsibility for the strikingly innovative work they produced, and certainly never asserted copyright or made any other ownership claims over their output. There was no need to. In the Arnetts’ words, this is because the quilters “worked across several generations and developed a coherent graphic style absent outside patronage or commercial incentive.”

Ironically, intellectual property and individual ownership came into play for the quilters of Gee’s Bend only when their work was commercialized by a source outside of their community – namely, the Arnetts. A 2007 lawsuit by three Gee’s Bend quilters accusing them of intellectual property infringement was settled out of court in 2008. As French economist Jacques Attali once wrote, “the artist was born, at the same time as his work went on sale.”

Mashing Up the Myth

A similar dynamic exists within the sample-based music community – among the DJs who create mash-ups, remixes, techno, hip-hop mixtapes, and other forms of not-quite-legal music using pieces of other people’s work as their palette.

Like the quilters of Gee’s Bend, these musicians work largely without commercial incentive, and outside of the legal system that “protects” legitimate works of Art-with-a-capital-A. Unlike the quilters, however, sample-based music is a global phenomenon involving millions of creative individuals, using state-of-the-art technology. In other words, while Gee’s Bend is like a local relic of the days before capitalism dominated art and society, these DJs may offer a glimpse into a global future when its hold has been relinquished once again.

Some DJs rebel actively against legal and commercial institutions, while others simply avoid them as a matter of course; in both cases, these factors have helped to break down the artificial distinction between artists and audience. As UK-based musician Matt Wand told me: “I can’t draw the line, I definitely don’t draw the line – he’s artist, she’s audience – I can’t do that at all.” Similarly, DJ Axel, an LA-based mash-up producer (and major label record exec) told me that “it’s just a gray area. I don’t know if you can separate it any more, really. I mean, is a DJ an artist?” I asked him whether he could answer his own question, and after struggling for a definitive response, he told me he couldn’t, because “it’s too gray.”

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By Record labels, April 2, 2012 at 3:00 am Link to this comment

Pop songs today are more or less clones of themselves, with similar lyrics, tunes and beats. Its no wonder why its becoming easier for the public to create mash ups of songs and remixes. There are plenty of Djs who remix songs and post them on Youtube, and these are the public that become their own artistes. There is no need for a record label to make them famous.

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By culheath, September 1, 2010 at 7:55 pm Link to this comment

Just sad, dude.


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By Shenonymous, September 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment

5 yups culheath, the effete keeps marching on and on and on and
on ad nauseum and ad absurdum.  And I started out very very young,
I was a child prodigy. And you have no idea how tiring you are.  Keep
having your fits. It seems to suit your degenerate attitude.

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By culheath, September 1, 2010 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

Trying to pull rank as an appeal to authority? Let’s see, I’ve been an multi-discipline artist and teacher for what?, 41 years now. Well, you got one thing right…the part about you being tired, I mean.

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By Shenonymous, September 1, 2010 at 1:06 am Link to this comment

If I weren’t so tired culheath I say that I’ve been an artist, an art
teacher, a teacher of art criticism, an art historian, and a teacher
of aesthetics among a few other things doubtlessly longer than
you’ve been alive which tenured longevity says just a bit about
my accomplishment and earning the right to judge, and that you
sound just like the combined drivel and dross of all the effetes that
have ever lived on the face of the earth.  But since I’m too tired,
I won’t.

BTW:  That verbal bm was the result of that culture colonic I took
immediately upon reading your comment.

Keep trolling cause there is more judgmental crap where that came

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By culheath, August 31, 2010 at 11:27 pm Link to this comment

“Just the intention to create novelty does not make the creation an artwork.”

Says who? Who are you to judge? How would you know if had the capacity to judge or not?

“To say at a most fundamental level, art is what one can get away with is shallow and lacking fundamental understanding of what art is.  That is all right, it is a “common” misunderstanding indicating a lack of sophistication, which most provincial people have.”

Uh huh…It was a joke used to posit one end of a spectrum of possibles uses for the term “art”, which seems to have gone right over some sophisticates head…imagine that.

You sound like you need a cultural colonic.

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By Druthers, August 31, 2010 at 12:40 am Link to this comment


On the contrary, but as you point out I did leave a hanging sentence; not very artistic.

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By Shenonymous, August 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm Link to this comment

Just the intention to create novelty does not make the creation an
artwork.  To say at a most fundamental level, art is what one can get
away with is shallow and lacking fundamental understanding of what
art is.  That is all right, it is a “common” misunderstanding indicating
a lack of sophistication, which most provincial people have. 

Bach inventions, fugues and preludes, sinfonias, the Brandenburgs
and the Goldberg variations are the epitome of intellectual
understanding of the art of music.  It was hardly an effort to “get
away with” whatever he could with music notes.

I’m sorry Druthers, but your thought does not seem finished.  Are you
making a criticism of Shakespeare and Chekhov?

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By Druthers, August 30, 2010 at 2:24 pm Link to this comment

Artists, like Shakespeare who just picked up a few sentences that were “out there,” and Chekhov who pieced together all those stories and plays from the mumbling of his patients.

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By culheath, August 28, 2010 at 8:50 pm Link to this comment

There is zero difference between the artistic concept of “collage” and “mashup”. Producers of both are indeed artists if they are deliberatly intending to create novelty. At its most fundamental level “Art” is what you get away with - and “art” is in the eye of the creator, not the audience.

Once you achieve the realization that “God is in the garbage can” you understand that art is “the most universal made most local” and is a state of mind and perspective rather than anything subject to opinion.

Good article.

Skill is practiced technique that allow creative talent to be expressed uniquely. Art is the act of being deliberately creative.

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By Ed Harges, August 28, 2010 at 11:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To anyone who doubts that superior artistic achievement can ever be something
absolutely indisputably real, I have three words for you: Johann Sebastian Bach.

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By Shenonymous, August 27, 2010 at 6:29 pm Link to this comment

It is possible that Plato was not right about everything he thought
about and wrote about.  Leonardo da Vinci created the Paragone
that pitted sculpture against painting and which one held the
highest status.  So the notion came indeed from the Renaissance
that capitalized the word Artist.  “Artiste” and the subsequent notable
artists like Rembrandt, Constable, Monet, van Gogh, and down the
line, or up the line as you would have it, to Warhol and Motherwell
or Damien Hirst, and on and on and on…not only accepted the
appellation but enjoyed it to the hilt.  Today artists are equivalent
to any celebrity and among all of them it is the ones whose talent is
superb are the ones who will last the test of time.

Trying to see Sinnreich’s point, what at the end of this treatise are we
left with?  That we need to develop a new set of evaluative criteria…at
least in music, but it really associates over into all of the arts and it is
history all over again.  Most of the great music composers in history
had to have a new set of evaluative criteria in order to understand their
work critically and more so for the common public.  Gluck, Tchaikovsky,
Schoenberg, Mahler, Stravinsky, and so on and on and on… all had
trouble getting their music accepted.

I can only imagine what Stravinsky’s audience would have thought if
they considered they had lost control over their lives because of his
strange music. Which I happen to love!  Isn’t it the marketing industry
that has ruined our lives?  Not the music or the other kinds of
contemporary art.  Why Beethoven used to stroll the villages stealing
tunes to infuse reinvented in his gigantic works and he admitted it. 
“Borrowing’ has always been a part of the arts. The Romans practically
stole all of the Greeks art ideas.  The two together are considered
“Classical Art.”  There is nothing in the universe that is absolutely
original if we wanted to get into ontology but that is a bit deep for a
forum such as this.  Recycling in art and people taking credit for other’s
works, well that is possibly a legal matter not one of aesthetics.

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By Gordy, August 27, 2010 at 4:47 pm Link to this comment

Also, regarding bedroom artists, ancient Greek verse was composed by shepherds who had a lot of empty time alone - this verse is considered ‘genius’ and ‘canon’.  The myths of art and ‘genius’ are very harmful.

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By Gordy, August 27, 2010 at 4:40 pm Link to this comment

(I swear to god, he did not know it was a spoof interview - his answers are genuine)

I think this article is actually quite useful; a question I wonder about is whether art has an authentic function as community diminishes and there’s only the profit-motive left.

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By samosamo, August 27, 2010 at 3:27 pm Link to this comment


What in the hell? People taking kudos from other people’s work
and effort? Art from hell is more like it I say. Thank a star I don’t
listen to radio because what I want to listen to in music isn’t
anything like the stuff the ‘new’ artists do and now forcing DJs
into the realm of artists. Thank a star again that I rarely ever
have to listen to that prattle.

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By gerard, August 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

It would seem that, going into such a “mash-up” world, we are going to have to maintain a high degree of tolerance for what might be called “adaptation.”  (Scholarly word for it, ekphrasis, applied not only to arts but to daily living.) New opportunities are all around us.
  “Mashing-up” has been going on forever, this artist or inventor taking off from the works of ten to a hundred other artists or inventors whose contributions to the new work might or might not be recognized—or recognizable. 
  Copyright came along, if I am correct in making the assumption, largely as a matter of “business”—that is, capitalistic control over access to profits.
I doubt that communal tribal societies worried much about copyrights. 
  The enormously interesting and challenging idea is that, as many signals indicate, the world is well on the road to becoming one huge tribe of human beings of different sorts with different histories, inheritances and cultures. They are already being “mashed-up” inevitably by modern transportation and communication.
  Many people feel enormously threatened by the very idea of such a situation (“cliched as one-world-ism)and will fight to the death to try to prevent it unless a lot more groundwork gets done in early childhood education to try to prevent this senseless but natural-enough reaction.
  Music has done a lot of this groundwork, consciously or unconsciously, as have all the arts and the technologies fostering inter-communication.
Yet the drag to prevent it appears in many subtle forms,(especially at high levels of power that are profiting from secrecy and resistance to change).  “Provincial protectionism” rears its ugly head everywhere as “provincial” people feel more and more threatened by differences, (outside influences, etc.) They are already fighting back in the form of very troublesome, often violent, resistance movements in many forms.  Organized violence is one aspect of the way such resistance erupts into conflagrations.
  These resistances are mult-faceted and not unique to any one place or situation. The capitalist oligarch is just as resistant to change as the poorest peasant.
  More music, less war!  More tolerance, less authoritarianism!  More sharing, less hoarding.
  We all know what needs to be done.  Are we helping enough?  Hopefully.

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