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‘Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture’
Posted on Aug 27, 2010
Eric Kleptone, a Brighton, UK-based mash-up producer, expanded on this, explaining that the way sample-based music is produced makes it impossible to draw the old distinctions: “Everything is breaking down in a good way. Once upon a time, there was a line. You know, the edge of the stage was there. The performers are on one side. The audience is on the other side, and never the twain shall meet. Now, being an artist is not the same. You’re not necessarily giving people finished product. You’re giving people an unfinished product. A platform that they can do stuff on.”
This increasing blurriness between artist and audience doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s suddenly on the same plane; we may each play the role of artist or audience member to a differing degree. As Kleptone put it, “if you want to draw a straight line between the artist and the consumer, then there are a million points on that graph. And there’s another million arriving every day.” Similarly, San Francisco mash-up producer DJ Earworm compared the gray area between music producer and consumer to curating a museum: “If I put a painting up on the wall no one’s gonna say I’ve made art, right? But what if I had one hundred paintings and I arranged them in some sort of mosaic form? Well, that might be art. And I might be an artist. But that’s a gradual, fuzzy thing; you can always find points on the continuum where it’s gonna stump almost anybody.”
Yet, as quickly as these fuzzy new points appear on the continuum between production and consumption, the DJ community seeks to clarify them. To DJ Adrian (co-founder of Bootie, the multi-city mash-up club), mashing music is a form of “active entertainment. You’re not just passively downloading music and consuming it, you’re actually altering it to your own tastes.” Los Angeles radio host DJ Paul V added even more points to the continuum: “I think it goes from passive fan to active fan to the next level. Whether they’re all artists, that’s debatable. There’s levels of technical skill, musical skill, execution. It’s kind of like an onion, layered. I don’t know if it’s so black and white.”
TradeMark G of mash-up band The Evolution Control Committee puts himself dead center on the line between artist and audience: “What I think is happening is that there’s been a real rise of an intermediary level. The DJ has become a very big class in music. They’re not necessarily artists, but they kind of are. They’re not necessarily the audience, either. There is definitely some kind of blurring of the lines, but it’s happened in a way that we’ve sort of added a new level.”
Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture
By Aram Sinnreich
University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages
Far from viewing the in-between role of the DJ as a deficit or evidence of inferiority, many of the DJs I interviewed said they considered their fandom to be a key asset. As Matt Wand told me, “that’s a really important part of being an artist – is being a good, informed and slightly fanatical audience.” In fact, he said, “that might be all there is to it, to being an artist. The rest of it is just time for the skills that you develop.”
An overly critical or curatorial approach to art is usually seen as a badge of elitism. Jazz fanatics, foodies, and architecture buffs are all clichéd examples of upper-middle-class types with too much time on their hands in today’s popular media. Yet many of the musicians I spoke with saw it from the opposite vantage point: rather than raising the bar for entry into the higher echelons of consumption, the emergence of the DJ lowers the bar for production, allowing a larger number of people to enter the ranks of the creative. Viewed from this standpoint, DJ culture is inherently communitarian (or, as legendary hip-hop producer Steinski calls it, “communism”), rather than elitist.
DJ Adrian told me he feels that the communitarian spirit of his work shares much in common with earlier grassroots musical movements: “I think that bootleg and remix and mash-up culture is basically the new punk rock. Because twenty years ago, punk rock was the reaction against the bloated, so-called corporate rock. It was a total D.I.Y. aesthetic. Anyone could do it. Anyone could pick up a guitar, learn three chords, and play punk rock.”
Similarly, Matt Wand associated his own work with the folk revival movement of the 1960s, and with the (quasi-mythical) authentic musical culture it drew upon: “Music has shifted back to feudal times. There’s no more money in content, is there? Music making has become a folk thing, there isn’t much of a career to be made in it. It’s just something that people do, making content for each other.” This is because, as Wand points out, technologies such as file sharing undermine the economic mechanism that spins music into gold. It is also because the Internet gives rise to musical community on a global scale. Hip-hop had the boogie-down Bronx, grunge had Seattle, but as mattcatt, a London-based DJ, told me back in 2003, the mash-up “is the first true Internet-based music culture.”
When Is a DJ an Artist?
The old lines between artist and audience may be getting blurrier by the day, but they haven’t disappeared entirely. Even among the DJs I spoke with, many are still quick to emphasize that different levels of quality, professionalism, and artistry still do exist. As DJ Adrian told me, “like punk rock, just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. There’s definitely people who rise to the top.”
Some people consider anyone who cuts and pastes a sound clip from one window to another to reach the threshold of artistry. As UK-based audio collagist V/VM told me, “I think people who use samples are artists. Why not? It’s just what’s there, isn’t it? If you take something and do something with it, yeah, I guess you’re an artist.”
On the other side of the spectrum, some are unwilling to label any sample-based musicians as artists. For instance, Tony Zeoli, a veteran dance music producer and entrepreneur, told me that, in his opinion, Peter Rauhofer “is a remix producer. He’s not an artist in his own right.” Zeoli emphasized that he was in no way dissing Rauhofer’s work, which he enjoys and respects – it was simply a question of categorization. Similarly, UK-based mash-up producer Go Home Productions told me that he “really hates the ethos of the DJ being an artist.”
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