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

Posted on Aug 27, 2010

By Aram Sinnreich

(Page 3)

Most people seem to believe that the tipping point between artist and audience falls somewhere in the middle, among the many shades of gray. Part of it simply has to do with how much you transform the material you’re using. As TradeMark G told me: “The way that you use samples can define whether you’re using them as a DJ or as an artist. The longer and more recognizable the samples, the less your personal artistry or sense of style and technique gets through. I’m more inclined to think of someone who fragments samples as an artist than someone who uses whole phrases.”

Another concept that emerged almost entirely from interviews with music industry executives was the notion that artistry is defined by the presence of an audience. As Marc Geiger, a co-founder of Lollapalooza and currently EVP at talent agency William Morris Endeavor, succinctly put it: “If the audience thinks it’s art, then it’s art.” Similarly, Hosh Gureli, then a VP in the dance music division of major label Sony/BMG, told me, “All of it’s art. Even the DJ just playing one record after another, if he’s playing to a crowd, like a comic standing up there or a person in a play, the person’s job is to make sure that the dance floor’s filled.”

While it may seem surprising that members of the old guard would be willing to extend the mantle of artistry so easily to the emerging DJ culture, it also makes sense. To define an artist solely by the existence of an audience – regardless of creative process, output, or qualitative criteria – is the purest possible expression of the institutional philosophy of music-as-product, because it prizes the artist/audience distinction above all other considerations.

Skill, Talent and Genius

A central tenet of the myth of the Artist is the idea that artists are special people, gifted from birth with innate creative capacities the rest of us can only dream of. We usually call this “talent,” or in extreme cases, “genius.” In cultures (and subcultures) without this myth, art is usually understood as something learned rather than innate, and therefore something that anyone can do, given enough time and effort. Generally, we call this “skill.” Understanding how DJs define and use these terms can therefore shed some additional light on whether and when the old myths still apply.

Most of the DJs I spoke with agreed that skill is an essential ingredient of successful sample-based music, and that it’s something you can develop, rather than something you’re born with. As DJ Adrian told me, “you can throw together a mash-up without that much skill. But to throw together a good one you definitely need skill. And skill is something that’s learned, really.”


book cover


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


By Aram Sinnreich


University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages


Buy the book

Many of the sample-based musicians I spoke with defined skill in the same way any other musician would: as a capacity with both physical and conceptual tools. V/VM compared his skill at using music software to that required for playing an instrument: “You still have to invest a hell of a lot of time learning a certain software to get a good result. It’s just like learning to play the guitar or something.” DJ Earworm identified additional skills beyond software expertise. In his words, skill is “knowing how to make songs, keeping rhythm, knowing how to keep them in time. Knowing how to arrange them. Knowing how to produce them. Knowing how to choose them.”

Some DJs told me that, while skill is a necessary component of artistry, it is not sufficient in and of itself; as UK mash-up producer Osymyso remarked, “you can have someone technically skilled who’s got no creative side.” In other words, DJs believe in talent, too. In Osymyso’s words, “talent is the ability to know what’s going to work with what.” For DJ Food, another UK-based producer, talent in mash-ups is a state of mind: “You put two things together from two different times that would never, ever go together. That, to me, is talent – hearing that, listening melodically.” He also defines it as “originality and flair and the ability to keep going, keep changing and mutating, doing the unexpected, confounding people’s expectations.”

In keeping with the myth of the Artist, many DJs told me that they believe talent is a rare and/or innate gift. DJ Axel, for example, told me: “I think that you could have like raw talent. And the skill is the refinement.” Similarly, Tony Zeoli argued that “not everyone has talent. It’s a special gift of being able to create something that other people enjoy.” And techno DJ Si Begg told me: “You can’t teach someone that. I don’t think you really learn it.”

Not all of the DJs I spoke with believed in the traditional definition of talent. As Steinski told me, “DJing is a talent, I don’t know if it’s an art.” And Eric Kleptone rejected the concept of talent altogether, arguing that it’s purely subjective: “Talent is really – it’s in the eye of the – that’s more in the eye of the audience.”

While many DJs seem comfortable using the concepts of skill and talent as any other musician would, they are much more ambivalent about the concept of genius. As Osymyso told me, “The guy that came up with the idea of the mash-up wasn’t necessarily a genius, but he had a genius moment.”

Several other DJs used almost exactly the same term. DJ Earworm told me, “I can say there’s definitely moments of genius in many producers. Whether I would call them, you know, a consistent – I don’t know. There’s definitely, you hear these moments of inspiration in certain times.” Eric Kleptone was even less equivocal: “I don’t think there’s been any genius (in sampling). There’s been some moments of genius. And that goes for everyone from John Cage to Stockhausen, Steinski, Cold Cut, The Art of Noise, Negativland. You know, Public Enemy. People like that. They have intense flashes of genius. DJ Shadow. But none of them are actual geniuses, they’re just very good at what they do. I think it’s something that you channel. It’s not something that you are.”

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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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