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

Posted on Aug 27, 2010

By Aram Sinnreich

(Page 4)

Other DJs made a slightly different, but analogous argument: individuals aren’t geniuses, but their works or ideas can be. As DJ Paul V told me, “An idea can be genius, or someone’s passion about it can be genius, but that doesn’t make them a genius.” Similarly, DJ Drama, the Atlanta-based hip-hop and mixtape producer, told me that The Grey Album (a celebrated mash-up from 2004) was “an ingenious work,” but that the DJ who made it, Danger Mouse, doesn’t necessarily qualify as a genius. V/VM mashed up the concept of “genius moments” with the concept of “genius works,” telling me that “maybe some works are works of genius. But I don’t think anybody’s body of work is genius.”

If DJs on the whole seem uncomfortable with the concept of genius, music industry executives are more willing to use the term – both positively and negatively. When I asked Hosh Gureli of Sony/BMG whether there are any geniuses of sample-based music, he responded:

Hosh: I really think you have to give Puffy (Combs) his due, because he really brought sampling to a whole new height with the “I’ll Be Missing You” tribute to Biggie (Smalls). He did that without even getting permission (from Sting, whose composition he sampled), and he used so much of the record, but he got permission and they even performed it together. That was a groundbreaking record.

Aram: So that was genius?

Hosh: Yes. Biggie did that with a lot of records too.

The fact that Gureli cites Combs as a genius of sampling is significant for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Combs is one of hip-hop’s most successful recording artists, and in music industry parlance, “genius” has often been used interchangeably with “consistently profitable.” But Gureli clearly means more than this; for him, the genius of Combs seems to reside in the magnitude and brazenness of the rapper/producer’s sampling relationship to his source materials. Ironically, these are the very qualities that make Combs almost universally reviled among the DJs I interviewed. As Osymyso told me, “I’ll Be Missing You” “isn’t in any way a new song. You’d say, ‘that is someone rapping over the Police.’ It’s a very difficult thing to define, but the Puff Daddy stuff is soulless. It’s just not clever.”

DJs, Artistry and Copyright

Copyright law has always been full of ambiguities, inconsistencies and contradictions, but with their ham-fisted treatment of sampling over the past two decades, our courts and legislators have perhaps reached a new low. The only pattern to emerge from the confusing morass has been a steadfast rejection of sampling as a creative act.

As music attorney Gary Adelman, who formerly ran a techno music label called Liquid Sky, explained to me, purely sample-based works such as techno songs and mash-ups have historically been denied copyright, and therefore legal recognition of authorship:

Gary: Under the copyright law of 1976, he who creates owns. That’s the basic premise of copyright law. Copyright is an expression. And if you create it, you own it. When a copyright is generated, the author or the creator is the owner.

Aram: So is there an example of the Court assigning a new copyright to a sample-based work?

Gary: No. Not that I’m aware of.

USC law professor Jennifer Urban told me that copyright protection could theoretically be applied not just to sample-based music, but to the entire range of gray area between musical production and consumption. This is because a special subclass of copyright exists for the creative selection and arrangement of preexisting materials.

Aram: Is a person who creates an iPod playlist an artist or not?

Jennifer: Sure. If it’s a creative selection and arrangement. Yeah.

Aram: From a legal standpoint?

Jennifer: Yeah. I mean, I’ve never heard of anybody trying to enforce a copyright on a playlist, but I know of lots of books that are made up of chapters by lots of other people, right? And the book is held to be separately copyrightable as a compilation.

Copyright Attorney Bob Clarida made a similar observation, telling me that in a recent case, Caffey v. Cook, “the Court held that the selection and arrangement of songs in a musical revue was protectable, even though the plaintiff had no copyright in the songs. So I think it’s not a stretch to say that selection and arrangement of samples within a hip-hop track should be protectable.” If we recall that, for DJ Earworm, skill in producing mash-ups is defined in part by “knowing how to choose” and “knowing how to arrange” source materials, the “selection and arrangement” argument for sampling as a creative act starts to make a lot of sense.


book cover


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


By Aram Sinnreich


University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages


Buy the book

Even if the Court were to agree, and grant copyright protection (and, therefore, Artist-with-a-capital-A status) to DJs on this basis, they would still enjoy an inferior level of protection (and therefore inferior status) to traditional composers and instrumental performers. This is because, as Clarida explained to me, copyrights granted on the basis of selection and arrangement enjoy the “thinnest” possible copyright protection: “you basically have only a protection against, you know, actual literal copying of your selection and arrangement.” In other words, even a trivial change in the placement of a single sample within a work (e.g. swapping samples 100 and 101 in Osymyso’s epic mash-up “Intro Inspection”) would theoretically be enough to destroy copyright protection.

“Some Kid in His Bedroom”

One of the most interesting things to come out of my discussions with musicians and executives about the borderline separating artist from audience was the frequency with which interviewees resorted to a single rhetorical device to justify their arguments. This device centered around a fictitious straw man, generally referred to as “some kid,” and usually located either in his bedroom or in his basement. Whatever credits, qualifications, or accolades were being extended to a given DJ or his work, they were simultaneously denied to “some kid” on the basis of his amateurism, inexperience, or isolation.

The prevalence of the “some kid” argument was especially high among music industry executives. For instance, DJ Paul V (who straddles the professional fence, as both a radio DJ and a mash-up producer), in extolling the virtues of Go Home Productions, argued that GHP warrants being called a “musician” because “he knows how to play an instrument” in addition to simply DJing. This affects the quality of GHP’s sample-based work, he told me, because “I think a musician’s head obviously has a different approach because they create music themselves. So that has to have an effect on how you hear things and how you approach things. As opposed to some kid in his bedroom, who doesn’t play an instrument.”

Similarly, Pete Ganbarg, an EVP at Atlantic Records, told me that “the kid who is making a play list on his iPod is not necessarily a musician. I think that you’ve got the great DJ minds of this generation. They’re artists in their own right for sure.” Hosh Gureli of Sony/BMG used this argument as well, telling me that “someone in the basement putting two beats together, they could love it and to them it’s art. But to the majority it might not be art.”

Although the “some kid” trope was most prevalent among industry executives, many DJs used it as well. During an interview with DJ Adrian and Bootie co-founder Mysterious D, the use of the term actually led to a lengthy discussion between the two of them about its meaning and significance, which bears repeating here in full:

Mysterious D: Mash-ups are so easy to make with software. You’ve got a kid in his room plopping an a cappella of any song over an instrumental of any song and it’s a mash-up. But he’s not an artist.

Aram: Why not?

Mysterious D: Because he’s not really using it for an artistic form. He’s just fucking around with software basically. Kind of like somebody who likes three chords on their guitar. Do you call them a musician or are they not a musician? It’s hard to say. You might call them a musician technically. But if you described to your friends, “This guy’s a musician, but he only knew three chords and can’t play anything else and doesn’t choose to,” I mean, then are you missing, you know –

DJ Adrian: But couldn’t you say, couldn’t you make a judgment call that was like, “Sure he’s an artist but he’s a bad artist.” Just the same way you would say, “Yeah, he’s a musician but just not a very good one.”

Mysterious D: Good point. So I use that because that’s what the media tells everybody. That’s not how we see it all, to be honest. I’m just used to using that because I’m gonna go with what most people believe. They call them “bedroom producers” and so on and so forth.

DJ Adrian: “Bedroom remixers.”

Mysterious D: But we happen to know that a lot of the people that are involved in it are either already doing (professional) remix work, they’re DJs for X amount of years and a lot of them are ex-band members. So it’s not just some kid in his bedroom. So I use that as cliché. Although there are that. There are kids –

DJ Adrian: And they’re amazing.

Mysterious D: So, and I refuse to call that “less than,” even though it gets implied as that in the media. And it gets implied as if, “It’s a kid in his bedroom – it couldn’t possibly be as good.” Again, going back to the D.I.Y. aesthetic of punk rock, which is why we think it’s okay. Yeah, you’re right, he didn’t know how to play his instrument, and he still made some sort of brilliant world-changing music. So that kid in his bedroom isn’t that big of a deal. I think that could actually be brilliant. It’s not a negative or not a cutback.


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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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