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

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.’ ”

— Steinski

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.”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.”

book cover

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

By Aram Sinnreich

University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages

Buy the book

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.”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.”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.
I believe that the deep ambivalence reflected in this exchange strikes at the heart of the larger sense of uncertainty I have discussed throughout this article. This becomes especially apparent when we look at the ways in which DJs use the term in reference to themselves. DJ Axel, who has worked as a professional DJ for much of his adult life, told me that he considers himself a “bedroom producer,” and that this appellation means that he is “part of a community of mash-up artists.” Tony Montana, one of the earliest mash-up DJs, used the term as well when I interviewed him in 2003, associating it explicitly with illegality and an outlaw image (an association reinforced by his nom du laptop, taken from the fictional Cuban crime lord played by Al Pacino in the 1983 film Scarface):

Tony Montana: only some of the stuff i do is “leagle”

Aram: what about the other stuff?

Tony Montana: its bedroom producing

Danger Mouse, who is probably the best-known mash-up producer today due to the continuing popularity of “The Grey Album,” appears to go out of his way to emphasize the bedroom as both his physical and spiritual location in interviews he grants to the press. In a 2006 profile in the New York Times magazine section, for instance, the mash-up producer, whose given name is Brian Burton, told journalist Chuck Klosterman that the idea for the album-length mash-up came to him suddenly one day while he was cleaning his room. This moment of clarity becomes the turning point of the 5,000-word article, meriting an entire paragraph consisting solely of the sentence: “It was at this point that Burton decided to straighten up his bedroom.” Similarly, in a 2004 interview in Remix magazine, Danger Mouse told interviewer Rob Kirby, “I do almost all of my preproduction in my bedroom. I have to be working next to a bed when I’m coming up with new stuff.”

In its ability to communicate both deprecation and pride, both otherness and selfness, to suggest both the bonds of community and the exile of the outlaw, the term “bedroom producer” resembles nothing more than a well-known racial epithet that has been used against (and by) African Americans for centuries. The implications of this correlation are complex, to say the least. Although I attempt to unravel them more thoroughly in my book, for now I will simply observe that the significance of the bedroom is in its universality. We all have bedrooms, and in today’s technological environment, we are all producers to some extent. In short, “some kid” isn’t just a convenient rhetorical straw man; it’s us.

From “Bedroom Producer” to “Bedroom Citizen”

This is a transitional moment in our cultural and technological development. With 5 billion mobile phone subscribers, 2 billion Internet users, and half a billion Facebook profiles spanning virtually every mile of habitable land on the globe, we are creating social formations, institutions and public forums on such a scale that the great nations of the 19th and 20th centuries look like city-states by comparison. Virtually everyone on the planet has the power to make direct contact with anyone else, and billions of us are contributing daily to the amorphous, rapidly evolving culture(s) of cyberspace.

book cover

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

By Aram Sinnreich

University of Massachusetts Press, 240 pages

Buy the book

And yet, we are still a world divided, and subject to an ever greater degree of institutional oversight and political accountability. Privacy as we know it will soon cease to exist entirely, as every transaction and interaction we undertake lives on in perpetuity in the Internet “cloud.” Censorship can be imposed on millions or billions of people with a single bureaucratic keystroke in Beijing or Washington, D.C. And as “closed” devices like iPads and Kindles begin to replace fully-functional PCs in the homes and hands of consumers, it’s not clear whether and to what degree we’ll still have the power or the incentive to create as we consume.

What kind of future are we building for ourselves, and what place will the old institutions and mythologies have in it? What kinds of institutions and mythologies might replace them? Who will have the power to help shape our collective destiny, and who will be consigned to watch from the wings as their fates unfold?

Clearly, there is no simple answer to these questions. But music, as it always has, offers a glimpse into the future of our society. As Plato once wrote, “the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.”

If the DJs are questioning the myth of the Artist, and developing a new set of evaluative criteria for their music, it’s a good bet that our laws – and the rest of our society – are going to change, as well. And if the “bedroom producer” stakes out a new territory for musical participation between consumption and production, it opens the door for us to become “bedroom citizens” – active, enthusiastic mixers and mashers of the laws and institutions that govern our collective experience.

Our challenge, then, is to ensure that each of us has the same kind of control over our lives as a DJ has over a sample – as DJ Earworm might say, our skill as bedroom citizens will reside in “knowing how to make society, keeping rhythm, knowing how to keep in time. Knowing how to arrange ourselves. Knowing how to produce our laws. Knowing how to choose our fate.” This means making sure we all have access to the cultural library, and permission to add, amend and comment as we see fit. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what comes next.

This article was adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Mashed Up: Music, Technology and Configurable Culture,” written by Aram Sinnreich and published this month by University of Massachusetts Press.

Aram Sinnreich
Contributor
Dr. Aram Sinnreich is an Associate Professor at American University’s School of Communication, in the Communication Studies division. Sinnreich’s work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and…
Aram Sinnreich

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