Bowie: Mashed with Gravy
What a difference two months makes. Remember the all the sound and fury in February over DJ Dangermouse‘s Jay-Z-Beatles mash-up? Now, Audi is looking to cash in on the same concept, with the help of rocker David Bowie.
Audi, the German car maker, is sponsoring a contest that awards an Audi TT to the person who produces the best mash-up of any track on Bowie’s new Reality CD and another track from any other of the legendary rocker’s albums.
A mash-up is a song that takes the dominant part of one song — often its lyrics — and blends them with phrases, parts, bits, pieces and samples parts of other songs to make something new. At its best, the technique melds elements from wildly disparate genres — Tchaikovsky with the Thompson Twins, Jimi Hendrix with John Cage — into a new composition that is fresh and unique.
And since U.S. copyright law generally prohibits this level of creativity, most people never hear the best mash-ups. Like The Grey Album.
DJ Dangermouse released The Grey Album in January, and the project immediately received an overwhelmingly positive critical response. The Grey Album blends acapella vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with musical snippets taken from the Beatles’ classic, White Album. Dangermouse scoured White‘s 30 tracks for usable elements, from handclaps to Ringo Starr snare hits.
“The first thing [Dangermouse] did was listen to The Black Album a cappella and measure the amount of beats per minute for each track,” according to an MTV.com article. “Next, he scoured all 30 songs on White Album, listening for every strike of a drum or cymbal when other instruments or voices were not in the mix. Most were single sounds, which he would later put together to make beats.”
“A lot of people just assumed I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction,” Dangermouse explained. “It’s not an easy thing to do.” Dangermouse pressed and released 3,000 promotional copies of The Grey Album. Accounts are unclear about whether any of those copies were sold.
Jay-Z, for one, encouraged the remix project when he released “a capella” version of Black‘s 14 tracks. “From Jay’s perspective, he was real conscious of it,” said Young Guru, Jay-Z’s engineer, in an interview with MTV News. “When we were doing album listening for The Black Album, [Jay-Z] was playing a song and he looked around the room and only a couple of people got [what he was saying]. Then he asked me to play it a cappella and he looked around the room and everybody got it. He really saw the difference.”
After that experience, said Guru, Jay-Z told him he wanted to break with his recording label’s policy of not releasing a cappella 12-inches, so producers could “remix the hell out of it.”
Jay-Z’s implicit sanctioning of the remixes is unique given that he is wildly popular, and he had to move up The Black Album‘s release date by two weeks because the album was being bootlegged extensively. One of music’s most commercially successful artists, Jay-Z has sold more than 17 million albums, according to his official biography. The Black Album has sold more than 2 million copies since its November 2003 release date.
But Jay-Z is also widely regarded as one of the savviest artists in the music business. In many ways, his release of “a capella” versions for remix purposes — as well as his refusal to launch copyright infringement lawsuits against the producers of those remixes — virtually ensures that The Black Album remains in the public’s ear long after most hip hop albums have come to the end of their life cycle.
In this vein, Jay-Z’s strategy is similar to the strategy that The Grateful Dead and the Dave Matthews Band used to employ: allow the public to copy and distribute work freely, and in doing so, increase the artist’s popularity (and, in turn spur sales of future work). Similarly, Bowie, another business-savvy musician who was one of the first artists to raise capital by issuing bonds tied to revenue gleaned from his publishing catalog, is using this same gambit to spur publicity (and sales) for his new album.
In contrast, the Beatles were not thrilled about Dangermouse’s creative reconstructions. EMI, the recording label that owns the master tapes to White Album, sent out “cease and desist” notices to the entities that distributed The Grey Album, and Sony Music/ATV Publishing distributed DMCA “takedown” notices to all Web sites that posted digital files of the album.
(Interestingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers the opinion that EMI holds no federal copyright protection for White Album because sound recordings did not receive federal copyright prior to 1972. White Album was released in 1968.)
Beatles fans, however, have been much more receptive. “”I think ‘The Grey Album” is utterly fantastic and a real fresh way for the hip-hop generation to listen to the Beatles,” said Michael Donnelly, a New York-based Beatles fan who helped organize recent events to mark the 40th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first trip to America.
AcidPlanet.com. David Bowie Mash-Up Contest.
Corey Moss. Grey Album Producer Danger Mouse Explains How He Did It. MTV News. March 11, 2004.
Reuters. DJ mixes Beatles, Jay-Z into ‘Grey’. CNN.com. Feb. 19, 2004.
No Author. EMI Blocks Beatles Album Remix. BBC News. Feb. 16, 2004.
Noel Schachtman. Copyright Enters a Gray Area. Wired News. Feb. 14, 2004.
Shaheem Reid and Josef Patel. Remixers Turn Jay-Z’s Black Album Grey, White And Brown. MTV News. Jan. 26, 2004.
Electronic Frontier Foundation. Grey Tuesday: A Quick Overview of the Legal Terrain. No date.
Chilling Effects. Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) about DMCA Safe Harbor Provisions. No Date.
Update: Daniel Terdiman. Mashup Artists Face the Music. Wired News. May 4, 2004.
Update: The Creative Commons has a new license called Recombo, which allows artists to “sample, mash-up, or otherwise creatively transform a work for commercial or noncommercial purposes,” subject to attribution and non-performance riders.