Hottest act at the Big Day Out is an innocent criminal
According to the letter of the law, the hottest act on this year’s Big Day Out roadshow is a criminal.
The remix demigod Girl Talk, whose output comprises nothing but densely layered cuts of other people’s music, is in flagrant breach of current copyright law every time he puts out an album.
The Jackson 5, Queen, Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy and Kelly Clarkson are just five of the hundreds of artists sampled and blended with one another on his latest record, 2008’s Feed the Animals.
He’s not the only one doing it – ‘mash-ups’ have been a recognised dance subgenre for about 10 years – but what’s made Girl Talk, unwittingly or not, a figure within the global intellectual property debate is that he’s doing it better than it’s ever been done.
Feed the Animals is, two years on from its release, still ‘the most exciting record in the world’; to find another dance album with a legitimate claim to that title you have to go back almost two decades to The Prodigy’s first CD, Experience.
For those who haven’t heard it, at the album’s climax (track 10 if I recall), Girl Talk runs Nirvana, Salt-n-Pepa and Deee-Lite simultaneously while Roy Orbison chimes in with ‘anything you want, you got it / anything you need, you got it’.
If you can’t see the wit, art and skill in that then you’re flat-out not my type of person.
Of course the obvious matter raised by this is: what does Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) owe Nirvana, Salt-n-Pepa or Deee-Lite? Or more specifically, what might those acts’ record labels claim he owes?
Those questions neatly bring us to the tripwired battlefield of copyright law in the information age, a place where the entertainment industry and big media conspire with government to protect their outdated business model.
They don’t want your mitts on their fiercely guarded intellectual property unless you’re willing to pay and they want ownership of their IP made permanent (corporations tend to die a lot slower than individual authors or artists).
The red flag raised by the corporate attitude to copyright is that culture has always built on the past… just ask the US bluesmen bitten by Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones or The Walt Disney Company.
Today they’re a lawsuit-happy empire and one of the world’s most valuable brands, but only a few decades ago Disney was an enterprise built on 20th century updates of Pinocchio, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty… existing works Walt didn’t pay a cent to adapt or ‘remix’.
Throughout history, people like Girl Talk or Walt Disney have participated in the creation and recreation of the culture by making valid art out of other art.
That’s been impeded in the late 20th century as big media began laying strict claims of ownership on the past in the form of existing works.
Online file sharing has democratised music distribution in a way bedroom taping or CD burning never could. Parallel technology has also allowed Girl Talk – or anyone so inclined - to produce new music from existing music with a laptop and some downloaded software.
Given these changes and the collaborative history of creative arts, industry claims of copyright need serious review. Music publishers once sold sheet music so surely this idea of a ‘new model’ can’t be that scary.
If you happen to be an uptight record exec concerned that your industry no longer controls music as a product, my advice is to tune in, turn on and check out Girl Talk’s BDO show… it’s probably the best thing you’ll see all year.
He’s on in the Boiler Room mid-arvo, you’ll have your hands in the air and a grin on your face. On second thought maybe flash your backstage laminate, offer him access to your library and sign him up… sounds like he’s on to a product worth selling.
*A lot of the above ideas have been sampled from the copyright documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto, which prominently features Girl Talk and aired on SBS this month. I just mashed up a few facts from the doco with my own half-baked opinions… that’s how you do it these days.
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