"You're Still Going to Get Dated"

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

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This image proudly not used with permission.

What does it mean to be digital? Only a computer can say for sure, and they’re not talking. As for us human’s, we’re still analog in the way we think and function and act, and I hope we’ll stay that way for the conceivable future. We are not digital, but our tools are increasingly digital. It’s the conflation of the two which leads to the wrong question being asked, which further leads to answers that are jejune and materialistic. Why isn’t Negroponte’s book completely available digitally? Because being digital loses out to making money.

So, asking the wrong question means we can never get close to the answers we need. The right question, I think, is what does it mean to have digital tools? This is the answer that a lot of people and organizations, record labels most famously, are struggling with. Having digital tools means, fundamentally, that information of all kinds can be immediately and widely available (except, of course, “Being Digital”) and that the same information no longer has the structural integrity to which we’re accustomed. We think of things like books and recording as objects, when their physical manifestation is their packaging. This is not to denigrate the packaging – the Kindle has no appeal to me, because their is a physical part of reading that has to to with the pleasure of holding a book, smelling it and turning the pages. The package can also be an important part of the work itself, as it is with McSweeney’s, which consistently finds exciting and satisfying ways to put words in the palm of the reader’s hand. The same is true for music. Although I currently have almost 60GB of digital music, that’s still far less than what I have on CDs, and digital music cannot produce the same rich packaging that is possible with the physical object.

Still, what books and music are, fundamentally, are structured sequences of words and sounds, and those exist independently of their packaging. And those can be digitized. With that, all of a sudden, a book or recording can be broken down to its component parts. Again, and this is because we are proudly analog machines, with a free-flowing and unpredictable imagination, this is not a new idea or procedure. But with digital tools, it’s far easier to make use of these opportunities than it was when scissors, razor blades, glue and tape were the means of (re)production.

Artists have been challenging the integrity of works for at least 2000 years, and it was the early 20th century that saw the creation of new work from fragments of other work become a codified method. With digital tools, this method suddenly becomes available to everyone, and this is the exciting and to some worrying possibility. We are all post-modern now, and in the dated, practical, not theoretical sense. The means of (re)production are in the hands of the masses, and development of material history that Karl Marx never predicted, especially because he didn’t have much use for the masses themselves. However, when you see how frightened politicians, news organizations and especially record companies are of the digital masses, it’s clear that we are seeing some constructive threats to the status quo. That part is good; most politicians, news organizations and record companies are ignorant, stupid and sclerotic, knowing only “how things are done,” rather than knowing howto do things, and of benefit to only a very small circle of people.

The part that’s not good, however, is that revolutionaries are also utopians, and attempts to create utopias on earth always end up damaging people’s lives, often permanently. With digital music, i.e. the world of sampling and file sharing, the damage is taking money out of the hands of the actual producers, the musicians themselves. And it’s happening, clothed in the easy language of anti-corporate rhetoric. I have no sympathy for the giant music labels – they bully, they use their weight to take possession of work they themselves did not make, charge almost $20 for something that takes about $.75 to produce, and pay salaries to a select few that have no actual relation to the worth of their work/contribution. The fact that musicians can now produce well-made music inexpensively and sell it, digitally, directly to listeners is fantastic. But there’s some problems as well.

Take Girl Talk, and his new record “Feed The Animals.” Until last week I had never heard of him, and now, as if he were my proverbial tipping point, I not only have heard him enough but I’ve been brought to the point of . . . blogging! Indeed! I read the article with interest and was moved to download “Feed The Animals” as a sort of experiment. I used to spin records at dances in college, and I love radio, so for a long time that was what my idea of a DJ was. I’ve been interested in this rising and hazy connection between DJs as record spinners and DJs as musicians – something that digital technology makes incredibly simple – and I certainly see the possibilities in have previously recorded music and sound available as the raw materials to make new music. What seemed different about Girl Talk was his use of well-known contemporary material and his complete thumbing his nose at the idea of copyright (here I should mention that as a composer, I think copyright is important in that people should be able to not only make money from their own work but have it identified as their creation, but I also think copyright is granted for too long and is too restrictive). Composers and musicians have been making music out of other people’s music for more than a thousand years, that is they have used previous material as a basis for making their own new work. It’s how composers learn and it’s how jazz is made in general and it’s how garage bands practice. Now it’s become an entire branch of pop music, and people like DJ Shadow and especially DJ Spooky are taking material and truly transforming it into their own new work, and no a more avant-garde basis Christian Marclay has been doing tremendously creative work for decades, making music out of old LPs, the ultimate DJ as musician, and a point where they package and the content are equally important material.

So then, I wanted to hear this for myself, and I came at it feeling a bit of sympathy for his defiance of the record companies. But this was an experiment for me, and since he himself is freely taking other people’s material, I felt that $1 spent on “Feed The Animals” was appropriate. I’ve now listened to it, and I think it has two serious flaws, one philosophical and one aesthetic. But first I want to say that it is incredibly accomplished technically. Just because digital tools make it possible to splice together and mash-up recordings doesn’t make it easy to master. And it is masterful. Aesthetically, it’s interesting to hear bits and pieces of contemporary pop history appear over the transom, little evocative surprises; “What is that from?”, “I know that!”. It’s also, ultimately, dull, relentlessly 4/4 square, a digitally quantized beat and the same tempo and dynamic level for the entire length. Girl Talk says he wants to be a musician, not just a party DJ, but he’s not the former and not much of the latter, it seems. Though the impression I get is that’s okay with his fans, mainly young and white, who want music to drink beer to.

The biggest problem, though, is not musical. Girl Talk is proud of not paying rights, which means he’s proud to be a criminal, because the record is pure theft. I am a great believer in fair use, and also in giving that as generous an interpretation as possible. But when Girl Talk uses a songs entire lyric, sampled as is and recast but not transformed into his own material in the least, that’s is simply not fair use. That is plagiarism. Fair use exists to allow discussion of work and to allow the creation of new work from older material. Girl Talk is doing neither. The article states that his is possible because “his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from . . . ” is simply not true, and anyone with ears can hear that it is otherwise. His samples are extensive and his use is so mechanical and so without musical quality and thought – he has not made music so much as shown how other music can be stacked and shoved together – that there is none of his own quality in the record.

An example of what I feel falls under fair use, and which takes previous material and transforms it into something utterly new, and wonderful, is the work of Ergo Phizmiz. His collaboration with People Like Us on “Perpetuum Mobile” is delightful and astonishing, made with great humor and musicality. Here is a case where most of the samples are indeed short, and at best only vaguely identifiable as perhaps something heard in passing, somewhere, sometime before. The more extensive samples are turned into new pieces of music that successfully take old memory, of which music is the ideal art, into new memory. The difference may fundamentally be that instead of revving up a party to a specific number of beats per minute – and how unbearably material and dull is that – they seek to make music. That’s what makes a musician, and what makes possible the new out of the old. Here’s an interesting take on that process.

Digital tools especially made “Perpetuum Mobile” possible, the collaborative process and the final production. This is a whole new world of music that is happening right now and is genuinely new. Musical ideas have been reworked through history, by Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky and before and beyond. But now actual music, that actual piece of grooved vinyl or magnetic tape or binary code is being reworked in an almost physical process, and digital music making is starting to require an entirely new way of thinking about make music. I welcome this, and I welcome that fact that anyone with a Mac and a microphone can make a record. There’s a lot of musicality out there, and the means of production are now in the hands of the artists. I think more than anything else that is what scares the record companies. They existed to finance huge chunks of studio time and to distribute recordings, but now musicians don’t need the studio and can distribute everything themselves. The chairman of UMG should make himself useful coming up with a better business model. It’s not like it isn’t out there. The established companies that I see taking advantage of the ease of recording and distribution are DG and Decca, as well as the in-house labels of institutions like the Chicago Symphony. Yeah, it’s the stodgy world of classical music that has adapted to new technology the best (that and Peter Gabriel, of course). Recording complete concerts and making them digital downloads, with PDF booklets, is simple and brilliant. No expensive takes and retakes in the studio, and a unique musical experience. Want to hear great orchestras play great music in the concert hall? There it is. Also, if the prices I’ve been buying this stuff at are truly accurate, than these same type of labels are making profits off their excellent back catalogs and still making it dirt cheap for the consumer (hurry, the comparable Eugene Ormandy set I paid $9.99 three weeks ago is now $49.99 download). By offering something unique at a good price they essentially remove the need or desire for file sharing. It’s not complicated. But of course these labels don’t need to huge margins to finance their CEOs’ salaries.

I’m sorry I spent that $1 though. And I don’t doubt the thief is going to keep it. You should go take it for free, though. And pass it around.

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