29 July 2011

Archaeopop in PORK: The Remix is Old Fashioned

PORK #3 is out on your sophisticated newsstands all over the Best Coast (and select spots on the Beast Coast) of North America. This issue's ARCHAEOPOP column is about the 'Palaeo Diet', the latest diet trend where overeducated westerners are try to get in touch with their inner caveman. Read PORK #3 online here.

In the meantime, here's the ARCHAEOPOP column from Pork #2 (also online here)!


Since people started filesharing on the internet the media has been parroting this hysteria about ‘stealing’ music. The copyright racketeers want clubs to pay royalties for every song played at an open mic night, and to charge employers for playing CDs at work. In Britain, a woman was sued for singing at the grocery store she worked at without paying royalties for her “performances”. In 2009, ASCAP decided that even ringtones on your phone were a “public performance”! The courts threw it out, because they’re not THAT stupid. And we’ve all heard stories about the battles between the record companies and the entire genres of hiphop and techno over sampling: those fights have been rolling since the 1980s.

Negativeland's ripping parody of U2 and radio personality Kasey Kasem was ruthlessly suppressed by U2 and SST Records in 1992. It was totally unavailable until rescued by YouTube.

Let me lay the archaeo-pop perspective on you, PORK readers. Politicians and record companies would like you to believe that this intellectual “property” trend – which coincidentally makes a lot of money for certain people – is some kind of manifestation of cosmic justice. But that’s bollocks. Copyright didn’t even apply to printed music in America before 1831, and no one thought of charging royalties for performance until the 1880s. Records didn’t hit the mass market until the 1890s. Before then, the idea of a musical performance as a commodity that could be bought and sold was literally unthinkable. It’s been with us barely more than a century.

One century?! Get serious. Pop music has been around as long as people: both us humans and our Neanderthal fuck buddies had flutes by 40-60,000 years ago. (Music could be even older: apes are known to beat rhythms on logs.) In a lot of preliterate traditions, music and stories were shared by travelling bards, whose fame relied on their ability to tell familiar stories in new ways. The stories behind the Odyssey and Iliad were 500 years old by the time they were written down. Before that, bards told the stories in hundreds of different ways, using poetic formulas to make the story familiar but different at the same time. The fame of the bard was in his musical ability – to tell the story well – but also in his ability to innovate based on familiar material: remixing old riffs into something fresh and new. No one thought that someone ‘owned’ the story of Achilles’ rage, or had the exclusive right to sing about how much Nausicäa wanted to get boned by Odysseus.

Music from the bone flute of Divje Babe, Slovenia. Neanderthals weren't ASCAP members, so you can play this flute without paying them.

As soon as we get written history, there’s mention of pop music: as the anecdote goes, a Chinese king once asked the sage Mencius, guiltily, if he was a bad guy for listening to nothing but pop music and ignoring the classics.
On another day, when Mencius was in audience with the King he said, “You told Zhuang Bao that you liked music. Is that really so?” The King blushed. “I’m not capable of appreciating the music of the ancient kings, I just like popular music.” “If Your Majesty loves music deeply, then the state of Chi is not far off! The music of today comes from the music of the past.”
This in the 4th century BC! Already we get the famous tension between music we SHOULD like and the music we actually DO like. In the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire, the music we DO like was transmitted from town to town by solo artists and groups who travelled a circuit of festivals and and auditoriums, often competing for prizes. These groups weren’t exactly like our pop bands: they could include dance, poetry, and music (in the Greek sense, all the arts were ‘music’, i.e. the things of the Muses). But more importantly, they played both pop music and the classics: what artists brought to the table was their performance skills and their ability to make something innovative out of familiar sounds and stories. They played new tunes, but no one told them they had to pay to play the old ones. Reworking a riff so that it got stuck in the heads of girls from Argentomagus to Alexandria: that was dominance.

Fast forward to our century. All of a sudden, music as a physical thing is irrelevant and impossible to control. Music companies that got bloated and smug during the 1970s heyday of album-oriented rock have been watching their sales go down the toilet and responding with typical baby-boomer petulance. "Computers are never going to get worse at copying things," as Cory Doctorow observed in a recent column in the Guardian. There is NO GOING BACK. The music companies have lost the war to control recordings, and within a generation most of humanity’s recording music will be available for free to everyone online. Cretins like Bono whine that no one will ever pick up a guitar again if he doesn’t get paid every time I whistle ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. I’d be happy if he followed through and stopped making crappy albums, but the man is an idiot. Music is hardwired into people. The only interesting question is how it’s made and who can make a living at it. I see two implications from our modern trend. If recordings are free, the experience you pay for is the performance: groups with good stage presence have the edge. And, if you can’t control copyright, you can’t control remixing and music gets in touch with history again. Freed from the need to have recording contracts and obey copyright musicians can focus on being good performers and embedding themselves explicitly into the fabric of music that has gone before.

The digital age, then, has basically returned us to historical normality: the trends everyone was shocked by in the last couple decades (Sampling! Remixing! Filesharing!) return us to a situation that is more 400 BC than 1950 AD. Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest?  Bards respecting their elders by telling the old stories in new ways. Excellence is not: is it all new? but, does it make us happy? As Mencius says, if you enjoy pop music, you get good Chi. In 100 years – no, in 50 – this war to make the world’s music the private property of some cartels in London and Los Angeles is going to be seen for what it is, a sinister and repulsive attack on human culture.

Remixes and Mashups: The new normal, same as the old normal

Wax Audio - I'm in love with Judas Priest (Lady Gaga vs. Judas Priest)
A Plus D – I Keep Forgettin To Regulate (Warren G. & Nate Dogg vs. Michael McDonald) 
(courtesy recent sessions of the international mashup network Bootie)

WATCH: Jay-Z vs. Alphaville

Watch: Ghostface vs. Tears for Fears

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