(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Essay: Mix and mash

I talked briefly about DJs and mixing in my Pretty lights review. I want to talk a bit more about mashups in particular, in preparation for my review of the Kleptones' 24 Hours. A mashup is a mix of two or more songs in the same track, where the intent is to create a musical hybrid. Since this usually entails heavier usage of the source material than a simple sample, each of the original songs is still largely recognizable. Oftentimes, this is structured by mostly using music from one song and vocal tracks from another: think Stairway to Gilligan's Island, except maintaining the original Gilligan tune for the vocals. Genre hopping between the songs is also common.

Much like my preference in cover tunes, I really like creative mashups. There's something really satisfying about a clever combination. At its best, a good mashup balances between a novel experience with something familiar. The familiar song(s) raise associations that can provide a sense of deeper meaning and increase my appreciation of the originals while I enjoy them in their new context. In contrast, songs like P Diddy's I'll Be Missing You, with its straightforward lift of the Police's Every Breath You Take, seem non-creative and dull.

Of course, that raises the question of whether a mashup is truly a creative work. If the DJs didn't play any of the music they're putting together, are they just stealing art from real musicians? This may seem like a new, particularly egregious case of appropriation, but it's really a standard practice throughout the history of creative arts. Great painters and sculptors have stolen techniques and visual elements from one another. Classical music has used folk melody themes and jazz has a long history of reinterpreting classic tunes. Musique concrète, a musical/artistic approach based on found sound, is even more closely related to today's mashup. If information or meaning is added by the musical juxtaposition, then this is a creative work. Keep in mind, too, that, though there are mashup tools (e.g. ACID Pro), creating a mashup is a challenging technical task. The DJ has to unite rhythm, musical key, and create a balance between the sources. Even if the keys match between two songs, the chord changes of one song may not meshwell with the melody of the second.

The ethical question is more interesting (and harder) to answer. There has been plenty of debate over the use of short samples in hip hop music. In the case of mashups, much more of the source material is used. This seems to be analogous to cover songs. In that case, live performances are addressed through BMI/ASCAP fees paid by the venue and CD sales pay publishing royalties. Live performances aren't really an issue, as most mashup DJs don't focus on live shows. Most mashup artists do offer recordings, though, and they don't tend to pay royalties, which is an issue. That's why many of mashup artists give away their tracks and rely on donations and other sources. The holders of the publishing rights do their best to shut down the mashup DJs with varying suucess (look at DJ DangerMouse's Grey Album). The few mashups that develop a cult following usually find a legal path to capitalize on the fan base.

Coming up next is my review of the Kleptones, who are one of my favorite mashup artists.

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