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Protest Music

By Annalee Newitz

BY WAGING a war of litigation on file sharers and copyright infringers, the RIAA has unwittingly created a new kind of protest art. Mashups—digitally knitted-together compositions made up of two or more popular songs—are anti-authoritarian folk music for a generation whose "establishment" is represented by corporate intellectual-property owners.

Now that perennial scenester David Bowie has sponsored a mashup contest, and there's a show devoted to the genre on MTV Europe, some of the DJs and producers who create these millennial bootlegs are going mainstream. But most of the scene retains an underground nerd-outcast sensibility. Mysterious D, a DJ at San Francisco's all-mashup club Bootie, said, "We're not supposed to be doing this—it's like Prohibition. But at the same time we're not going to be limited by copyright laws when we create something."

Often called "bastard pop" or simply "bootlegs," mashups are as easy to perform as a Bob Dylan rip-off tune. Cheap audio software allows anyone with a half-decent computer to convert the act of copyright infringement into something undeniably gorgeous and amusing by turns. Australian masher Dsico, who has been repeatedly threatened with legal action for his work, traced the style back to Modernist art: "Much as Duchamp once drew a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa, bastard pop artists deface mainstream pop music." NYU professor and copyright reformer Siva Vaidhyanathan called the movement a combination of innovation and infringement, adding, "Some of the greatest innovators of the past 100 years were accused of being infringers."

The very structure of the music itself is a direct response to the conditions under which it is made: lovingly assembled from pop sifted down off P2P networks, a Dsico creation like "Compton Magic" (N.W.A. vs. Olivia Newton-John) seems to echo the mixed-up, black-market cacophony of an eDonkey addict's music collection.

Dodging lawyers' Cease and Desist notices, mashup DJs often change their names and move their music from host to host in order to keep serving it up. But they soldier on, sharing tips and litigation horror stories on Brit mashup site Get Your Bootleg On (gybo.proboards4.com), partly in the hope that one day their efforts will change copyright law. San Francisco mashup DJ Adrian says, "I would love to see a form of copyright where as long as money isn't changing hands everything is up for grabs."

Gray Tuesday, a recent mashup protest organized by anti-RIAA group Downhill Battle, inspired more than 100,000 people to download copies of DJ Danger Mouse's dubiously legal, bastard-pop creation The Gray Album (a mash of the Beatles' The White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album). "There's a public interest served by making this album available," argues protest organizer Holmes Wilson. "If people can't hear works that the copyright regime suppresses, they can't make an informed decision about what these laws should be."

More interesting than Wilson's considered stance are the sometimes fantastical copyright theories of the DJs, promoters and activists who make up the bootleg community. Without a legal background in how copyright works, mashers feel free to develop a whole range of ideas about why their music is legal or illegal. For example, Adrian told me that as long as he plays mashed-up ASCAP music in an ASCAP-licensed venue, it's OK. Unfortunately, it's not: mashups are derivative works (a big IP law no-no). Adrian also argued that since he is crediting the artists he mashes and giving away his mixes for free, he isn't hurting anyone. This theory wouldn't hold up in court, but it's far more commonsensical than the truth about IP law.

Mashups also spawn social mixing that mimics the genre's political agenda. At a recent mashup event in San Francisco, famous underground hackers mingled with locally known drag queens and wide-eyed indie rockers. And many bootlegs are explicitly designed to create mixes that cross racial or sexual identity lines. Thus, a mashup might combine a Village People song with something by Public Enemy. A kind of political hopefulness or idealism seems to animate many of these mixes.

As a masher on GYBO posted recently, "Everything is illegal." Under an IP regime where artists feel like nothing goes, it seems that everything could. The infringement generation aims to mash up copyright law in pursuit of better music. But it also has a chance to challenge social divisions more profound than the distinctions between hip-hop, rock and electroclash.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once mixed the soundtrack from an episode of 'Wild Kingdom' with the visuals from 'Cops.'

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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