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Mixed Up

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Matt Ipcar

Do-It-Yourself-DJ: Thanks to custom-CD sites like CDuctive and music software like Mixman, it's easy to personalize a compilation CD and customize each song on a disc.

From custom-made CDs to custom-made songs

By Michelle Goldberg

Earlier this year, the underground music label Illegal Art made national news when it released an unauthorized album of Beck remixes called Deconstructing Beck. Illegal Art, which sold thousands of the $6 CDs over their Web site, said that Deconstructing Beck was both an artistic statement about the power of pastiche and a political jab at repressive copyright laws. The story was reported in The New York Times, Wired, Spin and dozens of other media outlets. Lawyers for Beck's record label sent cease-and-desist letters to Illegal Art, which ignored them.

If someone pulled a similar stunt with the new Skinny Puppy or Coldcut CD, though, it would be perfectly legal. Those are two of the most high-profile bands signing on with Mixman Technologies Inc., a San Francisco software startup company whose CDs make it easy for PC users to remix music on their desktops.

And, thanks to an alliance between Mixman and CDuctive, a custom-CD company out of New York, would-be pirate musicians can distribute their experiments and collect royalties, all on the up and up. Individual listeners can also use Mixman to tweak music to suit their own tastes--lowering the bass, changing the tempo or pitch, adding or subtracting vocals. Every song can be personalized. We can each become a niche market of one.

If hip-hop chipped away at the distinction between artists and audience, the partnership between Mixman and CDuctive has the potential to dynamite it to pieces.

"It's a whole new paradigm of how to make music and how to interact with music," says Josh Gabriel, vice president of Mixman. "Record companies spend a lot of money remixing music to fit different markets. This is the ultimate personalization, because you, the actual end perceiver, will be changing it to your liking as you play it."

By themselves, both CDuctive and Mixman offer hugely amusing uses of technology, each more fun than cyberporn and solitaire combined. But it's their alliance that's almost revolutionary. CDuctive is an online service that allows visitors to make their own electronica compilations. With 20,000 songs licensed from some of the world's most respected techno labels (Ninja Tunes and Liquid Sky for starters), CDuctive has the potential to free music buyers forever from the disappointment of buying a mix CD with a couple of hit tracks only to find it crammed with filler. It also lets people who don't quite know their way around subgenres like "illbient" and "big beat" to dip in, hear bits of each song via Real Audio and then pay for only the tracks they like.

CDuctive's Web site is divided into 12 styles: acid jazz, ambient, big beat, Eurodance, drum 'n' bass, hip-hop, house, illbient, lounge, techno, trance and trip-hop/leftfield. Visitors can browse through each and hear 45-second sound clips of whichever songs interest them.

If they want a song on their custom CD, shoppers check a box next to its title. Once they've picked up to 72 minutes of music and put the songs in whatever order they want, they click a "buy" button to pay by credit card--the discs cost $4.99 for the first song, 99 cents for each additional one. The CD is then burned and shipped within 24 hours, complete with a sleek if techno-generic personalized cover.

Mixman, on the other hand, is a $50 CD-ROM package with a turntable interface that makes it easy for PC users to create their own electronic music. The company also sells "soundiscs," techno CDs that can be played straight in a CD player or loaded into Mixman, where each song is divided into 16 tracks that can be warped, sped up, slowed down, substituted or embellished.

Users can add sound effects and samples, change a drum loop or a baseline and perform hundreds of other manipulations. The discs come in both generic styles ("Gloss" is deep diva house, "Street Level" is hip-hop and funk), and releases from real artists like Coldcut and Skinny Puppy. The songs on these discs are royalty-free, meaning that kids in their bedrooms can make Skinny Puppy remixes and sell them as their own work.

This is where the partnership between the two innovative companies comes into play. CDuctive has signed a deal with Mixman to post the best homemade Mixman tracks on the CDuctive Web site. These tracks can be purchased the same way as any of CDuctive's other songs, and the kids in their bedrooms get royalties each time someone buys their music.

"The kids who make the tracks essentially get a record licensing deal with CDuctive just like they would from a record label," Jason Bieber, Mixman's program manager, explains. "So they take the stuff that they make with our software and get paid for it."

Of course, these kind of mixes can't legally proliferate unless artists license their music to Mixman, and as the Beck incident shows, there are all kinds of opinions about sampling and copyrighting. The ethos of the Internet and of electronic music is that sound and information want to be free, but artists who feel like they're being cheated out of royalties (or who feel like their music's being desecrated) might not be so enthusiastic about the Mixman idea.

"It's just up to the various artists and their labels and publishing companies if the Mixman thing is something that adds value to their disc or if it's something that they are wary of," Bieber says. "The Darwin Camber artist [a new Mixman release] saw this, and he was like, 'Oh my God, this is so great, this is going to tie into my Web site, and it's going to bring people so much closer to what I'm doing.' I've talked with other artists who are like, 'Wait, you want to have people mess with my music? It's my music!' They hold it very close to them. And both viewpoints are completely right and valid."

That doesn't mean that Mixman users can't borrow from unauthorized sources--it just means they're beholden to the same copyright laws and licensing fees as any other music producer. Some artists have even worked out special deals so that would-be Mixman musicians can use their music but not make too much money off of it. For instance, a George Clinton soundisc only allows users to make 2,000 copies of any song they create with it. After that, they have to pay for the samples.

But if Mixman has the potential to democratize music production the way Photoshop democratized design, it could mean that we'll soon be facing a deluge of amateurish, sloppy techno. After all, just look at the avalanche of gaudy, Kai's-Power-Tools-happy rave fliers and Web sites that have flourished in the past few years.

"It's true with anything--technology will open the doors to people who will abuse the technology," Gabriel says. "Technology doesn't make good design or good art, people do."

Adds Bieber, "And people decide what that good art is. There's a lot of really bad rave fliers and stuff that people used Photoshop to make, but really bad artists kind of fall by the wayside, and the same will be true of this stuff. We see it already. We have fan sites on the Web, where people accept mixes and post them up, rate them, categorize them and do all sorts of things. They've gotten to the point where they're writing scripts for voting on the mixes, so that these fan sites are deciding what Mixman media is better than others. The world kind of decides what's good stuff and what's not."

California label owners disagree about Mixman's potential. "That doesn't sound right," says Oliver Goss, owner of the jungle label Cosmic Flux, which has licensed several songs to CDuctive. "It's like a painter taking a painting out and letting everyone touch it up. That's not the way our artists work."

Dave Smith, head of production at Ubiquity Records, which has more than a hundred songs posted on CDuctive, is ambivalent. "I don't think there are enough kids out there that will really bother doing that, or they'll try it, and it will sound bad," he says.

"In electronic music," Smith continues, "it's become very easy for people to become musicians who aren't necessarily instrumentalists, so in that way, a huge change has occurred, but I don't think most kids at home are going to want to change the music they buy." But then he adds, "I think it would be great to throw some of our tracks up and say, 'Download them and send us your remix and we'll put the best one on our next compilation.' It's a great opportunity for kids to create music. Otherwise it's hard to get a demo listened to by a label. It opens doors for people to get into the business easier."

Matt Valenzuela of Silent Records, also on CDuctive, was the most enthusiastic. "It's digital music, and when it's online, it's a digital file, and you can manipulate it any way you want," he says. "I'm into creativity in any form. I'm pretty much all for doing as much as you want. The Internet is so huge, it's going to be hard to enforce a lot of copyright laws. We consider ourselves at the forefront of electronic music, which has been created through a lot of sampling and experimentation."

But whether you believe custom-CD sites like CDuctive and custom-music software like Mixman are the future or a passing fad, there's little question that both are looking at massive growth in the next few years as CD burners become standard on every computer.

Once that happens, CDuctive plans to start selling songs simply as digital files. "Digital distribution is the next step," says John Rigos, one of CDuctive's three owners. "You'll pay a dollar and then download a CD-quality song. It sits on your computer, and once it's [there], you can do whatever you want with it."

Says Gabriel, "After this Christmas, CD burners will be standard. For us it's great. Once the CD burners get more popular, then the idea that you can make a CD and bring it into your living room after the computer shuts down is going to really change how people think about music."

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From the July 13-26, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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