Thanks for the continued conversation re: the limits to your love. I enjoy plotting to create better possible futures with y’all, and I <3 how the discussions here get amplified and “shopped” around. Ahem~
To keep the discussion moving (for I really don’t want the iron to cool too much, lest we lose our fire entirely), I want to talk about a couple interesting uploads I came across this week on SoundCloud.
Briefly, let me preface by noting that I’ve found it pretty remarkable throughout SoundCloud’s relatively short existence that I rarely if ever run across an example of flagrantly unauthorized filesharing. Some users occasionally upload other people’s tracks without explicit consent but more typically as a form of decentralized (and courted) promotional activity than in a yes-you-can-find-that-on-YouTube fashion. To me this seemed like evidence of a good faith approach, wherein SoundCloud was taking a gentle, supportive hand to remixed, DJ-mixed, and otherwise recontextualized music (including as part of field recordings) and balancing that strong stance toward fair use by vigorously removing any blatant examples of bald, untransformative filesharing.
Of course, December’s wave of automated take-downs let the air out of any dream of a concerted, coherent, or particularly robust defense of fair use on SoundCloud at the corporate level. Nevertheless, users of SoundCloud continue — both unintentionally and purposefully — to challenge terms of service, copyright law, practices of attribution, and notions of ownership. I’d like to examine here one example from each camp: the accidental and the intentional. (And, given the fraught status of each, we’ll see how long before this blogpost becomes yet another web2.0 graveyard.)
Here’s one that I would characterize as unintentional, though as I’ll explore, the lines get blurry:
Pop archivist and professor Hugo Keesing, building on the work of radio DJ Mark Ford (post-post update: see here for a detailed parsing of the tape’s twists and turns), spliced together the audio “embedded” in the player up there, just below his portrait in triplicate. It’s a piece he named Chartsweep back when in the pre-Napster 90s, an hour-plus collage comprising short, recognizable samples of every #1 hit in the US from 1956 to 1992 (according to Billboard/Whitburn).
Apparently, the montage, which may or may not have been made from reel-to-reel recordings and/or 45s (see some mythology here [and again, here]), circulated informally and anonymously among radio heads for many years before someone finally solved the mystery and tracked down Keesing. [Though to update again, according to this, the piece was “heard in national syndication, annually, by millions and millions of listeners,” so obviously, and interestingly (given this week’s amnesiac reception), it has enjoyed a massive audience in the past.]
Keesing discusses the project, and his background, in this interview with Jon Nelson. Allow me to excerpt a bit to show how the assemblage, which Nelson says he “couldn’t help but think of as art,” emerges both out of Keesing’s capacious love for popular music and his embrace of mashup poetics, if you’ll permit the anachronism, as a form of multimedia pedagogy:
The concept and term “Chartsweep” both originated in the late 60s with a syndicated radio show called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I listened to it on WOR-FM in New York and recorded portions of it on an old Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder. As you know, the ‘sweep presented segments of every Billboard #1 single starting with “Memories Are Made of This” (Jan 1956). I don’t recall where it stopped, but it was around 1968/69. Six years later I began teaching an American Studies course at the University of Maryland called “Popular Music in American Society.” To provide a setting for each class I dusted off the concept, took it back to January 1950, added a number of songs based on Joel Whitburn’s re-definition of #1 songs, and continued where the original had stopped. I added each new #1 until fall, 1991 when I stopped teaching the course. “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was the 900th. At the start of each class I played a portion of the ‘sweep that corresponded to the years we were covering that night. To accompany the tape I made 35mm slides of either the original sheet music, 45 rpm record sleeve or something similar, so that students could see as well as hear the pop music history. Copies of each night’s tape went to the undergraduate library. I assume that an enterprising student or two made their own copies and it is a copy of a copy of a copy that remains in circulation. That’s the story in a nutshell.
But, of course, the saga continues. In the last week Chartsweep has risen to “viral” prominence after a complicated — and possibly incestuous — round of re-posting and re-blogging and re-posting and re-blogging. Although uploaded to SoundCloud just two days ago, as of this writing, the two parts have cumulatively garnered nearly 150k plays!
Key to this unprecedented explosion of exposure is, of course, the unauthorized uploading of Chartsweep to SoundCloud, the special affordances of which — namely, embeddability and scalability — make it a lot easier for Keesing’s collage to travel and be heard and shared than if it were simply residing as mp3s on a server here or there.
Precisely because Chartsweep has been around for years, enjoying a more modest audience and addressing a narrower public, the piece’s performance on the so-called platforms of web 2.0 could prove instructive as we dispute what constitutes fair use, and what doesn’t, in an age of “automated diminishment.” At the moment, it remains to be seen what — and whether/when — Audible Magic will have to say about all the unauthorized samples it sniffs in this.
The samples are sitting there, clear as day. Here’s part 2, stretching from Men At Work’s “Land Down Under” (itself embroiled in silly copyright wrangling) to the fitting closer, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”:
Now, Chartsweep It may not be the sort of thing you’d like to listen to all the time, and it’s certainly not a replacement for any, never mind all, of the songs it includes. I feel little need to explain why this sort of thing has the right to exist. The answer to that question is audible and obvious. Indeed, just a glance at the reactions Chartsweep elicits, whether at SoundCloud or on blogs, turns up a great variety of ways that such a transparently derivative and transformative work can reveal, uniquely even, all manner of things about pop and charts and us. Among other things it nicely demonstrates, as one commenter notes, “This is so awesome…you can actually hear the British Invasion happening in 1964″ (emphasis mine).
But what about questions of attribution and fair use and ownership not with regard to the maker of the montage but the uploader of the audio? It’s notable that mjs538 provided no information about who put the piece together — or anything else. Indeed, he even gave it a misleading (and erroneous) new title, “Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single.” But despite these possibly suspect procedures, plenty of listeners recognized Chartsweep immediately, and some — like DJ Empirical — felt compelled to leave a comment providing proper attribution. (The confusion here seems to stem from a case of lazy reblogging and meta-data erasure by the very same affective laborer, Matt Stopera, who (re)posted it here — where he oddly indicates that it was “Made by” Ubuweb, who have merely done the simple, if awesome, [& actually, slightly misleading] service of re-archiving the audio and interview — and who also re-blogs stuff like “The 30 Best Pictures Of Asians Wearing Engrish Shirts” — clearly a man of taste and honor.)
Can we imagine a better set of practices for sharing Chartsweep with a new set of publics? I suspect we can. Would as many people have heard it this week if such a system were somehow automated? Doubtful, at least at this point. Does that matter?
These thorny questions echo in the second example I’d like to discuss here…
Earlier this week, Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson took to his website, Facebook, eager amplifiers like Mad Decent and Resident Advisor, and, yes, SoundCloud, in order to clown a couple Italian producers who centrally employ an obvious sample of Saunderson’s 1987 classic, “The Sound,” without giving credit (or publishing for that matter) where due. In response, Saunderson is giving away digital copies of the original track while posting a copy of the offending track to SoundCloud — for free, without Supernova’s permission, and in 82mb wav file splendor (not that it’s such a splendiferous track, a rather wan paint-by-numbers production rightly derided in comments as “beatport minimal” and “ableton techno”).
Here’s the story according to Saunderson (& hear the original here, if you don’t want to download it c/o his righteous largess); note the nuance in Saunderson’s position here — this is hardly copyright extremism:
I recorded “The Sound” back in 1987 and released it on my own KMS Records label. It was a massive hit at New York’s Paradise Garage and in Chicago and of course Detroit. Once it hit the UK it became one of the earliest Detroit anthems right acround Europe, a huge underground record across the globe – a true desert island techno track. It is such a special record to me because it was one of my first really successful productions and I hope that you all will enjoy this free, fresh digital download of my original 1987 version.
The reason I have decided to give this track away for free is because of a situation that recently developed involving the unauthorized sampling of “The Sound” by Italian producers Giacomo Godi & Emiliano Nencioni (Supernova) in their release “Beat Me Back” on Nirvana Recordings. It came to my attention that they are licensing and selling, with considerable success, this track which is nothing more than a continuous loop of the main hook from “The Sound.”
For me to hear ‘Supernova’ taking an extended loop of “The Sound” and claiming that this is their own original composition and production is both dishonest and disrespectful. My first thought was that they were perhaps naïve, but as they have apparently been recording together since 2002 this seems unlikely. In any event this is completely unacceptable, we cannot continue to let this kind of wholesale rip off go unchallenged and tolerate “artists” who completely sample recordings, add nothing of their own and then release the results as their own work.
I have a huge affection for sampling, it’s how some of the most inspiring and ground breaking tracks of our times were created. We’ve pretty much all sampled records at some time, and cleared the sample so we can use it on our releases, but it is just not cool to take someone else’s music, create a big old loop of it and then put your name on it and try to have success entirely off the back of another artist’s efforts. This really has got to stop. For this reason, I have uploaded the Godi/Nencioni version of “The Sound” to Soundcloud so that you all can download this for free if you so wish. These producers and their record label should not be profiting from my back catalogue… this is not their track to sell.
As of this writing Saunderson’s instantiation of “Beat Me Back” at SoundCloud has been listened to over 10k times and downloaded almost 2k times. I can only hope that the original will enjoy a lush new life despite the strange circumstances of its revival. It’s definitely vexing that someone like Saunderson — who can be credibly described as an architect of the very sound, the very aesthetic conventions (never mind specific bassline), that Supernova are working in — might find himself so rudely excluded from deserved techno dividends in the age of Beatport. And I quite support the sort of public gesture he’s making.
I also look forward to hearing, if anything, what happens to something like this on SoundCloud. Will Supernova sue? Will they settle? Will SoundCloud / Audible Magic intervene first? It’s tricky terrain, to be sure. But I suspect there are plenty of “brave” lawyers ready to leap into the breach.
But before this seems like another round of ammunition for the copyright wars, I want to return to the importance of nuance and context when we make efforts to distinguish between fair and unfair uses of musical recordings. While I am sympathetic to Saunderson (and would happily help him make his case), I don’t think it’s so simple as to say that any track built on a loop in this way is necessarily subject to the kinds of ownership claims he’s making. In contrast, I can think of any number of hip-hop tracks that are similarly loop-based and yet still stand as undeniably “original” and perhaps even deserving of commercial (and, of course, non-commercial) lives of their own.
As it happens, this very example offers a fine test case, for Supernova are not the first to build a track around a central sample of “The Sound.” Way back in 1988, just months after “The Sound” started hitting clubs across the burgeoning post-disco diaspora, New York’s Todd Terry enlisted its distinctive bassline for one of his trademark sample-laced burners, “Back to the Beat” —
Listening to the three versions alongside each other, we’re invited to think about whether “Back to the Beat” > “Beat Me Back” — or, more precisely, what makes one loop hackish (and hence disrespectable) and another inspired (and thus tolerated). Note how this commenter on another instantiation attempts to tease out what Terry has borrowed from what he has created:
Of course, the amazingly amazing and idiosyncratic bassline was sampled from Reese & Santonio’s Detroit classic “The Sound” just as the the choirish sound has Kraftwerk circa anno? 1986 and “Electric Cafe” written all over it. However, the heavy rhythm, the eclectic melange of samples from everythere and – yes – the stuttering quality is very characteristic of Todd Terry productions.
I really appreciate the way a sense of community norms — however local or contested they may be — undergirds a comment like this, and it’s that sort of community-wide interpretation and peer-level censure (or approval) that should be at the heart of how we collectively regulate public culture in an age of click-and-drag remediation.