Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dissertation Proposal

It occurred to me that some people visiting this blog may want some more detail about my research project. I am posting the most recent version of my dissertation proposal. I apologize if this makes for dry reading. Please contact me directly or leave a comment if you have any advice, suggestions, or anything else.

Mashnography: Community, Creativity, Consumption, and Copyright

A mashup is a combination of pre-recorded samples taken from two or more sources (usually popular songs) and mixed into a new track. As a genre, mashups are defined by shared production techniques as much or more than by stylistic commonalities. Mashups typically consist exclusively of samples. In this respect mashups are unlike other sample-based musics that incorporate sampling with original content. A standard mashup, often referred as an “A vs. B” mashup, will feature two or more songs from different artists edited into one single track. This process involves the manipulation of elements like tempo, pitch, and key, and will often feature the vocals from track A juxtaposed with the instrumentals from track B. A completed mashup will be posted to the Internet and made available for downloading or streaming. Many mashup artists have their own personal websites; others use personal blogs that link to file hosting sites from which their work can be downloaded. Mashup are publicized, distributed, and critiqued in online forums popular with the mashup community. Mashups are also heard and shared in dance clubs across the country as well as occasional radio airplay, podcasts, and the rare commercial album.

My dissertation will be the first ethnographic survey of the mashup community. The existing scholarly work on the subject has been from the perspectives of communication studies and critical theory and not ethnographically informed. My project will be grounded in interviews, participant observation, and multi-sited analysis of the mashup community as it exists online and offline. The dissertation will describe methods of production and distribution as well as sites of reception. Theoretical discussions will focus on dispersed communities interacting both online and at small gatherings, and the agency of producers and consumers of music that is reliant on technology and other mediated commodities. The project will also address how the mashup community negotiates copyright law and values intellectual property.

Mashup Production

There are many ways to make a mashup. The most prevalent technique employs digital audio editing software such as Ableton Live, Audacity, or Sony’s Acid Pro. The sampled material comes from a variety of sources and the samples used are usually MP3 files. Using audio editing software it is possible to manipulate these MP3 files in countless ways and combine elements from multiple sources into one new track. There are inherent limitations to working with audio files that have already been mixed for commercial release (few mashup artists have access to raw master tapes), but the software programs mentioned above are powerful and allow for countless creative reconfigurations and combinations.

Mashup artists are adept at using audio software to isolate particular elements within an already mixed recording. By stripping out select frequencies, reversing the phasing of certain songs, and adjusting the EQ, it is possible to enhance the vocals from a track while muffling the instrumentals. These methods can be applied in reverse to produce an instrumental version with no vocals.

The vast majority of popular music is recorded using multi-track recording techniques and one of the ingredients of most songs (before they are mixed down and released) is an a cappella vocal track. Record companies often release vocal tracks and instrumental tracks in an effort to publicize a song through remixes and extended club mixes. Frequently these a cappella and instrumental tracks are released or leaked to the Internet and are archived and shared at sites like Acapellas 4 U ( The commercially produced tracks tend to be of high sound quality and they are generally preferred over the homemade versions.

Once the instrumental and vocal tracks are found or created they are imported into multi-track editing programs. The pitch and tempo are manipulated so that the tracks will be in sync. For some mashups this is all the manipulation that is done. Other mashups have added digital effects, chopped and rearranged tracks, loops, and numerous other stylistic embellishments. There are also mashups that do not rely on a cappella and instrumental tracks, but instead are made of smaller samples from songs that are looped and manipulated to fit together.

Mashup methodology has extended beyond music. Mashup artists make music videos to accompany their songs and mashups often feature a photoshopped image combining the sampled artists’ images as “cover” art. These multi-media mashups are especially well suited for public display, such as in dance clubs, where they are often projected onto a wall or screen to accompany the music.

Mashup Distribution, Reception, and Community

The Internet is the epicenter of activity for the mashup community and the majority of activity occurs in online forums. There are a number of online forums, such as Get Your Bootleg On (, and Acappellas 4 U that are devoted specifically to the distribution and discussion of mashups, news, and other topics of interest to the mashup community. There are also physical sites where members of the mashup community can come together. Dance clubs in cities across the nation and in Europe feature mashups or will host DJ’s that specialize in playing mashups. Some dance clubs host mashup only nights and a franchise has emerged called Bootie that sponsors mashup nights in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and several European cities.

Conventional media outlets like radio, MTV, and magazines focusing on popular music and culture have featured mashups. There are also a handful of mashup albums that have been released commercially. Occasionally one of these albums will catch the attention of the mainstream popular music media. The most well known example is DJ Danger Mouse’s 2004 The Grey Album. Danger Mouse took the vocal tracks from each song on Jay-Z’s The Black Album and paired them with heavily manipulated instrumental elements which all came from The Beatles White Album. The mashup community is a relatively small niche of popular music producers and consumers and examples like The Grey Album, which received considerable coverage in the mainstream news and entertainment media, are the exception. Although a small community, the interplay of production, consumption, media, technology, and intellectual property in the mashup community is reflective of larger trends in popular culture.

Copyright Issues And Activism

Copyright is deeply implicated in a genre of music that consists almost exclusively of the reconfiguration of copyrighted material. There are many established websites that openly share and link to MP3 files of mashups. There have been several cases in which record companies have issued cease-and-desist orders (McLeod, 2005). Why distribution of some mashups is tolerated while others are not is unclear. The law is not consistently enforced or enforceable. Kembrew McLeod points out that one of the most well known examples of early sampling is the Beatles’ “Revolution #9” from The White Album in which they cut up and looped unauthorized samples from radio, television, and from EMI’s catalog. None of the samples were cleared with the copyright holders and the Beatles did not face any prosecution or fine. Ironically, 36 years later EMI, the same record company that released “Revolution #9,” issued cease-and-desist orders to DJ Danger Mouse and any website that posted The Grey Album for unauthorized sampling of the Beatles’ The White Album (2005, 82).

How do members of the community understand mashups in relation to copyright law? What does the law say about the legal status of mashups? Copyright law was created before the technologies that are challenging it today had been conceived. There have been regular attempts to update copyright law, but, as demonstrated by the practices of the mashup community, the law does not fully address modern technologies and creative practices.

There are many examples of the mashup community subverting and satirizing the language and imagery used by governments and trade associations like the Recording Industry Association of America. Mashups are on the margins of copyright law and copyright infringers are commonly accused of committing “piracy.” In keeping with mashup methodologies, the mashup community has combined contemporary intellectual “piracy” with the seafaring piracy of yore. “Bootleg” and “bootie” are terms that are often used both in the mashup community and the pirate community. By satirizing their potential status as “pirates” members of the mashup community are subverting and challenging copyright laws and notions of intellectual property.

Existing Scholarly Literature

The first mashup to gain significant attention outside of the mashup community was released in 2001. Freelance Hellraiser combined Christina Aguilera and The Strokes to create “A Stroke of Genie-us.” The media noticed the mashup scene in 2001, but it was not until 2004 that the first academic work on mashups was published. Over the last four years only a handful of articles and one dissertation have been published dealing with mashups. Although a few of these works use ethnographic methods such as interviewing and online fieldwork, none of them have ethnographic aims. Instead most of the existing literature is informed by communication studies and critical theory.

Philip Gunderson published the first academic work dealing with mashups (2004). Gunderson wrote a review of DJ Danger Mouse’s 2004 album The Grey Album for the journal Postmodern Culture. Gunderson envisioned The Grey Album as a harbinger of things to come. According to Gunderson mashups represent the apotheosis of postmodern schizophonia and challenge the structures of modernity. Gunderson wrote,

Artists like Danger Mouse may be taken as cultural prophets. They preach a new economics: the communism of simulacra, the unrestricted sharing of digital copies without originals. This new economics deterritorializes the culture industry; it threatens all industries that have traditionally profited as the producers and gatekeepers of information. Whereas communist regimes in the previous century could not withstand the onslaught of cheap commodities from capitalist countries, today we find capitalist countries increasingly vulnerable to the world's data commies (2004, 5).

The next article to appear was William Levay’s “The Art of Making Music in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: The Culture Industry Remixed” (2005). Levay’s article addressed the role of the author in a musical form comprised entirely of the work of others, the democratization of technology and means of production, and the mashup scene’s position in the fringes of the culture industry (if not altogether in opposition to it). Levay and Gunderson raised many of the same points but drew to two different conclusions. Gunderson saw mashups as an example of the weakening grip of the culture industry. Levay concluded that mashups would eventually be co-opted by the culture industry and sold as a commodity:

Any form that is poised to undermine the culture industry’s hegemony, especially if it’s potentially marketable pop music, will be sanitized and brought into the fold. Pop music consumers in the cut ’n’ mix school will surely continue to remix and mash up old songs to create genre-bending new ones. But the industry’s appropriation of the mash-up means listeners won’t hear it as the sound of dissatisfied consumers from the no- longer-mute periphery. Marketed to an audience exponentially greater than what the underground remixer could have hoped to reach, the potentially subversive art is reproduced and bar-coded, turned into a harmless fad or a profitable industry formula, and we all pay for it (2005, 36).

Kembrew McLeod provided a thorough historical survey of the uses of sampling in recorded music in his 2005 article “Confessions of an Intellectual (Property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and My Long and Winding Path as a Copyright Activist-Academic.” McLeod argued that mashups are a distant relative to Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrete (81). McLeod also detailed some lesser-known uses of sampling in popular music including a series of recordings by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman that they called “break-in” records. These recordings from the 1950’s featured comedy skits in which the performers interacted with splices from popular songs. The samples used were not authorized, but the records were commercially released and made the billboard charts by selling over one million copies (McLeod, 2005, 82). The “break-ins” are noteworthy because they sold so well but also because they resulted in a lawsuit. Four record labels and two performers sued Buchanan and Goodman to have an injunction placed on their recordings and demanded financial damages. The judge ruled in favor of Buchanan and Goodman on the grounds that the recordings were parody and not in violation of copyright (82).

McLeod’s article provided a succinct description of copyright law, its history, and the problems with the law that are being revealed by contemporary sampling practices. The disparate treatment of cover versions of songs and sampling is one example of the shortcomings of the law. As long as a licensing fee is paid, covering another artists’ work is always legal regardless of the artist/record label’s approval. McLeod notes that while there have been countless horrible Beatles covers, the Beatles' and their label almost never allow sampling of their music (80). The existence of a compulsory license for a cover version of a song but no similar legal structure for sampling is an example of the failure of copyright law to recognize current creative uses of intellectual property.

McLeod’s article also explored the role of the author. When mashup producers create collages with the work of others they are demonstrating that “the work” is never a finished product even after it leaves hands of its author (2005, 84). McLeod associated mashup artists with deconstructionist literary theorists (84). Mashup artists, like deconstructionists, are taking apart and analyzing existing artifacts and searching for new meaning. McLeod wrote, “With mashups, one of the underlying motivations of the bedroom computer composers is to undermine, disrupt, and displace the arbitrary hierarchies of taste that rule pop music” (84). According to McLeod the mashup community is unknowingly doing with popular music what theorists like Derrida did with literature (83-85).

McLeod’s article made clear his enjoyment listening to and thinking about mashups. However, he concluded that despite the challenges that they pose to copyright law and the underlying hierarchies of popular music, mashups are a genre that is “quite limited and limiting… because they depend on the recognizability of the original, mashups are circumscribed to a relatively narrow repertoire of Top 40 songs” (86). He further asserted that by demonstrating how easily many popular songs can be played over the top of one another, “mashups pretty much demonstrate that Theodor Adorno, the notoriously cranky Frankfurt School critic of pop culture, was right about one key point… Adorno claimed that pop songs were simplistic and merely made from easily interchangeable, modular components… after hearing a half dozen mashups, it is hard to deny that he is right about that particular point” (86).

John Shiga’s 2007 article “Copy-and-Persist: The Logic of Mash-Up Culture” was a departure from the theory and criticism of the earlier articles. Shiga was the first to try to understand the workings of the mashup community using some of the community’s own definitions. In his article Shiga convincingly argued that for the mashup community “pluralistic listening and sympathetic audition [are] the basis for membership and ethical sociality” (2007, 95). Shiga also discussed the listening practices that, he argued, reify music transforming it into an object that can be used in mashups (95). The final theme that Shiga examined was the attainment of status, reputation, and various forms of capital within the mashup community.

The most in-depth work on mashups to date is Aram Sinnreich’s 2007 dissertation Configurable Culture: Mainstreaming the Remix, Remixing the Mainstream. Sinnreich’s fundamental concern was what he has called “configurable culture.” For Sinnreich configurable culture broadly encapsulates the use of technology to reconfigure mediated products. Configurable culture is far larger than just mashups, but the bulk of the interviews and examples in the dissertation came from the mashup community.

Configurable Culture is explicitly non-ethnographic. Sinnreich’s intention was to show that configurable culture represents several paradigm shifts not to examine the inner-workings of the mashup community. The majority of the dissertation focused on contrasting configurable cultural practices and assumptions with those that came before them. The previous practices and assumptions were referred to as the “modern ontological framework” and broken down into a series of binaries (art/craft, artist/audience, original/copy, performance/composition, figure/ground, and materials/tools). Using mashups as an example, he demonstrated how these binaries are challenged and made irrelevant by configurable culture.

Sinnreich’s work touched on many of the issues raised in previous pieces such as the democratization of technology and the means of production. Sinnreich spent a good deal of time on the conflict between copyright law, ideas of intellectual property, and new uses of technology. Sinnreich also examined the challenge that mashups pose to the role of the author.

The existing scholarship on mashups privileges theory at the expense of ethnographic grounding. Mashups are used to demonstrate theoretical concepts that may or may not have any relevance to the mashup community. As with a lot of critical theory, this approach seems backwards to me. Much of the work surveyed seeks to manipulate mashup culture to fit theory rather than manipulating theory to fit mashup culture

My project will approach the mashup community ethnographically. I will use a multi-sited fieldwork approach. I will conduct interviews in person, over the phone, and over the Internet. Participant observation will play a crucial role in my work. I will actively post and respond to items on the various mashup forums online. Additionally, I plan to survey the local mashup scene in Portland, Oregon and to observe mashup creation and consumption firsthand. There are a number of mashup nights at clubs in different cities. Although there is not a regular mashup night in Portland I will be making trips to more established venues like Bootie San Francisco and several trips to Bootie Boston. Finally, I will be learning to make mashups and keeping a journal of my progress. This reflexive process will provide a solid base for understanding the techniques and technologies employed by mashup producers.

Chapter Outline

I. Mashnography: Themes and History

An introduction to the mashup genre and community as well as the dissertation. Explanation of the multiple sites where the community exists (online and in physical spaces like dance clubs). A brief history of the genre and its precursors situating mashups in the larger history of sample-based music. Finally, a guide through the dissertation highlighting key themes (production, distribution, reception, and copyright/intellectual property) and theoretical arguments (problematizing ideas of community and nation with a dispersed community, and technology and agency).

II. Mashup Production and Distribution

A close examination of the various techniques and technologies used to make mashups. The discussion will be informed by interviews with mashup artists as well as personal experience learning to make mashups. Distribution will be addressed as well focusing on the variety of means available to publicize mashups and make them available for consumption.

III. Mashup Reception Online and Offline

Using a multi-sited approach to understand and describe the ways that mashups are heard, shared, and discussed both in the virtual community on the Internet and in the physical community at dance clubs.

IV. A Community with Multiple Homes: Dispersed Community and the Internet

A community that exists largely on the Internet challenges concepts of the nation and transnationalism. The mashup community has no single geographic center. Comparing community members input about both the physical and virtual gathering sites will inform the theoretical discussion of online communities and their physical counterparts. How do members of this dispersed community define a community whose relationships are so different from others?

V. Giving Voice to the Mashes: Agency, Intentionality, and Democratization

An examination of the ways in which the mashup community appropriates mediated commodities. Analysis of the democratization of technology and the re-configuration of the division of labor made possible by audio editing software and the Internet. Artistic intent provides an example of agency.

VI. Copyfight: Embracing the Rhetoric of Piracy

How does the mashup community negotiate copyright law and intellectual property? Are
mashups legal? How have emerging technologies and practices challenged the current laws and notions of property rights and ownership? Examination of the ways that the mashup community satirizes and subverts copyright law and notions of intellectual property by adopting the language of “piracy.”

VII. Conclusion

The mashup community provides examples of several emerging themes in music and society: the use of technology to create music and sustain community, the reconfiguration of mediated commodities, dispersed communities, and the challenges that digital technologies pose to copyright. Final analysis and re-emphasis of these themes and their implications in contemporary cultural configurations.

Research Timeline

The first three chapters of my dissertation are more descriptive in scope and less theoretical. I will begin with fieldwork and targeted literature reviews for these first three chapters. Specifically, I will be asking questions about the history of mashups, the production techniques, means of distribution, and the various ways that people receive and listen to mashups. I anticipate spending four months researching and writing initial drafts for these chapters.

In January I will be moving across the country to Providence, Rhode Island until mid-May. This relocation will give me the opportunity to attend the Bootie Boston mashup night (a monthly event that I should be able to attend four times) and conduct additional fieldwork that will be useful for Chapter Three regarding reception.

Once I have solid drafts for the first three chapters I will move on to the more theoretical work that makes up Chapter Four and Chapter Five. I anticipate the research for these chapters will be conducted primarily in the library. Fieldwork will play a role, but these are the chapters in which I plan to do the bulk of the work situating my project within the existing literature. The ready availability of the library and all of its resources makes Brown an ideal setting for this research. I plan to do the majority of the work for these chapters during the Spring semester while I am in Providence.

Chapter Six will be one of the longer chapters and also one of the most time consuming. Copyright law is something that I have little experience with and much of the reading will be from disciplines that I am not well versed in. Chapter Six will also be one of the most important chapters in the dissertation. Copyright and intellectual property are rapidly becoming central topics for a wide range of disciplines and new work is being published constantly. It will take some time to familiarize myself with the existing literature. My initial fieldwork leads me to believe that this topic is also of great importance to the mashup community. I foresee this chapter taking 3-4 months for research and writing.

Following the schedule above I will have completed drafts of all chapters except the conclusion in twelve months. I plan to spend the ensuing three months completing the concluding chapter and redrafting the introduction to reflect any changes to the project. By following this schedule I will have completed a draft of the full dissertation by January of 2010.

Contributions to the Field

My dissertation will be the first substantial ethnographic work on the mashup community. I will be documenting the musical culture of a vibrant contemporary music community. This project will also expand the discussion of several key concepts in contemporary ethnomusicology. Chapter Two and Three will demonstrate the use of recent technologies in the production, distribution, and reception of mashups. I will be contributing to the arguments advanced by Taylor (2001), Theberge (1997), Jones (2000) and Garofolo (1999) that technology has reshaped the making of, consumption, of, and sharing of music. Chapter Four will add to the discussion of dispersed communities and online communication as an important new site of cultural interaction (Ayers, 2006, Kibby, 2000, Watson, 1997). Agency is an enormous topic but Chapter Five will focus specifically on the ways that agency is expressed by creators and consumers of technologically mediated music. This discussion will provide further evidence that technology is not stultifying and does not disempower creativity (Lysloff and Gay, 2003, Taylor, 2001, Wong, 2003). Finally, the discussion of the complicated implications of copyright law on contemporary technologies and practices will add to the critical examination of copyright law (Marshall, 2005, McLeod, 2005, Theberge, 2004). It is necessary for ethnomusicologists to address the emerging uses of technology and technology’s implications for the creation and maintenance of musical communities. This project will contribute to that understanding as well as document a musical community that is certainly deserving of attention.

Works Cited

Ayers, Michael. 2006. Cybersounds: Essays on Virtual Music Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Garofalo, Reebee. 1999. “From Music Publishing to MP3: Music and Industry in the Twentieth Century.” American Music Vol. 17, No. 3. 318-354.

Gunderson, Philip. 2004. “Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, Mash-Ups, and the Age of Composition.” Postmodern Culture Vol. 15, No. 1.

Jones, Steve. 2000. “Music and the Internet.” Popular Music Vol. 19, No. 2. 217-230.

Kibby, Marjorie. 2000. "Home on the Page: A Virtual Place of Music Community." Popular Music Vol.19, No.1. 91-100.

Levay, William. 2005. “The Art of Making Music in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: The Culture Industry Remixed.” Anamesa Vol. 3, No.1. 21-38.

Lysloff, Rene and Leslie Gay, Jr. 2003. “Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-first Century.” In Music and Technoculture, eds. Lysloff, Rene and Leslie Gay, Jr. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Marshall, Lee. 2005. Bootlegging: Romanticism and Copyright in the Music Industry. London: Sage Publications.

McLeod, Kembrew. 2005. “Confessions of an Intellectual (Property): Danger Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Sonny Bono, and My Long and Winding Path as a Copyright Activist-Academic.” Popular Music and Society Vol. 28, No. 1. 79-93.

Shiga, John. 2007. “Copy-and-Persist: The Logic of Mash-up Culture.” Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No.2. 93-114.

Sinnreich, Aram. 2007. Configurable Culture: Mainstreaming the Remix, Remixing the Mainstream. Dissertation. University of Southern California.

Taylor, Timothy D. 2001. Strange Sounds: Music, Technology and Culture. New York: Routledge.

Theberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Theberge, Paul. 2004. “Technology, Creative Practice and Copyright.” In Music and Copyright, eds. Simon Frith and Lee Marshall. New York: Routledge

Watson, Nessim. 1997. “Why we argue about virtual community: A case study of the Phish.Net fan community.” In Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, ed. S. Jones. London: Sage Publications.

Wong, Deborah. 2003. “Plugged in at Home: Vietnamese American Technoculture in Orange County.” In Music and Technoculture, eds. Lysloff, Rene and Leslie Gay, Jr. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.


ripley said...

hey! found you through my friend wayne&wax. I know Cliff M. too. Anyway sounds like we are doing similar things - ethnography of creative practices. I'm in a law & society program... also a dj.

Anonymous said...


Sounds like a great idea? its like plunderphonics?

I am having a great deal of trouble coming up with an idea/title for my dissertation.

I want to be able to write a selection of electronic compositions, and i have to demonstrate something ( to give my dissertation a point)..but i don't know what to demonstrate or what i'm trying to proove..

Do you have any ideas?

Liam said...

Thanks for the comments. Good luck with the dissertation. Unfortunately I don't really know how to answer your questions. You should probably talk to your advisor though.