Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Listen To This

This has already been posted widely but in case you didn't see it this is DJ Earworm's United States of Pop 2008:

This mashup combines samples from each of the Billboard Top 25 songs of 2008. Earworm made the video as well. DJ Earworm also created a mashup combining the Billboard Top 25 songs of 2007 last year:
Both of these and many other excellent mashups can be downloaded from DJ Earworm's site.

Earworm is one of the most talented mashup artists out there. His production skills are incredible. Earworm is also the author of a mashup instruction book which is quite good although sadly not Mac compatible (he uses Sony's Acid Pro). DJ Earworm is best known for creating mashups with a large amount of samples all melded together seamlessly. However unlike other mashup artists, such as Girl Talk, that use tons of samples in a sort of frenetic collage, Earworm's mixes sound much more like recognizable songs with verses, choruses, and lyrics from multiple sources that are often tied to a common theme. For more about DJ Earworm's style check out this article from the MIT Technology Review which also features a cool "make your own mashup" tool.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Copyright Squelches Local Music

I am currently living in Providence, RI approximately 410 feet from Patrick's Pub. Pat's is an Irish pub and the only neighborhood bar in the area that you would want to go to. Aside from an excellent pint of Guinness and the traditional Irish favorite "Nachos Tipperary", the pub used to feature frequent live music from local bands, a weekly Irish music session, karaoke, and a juke box.

For those of you who, like myself, are somewhat new to the intricacies of copyright, any venue that serves food or alcohol and plays copyrighted music must pay licensing fees. For example, if a bar wants a juke box they have to pay licensing fees. The only way to legally avoid paying licensing fees is to require musicians to perform only their own original works (no covers), have a juke box that only plays music in the public domain, or simply have no music at all.

There are three main organizations that collect these licensing fees ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. When Musician  A writes a song that he/she intends to publish Musician A will register the song with these organizations. These organizations then track the amount of times that Musician A's song is played on radio, television, on jukeboxes, or by cover bands, and give a portion of the licensing fees that they have collected from the venues that play the music (like Pat's Pub), radio stations, clubs, etc.  to Musician A. The payments to Musician A are known as royalties.

Here's the problem: there is no way that these organizations can possibly track the amount of times that a single song is played on every radio station, television station, in every bar or concert hall. So instead they use a number of variables and algorithms to determine who gets what royalties. In the end, the vast majority of the royalties collected go to a small amount of very popular musicians and their record companies. Meanwhile Musician A will likely never see any royalties from his/her work.

In other words the system is broken. In practice it is little more than a racket in which three large organizations collect a lot of money, keep some of it, and give the rest to a handful of already wealthy musicians and their even wealthier record labels. 

This is not to argue against the idea behind royalties. Musician A should get paid for his/her work. A radio station sells advertising and can charge more based on the station's popularity which is determined largely by the music that they play. A pub makes money by selling food and drinks and attracts customers, in part, with live or recorded music. Since these entities are making money due, in part, to the works of the musicians whose music they are playing, it is only fair that they should have to pay those musicians for their work.

Unfortunately, as explained above, it isn't that simple. Take Patrick's Pub as an example. I have been there on a number of occasions and never heard much in the way of Top 40 pop either performed live or on the juke box. Yet there is a very high chance that the bulk of the fees that are collected from Pat's Pub are going to those Top 40 artists. Meanwhile the musicians whose music is being played at Pat's might not be getting any money at all from the licensing fees that the pub is paying.

There is another problem with all of this and Pat's Pub again provides a good example. The owner of Patrick's, either because he was unaware or unwilling, did not pay his licensing fees and was caught. ASCAP sued Patrick's Pub for up to $120,000 in damages. This made news nationally because Pat's pub is a local hangout for many Providence politicians. This NY Times article gives a good summary of the case. Patrick's settled the case for $16,000 and is still open.

As a result of the suit, and this is the worst part, Patrick's no longer has any live music. The owner of the pub is too concerned that he may run afoul of another of the three licensing companies and so he has decided to just stop all live music. This means that local bands have one less place to play, people have one less place to come together and be a part of local music culture, there is no longer an Irish music session, the pub is unable to attract people in with music, and the reduced amount of customers along with the fine has put the pub in danger of closing.

Who does all of this serve? The profits of a select few record companies and their most popular recording artists. The system as it exists currently is not helping local musicians, it's not helping local establishments, and it is certainly not serving local communities. I used to really enjoy seeing music at Pat's Pub. It was entertaining to watch and gave a unique view into the community. Now that is gone. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Yo-Yo Ma to Join Ashlee Simpson in Lip-Synch Hall of Fame

It turns out that the performance by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero at the Presidential Inauguration was pre-recorded. The musicians were actually playing their instruments but the music that was broadcast over the speakers to the Mall and over the air to the world was a recording. The quartet had made the recording in advance and acted it out during the "live" performance. This article from the New York Times has more information.

As I was watching the performance I had some of the same thoughts raised in the Times article. It was hard to believe that they were able to perform so well based on the effect that the weather would have on their instruments. I also couldn't believe that any of them would put their own instruments in jeopardy of cracking.

It is interesting that the organizers of the event chose not to make it known before or during the event but waited until afterwords. It raises a question about "liveness": When Aretha Franklin performed she sang to a pre-recorded backing track complete with pre-recorded backup singers. If the back up was live we never saw the band. Additionally when the Navy Chorus sang the Star Spangled Banner we never saw them (at least not on the CNN broadcast).

In other words, the event organizers made the decision that it was more important to project an image of "live" performance for the quartet than for Aretha Franklin or the Navy Choir. Would it have been acceptable to have Yo-Yo Ma performing alone to the taped accompaniment of the rest of the quartet? I believe this is a reflection of the expectation/delusion of "authentic" performance in classical music that is not an expectation of popular music.

DJ Hero

It appears that Activision, the publisher of Guitar Hero, is set to release DJ Hero this summer. Somehow the concept of playing a guitar controller is more appealing to me than playing a turntable controller, but the game will apparently focus on creating mashups and will allow the use of Guitar Hero controllers alongside the turntable.

For more about the game go here or here.

Several members of the mashup community have been involved in the making of this game which is a good sign. The game is being developed in the U.K. which is home to an abundance of great mashup artists. 

I am now officially one step closer to buying a new video game system.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New News and Old News

I apologize for my lack of posting recently. I just moved across the country to Providence, Rhode Island where milkshakes are called cabinets. Fortunately I don't have to worry about what milkshakes are called because it is about 20 degrees here and snowing and only a crazy person would want a milkshake*.

But enough about me, here are some links to interesting stories that have happened over the last few weeks:

-Charles Nesson, a law professor at Harvard, has launched a law suit against the RIAA. Nesson contests that the lawsuits filed by the RIAA against music downloaders were unconstitutional. You can read more here and even more on Professor Nesson's blog. The case is set to start this Thursday. 

-The RIAA has decided to stop suing its customers! However the association will continue with any lawsuits that have already been filed (much to the dismay of one Charles Nesson).

-The European Union is considering a copyright extension that its own studies have sown to be misguided. This video by the Open Rights Group gives a good explanation of the proposal and its downsides.

*That's a lie I wanted a milkshake earlier today and yesterday.