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O what a tangled Web: In this week's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, a merry chase through a mad melange of digital music, intellectual property, mash-ups and U2-related corporations' proud 13-year (at least) tradition of acting like dipsticks.

Sorry for the later-than-usual weekend column post. There's snow, it's been icky, I went to the movies. You? [...]

Who says irony is dead? Apple, apparently

Saturday, December 11, 2004
The Globe & Mail Page R4

In a splendiferous show of good corporate humour, the legal department of Apple pitched in on an artist's Internet prank this week, contributing the crowning touch to his satirical work about digital music and copyright issues.

Either that, or Apple proved it has absolutely no trace of a whit of a ghost of a hint of a sense of irony. Which way do you bet?

Here are the facts, Mac: Last month New York artist-programmer Francis Hwang bought an iPod, one of the shiny new cross-promotional, black-and-red "U2" editions of Apple's psychotically popular line of digital-music players and stocking stuffers. It came engraved with the Irish rock band's signatures and loaded up with the bestselling new album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Then Hwang loaded in seven additional albums, all by the California group Negativland, and craftily modified the packing box so it read "Unauthorized iPod U2 vs. Negativland Special Edition," bearing photos of both groups. On Nov. 30 he put the set up for sale on eBay, with a proper legal disclaimer. It got nine bids, peaking at $455 (U.S.), before eBay shut the auction down on Monday, citing a complaint from Apple about intellectual-property rights.

It was the perfect punchline to Hwang's elaborate inside joke. To get the humour, you needed to know that in 1991, U2's label - Island Records, now part of the Universal Music conglomerate - sued Negativland and its indie record label SST almost out of existence over a single called U2.

The track was a sound collage of, among other elements, U2's then-hit I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with behind-the-scenes tapes of disc jockey Casey Kasem of America's Top 40 sputtering obscenities after someone called in to dedicate the song to a dead dog named Snuggles. It was hysterically funny.

Equally hysterical but not so amusing was the litigious force the rock behemoths unleashed against this dire threat to U2's existence. Negativland had been juxtaposing comical fragments for years, partly to provoke critical media analysis, so it tried to use its own plight as a case study. (See the snazzy video documentary The Letter U and the Numeral 2, or the book Fair Use.) But its "culture jamming" was no match for mainstream culture's gnashing gears.

Thirteen years later, Universal executive Jimmy Iovine said in a press release, "U2 and Apple have a special relationship where they can start to redefine the music business. The iPod along with iTunes is the most complete thought that we've seen in music in a very long time." Knowing U2's secret history, Francis Hwang saw a way Iovine's grand thought could be even, well, completer.

"With the continuing legal battles over the sampling and copying of music," he wrote in the text accompanying the auction, "there has never been a better time for such a tribute to the impact of technology on the flow of culture."

Hwang's "artful mash-up of the forces of corporate megarock and obscure experimental music" nodded to Negativland's significant early defeat in those battles. It was a commemorative act, in a struggle over who owns cultural memory and has a right to build creatively upon it. On the Internet, collective memory tends to win. In American legislatures and courts, it usually loses. The public domain seems to shrink year by year.

This time, though, experts say the law is on Hwang's side. He was careful not to include the banned single on his iPod, though you can download it from Negativland's website. In a report in the on-line Wired news service, California lawyer Scott Hervey observed, "He's just reselling the box that the goods came in."

Have pity on poor, confused Apple. In a business so compulsively fixated on piracy that police raids have been ordered on small children and grandmothers, no wonder Apple forgot it's legal to resell an object you own. Even if you modify it. Apple, for instance, purchases metal, wire, plastic and programmers' ideas, "mashes them up," as the kids are calling it, and retails this remix as a "computer."

Don't get dizzy, but here's another twist: As quickly as Hwang's eBay fun was spoiled on Monday, U2's spree atop the pop charts was cut short. After only a week at No. 1, How to Dismantle. . . was knocked out by Jay-Z/Linkin Park's Collision Course, the first product of MTV's new Ultimate Mash-Ups series. Like Apple's iTunes downloading service, it's the legit rip-off of a black-market model.

On the dance floor or on the web, "mash-ups" are made by DJs or computer hackers, descendants of Negativland who splice disparate songs together into new patterns. Jay-Z's raps are a favourite ingredient: In fact, Downhill Battle, the anti-music-industry non-profit to which Hwang was planning to donate his eBay gains, made its reputation promulgating a DJ Danger Mouse mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album called the Grey Album in an Internet protest early this year.

Jay-Z is finally taking his revenge with Collision Course. Trouble is, while fanciful hackers match his vocal flow to unlikely music such as Queen, Pavement or the Bangles, Jay-Z himself settled for Linkin Park, a guitar band that gained fame by mixing the quicksilver verbal wit of hair metal with the complex melodic invention of gangsta rap. (In case anyone at Apple is reading, that was irony.)

I guess the new flavour here is to do the mash-ups live. But I've actually been running a club series myself all year in Toronto billed as a "live mash-up night," where musicians from clashing backgrounds converge. Think I should sue MTV? True, someone like Danger Mouse might sue me in turn, but then Negativland could sue Danger Mouse. . . . Justice at last!

Meanwhile, Jay-Z is safely lawyered up, about to become an executive at his label Def Jam. Which just so happens to be another subsidiary of U2's Island/Universal.

And there you have it, the fervid, paranoid entertainment world of 2004, an intellectual slave plantation where all ideas are property and all their owners also own each other.

It cries out for more debate. But, of course, if you repeat anything you read here to anybody, Snuggles, I'll see your ass in court.

Further reading/listening:
Francis Hwang.
The secret history of mash-ups.
The Grey Album, Grey Tuesday and Danger Mouse.
Downhill Battle.
Jay-Z becomes Def Jam president.
My series, Tin Tin Tin.

| Posted by zoilus on Sunday, December 12 at 03:15 PM | Previous Entry| Next Entry | Add Comment