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Remix Culture and Composition

An important first step in the birth of popular music was the composition and sale of printed sheet music. Once people could get their hands on tunes that were easy to play and sing, gatherings of people could enjoy good company in song together. As more people began to sing the same tunes, popular music found a home in the mass media. Recorded music changed this experience a bit. Rather than playing music and singing along together, individuals surrendered aspects of participation in favor of a more or less passive experience. Popular music found a new home via the phonograph and eventually the radio.

The shift from participatory music to passive experience is documented in the excellent book Mediating the Muse by Bob Albrecht. One of the key features of this transformation was the mass production of recorded music by large media companies who held copyright over the art form. Music became a commodity, and not only the notes and lyrics, but the actual performance as well. The ghost of the performer was captured, frozen on wax or tape or in the ones and zeroes of digital media. Reproducing or playing this recorded music was, and is, strictly prohibited by copyright law. Of course, the ability to manipulate recorded music circumvented the copyright process, first in the age of the cassette tape and now in the digital age. The mix tape was an important cultural product of the 1980s, for example.

In popular music, mainly via electronica and hip hop, the sample became a staple in music production, where an artist would build beats via electronic drum machines and drop in popular loops or hooks to both draw on familiar popular music of the past and transform it into something new altogether. This was highly controversial at the time with a number of lawsuits and copyright cases following around artists engaged in production of this kind. As time has passed, the sample has become integral to most forms of music. The idea of intertexuality, the idea that one text borrows from an existing text to be at once familiar and new, is evident in the example of sampling. If you know and love James Brown, you’re bound to find something familiar in 1980s hip hop, for example:

When we talk about digital media, we often turn to the idea of composition. It’s never been easier to take and manipulate high quality photographs. It’s never been easier to record instruments and voices and create a high quality, homemade mix. It’s never been easier to record and produce an interview program and broadcast it to a potentially enormous audience. The same can be said for video and many other forms of digital arts. The means of production and distribution are all on our desks and often in our pockets.  In addition to the means of production and distribution, the connected web offers a gigantic pool of digital content that can be downloaded and appropriated for personal use. Composition that relies on existing digital content, reorganized in new forms and for new purposes, is called remix, and there’s a whole lot to say about the cyberculture that centers on the remix.

Fair use and copyright law are at the center of debates about remix culture and digital composition. If you cut and paste someone else’s work into your published paper, you’re a plagiarist. If you sample someone’s beat, you’re jackin’ beats. If you make copies of someone’s intellectual property and sell it or use it for your own purposes, without the express written consent of the owner, you are in violation of copyright law. Has that stopped everyday people from the practice of remix? Nothing would suggest that copyright law has slowed or deterred individuals from engaging in remix. On the contrary, as Lawrence Lessig suggests in the video above, a thriving culture of intertextuality is now linking otherwise distant people to one another, recalling cultural products of the past in new jazz-like fusions of old and new.

Fordham’s own Alice Marwick writes about the lack of copyright in the fashion industry and the long-standing practice of mashup or remix in fashion. It’s sort of the point, actually. Fashion remains vibrant and fresh precisely because their are few boundaries to creation, even with respect to imitation or revival of old forms. Certainly there is some difficulty in equating fashion with other forms of media, but the metaphor is powerful.

What are some of your favorite instances of remix culture? What are your favorite mashups? What do you think of the argument that remix and mashup are important forms of expression that move and shape culture, keeping it vital? Bring answers to these questions to class with you, and maybe even a few questions of your own.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University


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