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A Clash of Cultures: The Mixed Mindset of the Recording Industry.

In 2007, on a cold January night a SWAT team seized the New York apartment and studio of Tyree “DJ Drama” Simmons, and seized hundreds of CD’s, software, and computer equipment. Authorities subsequently arrested Simmons and held him on racketeering charges with a $10,000 bail.

The bust was conducting by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and was coordinated due to Simmons massive distribution of his underground mix tapes.

Simmons is a highly revered DJ in the hip-hop scene and shot to stardom in the pastĀ  two decades due to his famous tapes that include both well known musicians as well as up and comers. However, this is no tale of an infamous music pirate–you probably have come across some of Simmons work before knowingly or unknowingly, as he’s pretty well known.

The interesting angle to this story is the fact that Simmons mix tapes have been such a staple in the hip-hop community that major labels have been funding Simmons work for years in hopes that his tapes can help garner publicity for their rising new artists. A few artists that attribute their stardom to Simmons mix tapes include, T.I., Chingy, 50 Cent and even hip-hop mogul, Sean “Diddy” Combs.

So, in this scenario, we have major record labels such as Bad Boy (Universal Music) and Def Jam (Warner Music) funding Simmons mix tapes, but in the same breath, we have the RIAA arresting Simmons on racketeering charges for simply doing what the major labels have been funding him to do.

So, what is the issue here? Why is the industry seemingly so schizophrenic? Is this a simple case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, or is this a more in-depth issue?

Another example of the mixed mindset of the industry is the widely seen success of sample based music and its trends.

For instance, the technique and sub-genre “Mash Up” has become so popular that DJ/Mash Up Artist Danger Mouse released a mash up of both The Beatles “The White Album” and Jay Z’s “The Black Album” to create “The Gray Album”.

Danger Mouse’s work met critical acclaim to the point where Rolling Stone Magazine named it “one of the best albums of the decade.” However, in a twist of irony, due to copyright restrictions the album was never released for commercial profit, and even its free streams were met with hostility from the RIAA and major record labels and publishers.

My final quip that showcases the mixed mindset of the industry is the mass popularity of other sample based artists that can never release their work. For instance, dub step and electronic artists such as Pretty Lights and Skrillex attract hundreds of thousands of people to their concerts, though, due to copyright law, they can never release their work commercially despite their popularity.

In no way am I stating that I am against copyright law, I am simply stating that legislation has yet to meet up with the technological innovations of our generation. We are living in a time where major labels fund mix tapes and then turn around and prosecute their producer. We are living in an era where artists can pack out stadiums but can never release their work commercially. We are abiding in a time where an industry leader such as Rolling StoneĀ  can deem an album “one of the best of the decade”, but if it were to be released, the artist would be sued and fined.

However, the most awful thing is that if their work was to be released (illegally) it wouldn’t be seen as an artistic endeavor–it would be degraded by the RIAA as piracy and theft.

The solution to this issue is far beyond the scope of this article. However, I believe that we can better understand this “industry schizophrenia” if we explore the clash in cultures of our current generation with the generations that have come before it.

Current Copyright legislation was founded in 1976, however, most of the current issues we see are based upon technological innovations that stemmed with the rise of the internet, circa 1993. So, it becomes obvious how Copyright law can lag behind when it comes to current issues that have stemmed from the internet and recent technology.

However, the clash in culture doesn’t come from the technology itself–the clash actually stems from how the Internet has completely re-written the way information is approached.

Prior to the internet, information was only privy to media outlets such as print, news and radio. If you needed information, you only had a few outlets to choose from. Similarly, if you wanted to share information and you weren’t a broadcaster–you had a very limited audience.

With the surface of the internet, everyone could now be informers, cultivators and even amateur journalists. For the first time, there was no monopoly on media, and now information could freely be shared by anyone. We began to see average Joe bloggers post their views to millions, and we all see it daily with billions of Facebook statuses and Tweets continuously sharing information.

In a similar fashion, the 1990’s also brought rise to P2P file-sharing, and it brought user-friendly mixing software such as Pro-Tools, Audacity and Garageband– so now, not only was the “information monopoly” abandoned, but so was the “music production monopoly”.

Due to this, anyone could now be an artist, a producer, or a DJ.

As time progressed, the current generation grew up with the ability and technology to speak to the masses and they had access to media like no one ever has before.

The current generation is a generation that legal expert Larry Lessig deems, “The Read/Write generation” where the generations before it are deemed the “Read Only” generation.

The Read Only generation, is a generation that is accustomed to there being a fine line between producer and consumer. A generation that is used to listening to a record, a cassette or a CD and not being able to interact with it.

In comparison, the Read/Write generation is a generation that is accustomed to interacting with and adding onto media and entertainment. For instance, adding upon a Wikipedia article is an example of Read/Write culture, compiling a playlist on your Mp3 is Read/Write culture.

However, the most relevant example is taking a song and remixing, taking two tracks and combining them–and taking a piece of work and rearranging it to say something different. That, too, is Read/Write culture.

A relevant story that Lessig tells to teach people about Read Only and Read/Write culture is a story that stems from an incident with legendary composer, John Phillip Sousa.

With the onslaught of phonographs Sousa complained to congress that due to these “talking machines” people would no longer sing songs together, they would no longer compose, he said that the towns used to “flourish” with songs written by its youth. He said folks would take family songs and build upon them and constantly compose and create. Sousa said that these talking machines would put a strangle hold on creativity and we will all soon “lose our vocal chords”.

In a way, Sousa was correct, with the phonograph there was a line created between artist and consumer, for the first time someone held the monopoly on who was a musician and who was not. These phonographs soon became record players, which became cassettes, which became CD’s, and for the first time there was a clear and bold division between artist and non-artist, between producer and observer. There was now a clear cut line between musician and non musician.

As a result of this, millions of vocal chords were truly lost.

The emergence of Read/Write culture through sample based music, mash-ups and DJ culture is a revival of the vocal chords that Sousa spoke so passionately about. Our current generation is simply taking art and remixing to say something differently, composing it differently.

Though, the worst part of this, is that the way the laws are written the current generation cannot deem themselves “artistic” or as “innovators”.

Due to the way the laws are written, the current generation must do their art in private or else they will be deemed “pirates” and “law breakers”.

It’s certainly a shame that artistic conquests can be deemed illegal and unworthy of public consumption simply because the law has failed to catch up with the technological and social advances.

So, to all of you underground artists fighting the good fight–keep it up. Things are the way they are not because of injustice, but due to a musical revolution that you are on the heels of.

The industry has never seen such a rise in it’s history since the establishment of Sousa’s “talking machines” and it’s only a matter of time before the legalities meet up with the technological and social advances. Plus, with the establishment of alternative licenses such as Creative Commons and the massive popularity of electronic and sampled music the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter as we are only becoming more established in this current age of Read/Write culture.

-wta