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Mashed Up

Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture

Aram Sinnreich
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Mashed Up
    Book Description:

    From ancient times to the present day, writers and thinkers have remarked on the unique power of music to evoke emotions, signal identity, and bond or divide entire societies, all without the benefit of literal representation. Even if we can’t say precisely what our favorite melody means, we know very well what kind of effect it has on us, and on our friends and neighbors. According to Aram Sinnreich, this power helps to explain why music has so often been regulated in societies around the globe and throughout history. Institutional authorities ranging from dynastic China’s “Office to Harmonize Sounds” to today’s copyright collecting societies like BMI and ASCAP leverage the rule of law and the power of the market to make sure that some musical forms and practices are allowed and others are prohibited. Yet, despite the efforts of these powerful regulators, musical cultures consistently devise new and innovative ways to work around institutional regulations. These workarounds often generate new styles and traditions in turn, with effects far beyond the cultural sphere. Mashed Up chronicles the rise of “configurability,” an emerging musical and cultural moment rooted in today’s global, networked communications infrastructure. Based on interviews with dozens of prominent DJs, attorneys, and music industry executives, the book argues that today’s battles over sampling, file sharing, and the marketability of new styles such as “mashups” and “techno” presage social change on a far broader scale. Specifically, the book suggests the emergence of a new ethic of configurable collectivism; an economic reunion of labor; a renegotiation of the line between public and private; a shift from linear to recursive logic; and a new “DJ consciousness,” in which the margins are becoming the new mainstream. Whether these changes are sudden or gradual, violent or peaceful, will depend on whether we heed the lessons of configurability, or continue to police and punish the growing ranks of the mashed up.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-044-4
    Subjects: Music, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface Confessions of a (Reformed) Musical Reactionary
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Introduction The Bust
    (pp. 1-12)

    On a gray, windy afternoon in January 2007, on a quiet street in downtown Atlanta, a team of thirty or forty law enforcement officers, dressed in S.W.A.T. gear, armed with assault rifles, and accompanied by drug-sniffing dogs, burst through an unmarked door. After arresting their two targets, they confiscated several items, including cars, computers, bank statements, and electronic equipment. Most important, they found the contraband they’d been looking for: tens of thousands of “mixtape” CDs, none of them officially licensed by the recording industry.

    This was hardly a back-alley counterfeiting operation. For one thing, the CDs in the studio, though...

  7. Part I. When the Mode of the Music Changes

    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)

      Although the subject of this book is newness—new music, new technologies, new forms of social organization—I will begin with the ancients. Despite the millennia separating us from Plato and Confucius, their insights about music’s role in shaping the way we think, feel, behave, and govern remain as true today as ever, and their warnings about the dangers of musical innovation still reverberate in the ears of our leaders.

      It is fascinating how frequently, and to what degree, musical aesthetics, practices, and technologies have been sanctioned and proscribed by hegemonic institutions in so many societies spanning the globe and...

    • 1 Music as a Controlled Substance
      (pp. 15-40)

      Since the beginning of recorded history, and perhaps longer, human beings have wondered and argued about the meaning, the power, and the beauty of music. There is a remarkable passage in Plato’sRepublic,written over 2,300 years ago, in which the philosopher Socrates debates these issues with the sophists Adeimantus and Glaucon. After much deliberation, he comes to the conclusion that a nation’s rulers must “guard carefully as they can against any innovation in music,” because “musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.” Socrates advocates for censorship, therefore, out of concern that...

    • 2 The Modern Framework
      (pp. 41-68)

      In 1830, Hector Berlioz was a young Parisian composer with a growing reputation and a promising career. Even then, however, he was embroiled in the financial difficulties that would dog him for the rest of his life. To help make ends meet, he accepted a simple job, far beneath the capabilities and stature of a composer whose grand orchestral workSymphonie Fantastiquehad premiered earlier in the same year, to both fanfare and controversy. As he relates in his memoirs, Berlioz was given the task of correcting proofs of musical scores for local music publisher Eugène-Théodore Troupenas. Some of the...

    • 3 The Crisis of Configurability
      (pp. 69-90)

      As I write in chapter 2, our concept of music and its relationship to society—the modern discursive framework—has endured many social, political, and technological upheavals in the last two centuries. This durability can be attributed in large part to the strong reciprocal relationship between the modern framework and modern social institutions; neither would have survived as long without the other.

      Discursive frameworks do eventually break down and change under the pressure of overwhelming social or technological reorganization; the modern framework itself was new in Berlioz’s youth. While a robust framework may be flexible and strong enough to encompass...

  8. Part II. Drawing Lines in the Sand

    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 91-94)

      The first section of this book is about theory. In it, I discuss the discursive framework that bounds musical regulation and resistance, and argue that new communication technologies may help to undermine that framework, requiring us to reevaluate some of our oldest and deepest assumptions about culture and society.

      The next part of the book is about practice. Specifically, it’s about the ways in which actual musical practitioners, music industry executives, and the rest of our society appear to be making sense of these radical changes, and about the larger social implications of these new sensibilities.

      To address these questions,...

    • 4 Yes, But Is It Art? The Art/Craft Binary
      (pp. 95-106)

      It’s not always easy to spot art when you see it. Even during the peak of modernism, the concept was continually being challenged, tested, and sometimes found wanting. Marcel Duchamp famously converted the most functional of objects—a urinal—into an artwork simply by naming it, signing it, and entering it into an art show (after much debate, the piece was not exhibited). Pieces like Duchamp’sFountain,though, tended to be the exceptions that proved the rules; they existed to prod and provoke, and to call attention to the limits of the modern framework. If most people had trouble accepting...

    • 5 Some Kid in His Bedroom The Artist/Audience Binary
      (pp. 107-123)

      As with the distinction between art and craft, the line separating artist from audience has always been somewhat tenuous. The elevation of the artist from the category of mere craftsman during the early Renaissance to its apogee in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (discussed in chapter 2) required a lot of extra philosophical baggage, including the problematic concept of genius, and the belief that cultural production could spring, ex nihilo, from the labors of one exceptional individual. This baggage was a small burden in comparison to the benefit it brought to its adopters: the Romantic artist served as a model...

    • 6 Something Borrowed, Something New The Original/Copy Binary
      (pp. 124-147)

      The act of sampling, in which a bit of recorded sound or video is copied, transformed, and redeployed in a new setting and context, is still so strange and new that even the experts in the field can’t find appropriate language to describe it. Questions of ethics, legality, and aesthetics aside, even the material and physical metaphors we use when discussing the subject seem to miss the mark. Sampling isn’t “taking,” because the source material is still available, intact, in its original form. It’s not “borrowing,” because the sampler doesn’t ever return the work, except in a holistic sense. It’s...

    • 7 Live from a Hard Drive The Composition/Performance Binary
      (pp. 148-158)

      As with the other foundations of the modern framework I have discussed, the distinction between composition and performance has never been much more than a convenient fiction, and an often uneasy one, at best. The requirement that copyrightable works be ensconced in a “fixed, tangible medium,” for instance, summarily consigns collective and/or improvised music to the inferior sphere of mere performance, while elevating the Romantic ideal of the sole composer, laboring in solitude at his or her sheaf of staff paper.

      As other scholars have observed, this inherent bias helps to reinforce existing social inequities, disenfranchising musicians in oral and...

    • 8 Hooks and Hearts The Figure/Ground Binary
      (pp. 159-169)

      Most of us can easily tell what constitutes the “figure” or “ground” of a piece of music as soon as we hear it. Usually, the figure is the melody, or sometimes, the “hook” of a song. Either way, it’s generally the part we find ourselves humming later on, or the snippet we sing when describing a song to a friend. The ground is simply everything else—the accompaniment, instrumentation, or supporting tracks. We don’t pay as much attention to it for the same reason we don’t pay much attention to the frame around a painting. In most cases, even if...

    • 9 “He Plays Dictaphones, and She Plays Bricks” The Materials/Tools Binary
      (pp. 170-178)

      In 1926, an American art collector purchased a new sculpture by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, one of a limited edition of bronze casts titledBird in Space.¹ The sculpture was barely representational, unlike most other contemporary works; lacking feathers, beak, or talons, it consisted of a graceful, 4.5-foot arc of smooth, gleaming metal standing vertically on a base. To an eye untrained in the latest principles of 1920s modern art, little about it would connote a bird, or even qualify it as a sculpture at all. Unfortunately for Brancusi and his patron, the U.S. customs officials lacked such training....

  9. Part III. The Lessons: Configurability and the New Framework

    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 179-180)

      In the first part of this book, I argue that music is a powerful agent of social and political change, that a historical dialectic exists between musical regulation and resistance, and that this process is bounded by a discursive framework, which is strengthened by institutional bonds. In the second part, I suggest that the modern framework, which has reigned ascendant in Western culture for two centuries, is severely challenged by configurable technology and culture, and I discuss the ways in which musicians, executives, attorneys, and everyday people are trying to make sense of new musical codes and practices. In the...

    • 10 Critique and Co-optation
      (pp. 181-192)

      In the previous chapters, I argue that configurable music and technology challenge our discourse of music, and by extension, the entire modern framework. This process is somewhat inherent to the structure of configurability; the conceits of modernity don’t easily apply to a cultural system as radically different from the past as the one whose evolution we are now witnessing. But does this fact necessarily suggest that configurability is fundamentally critical of what came before, or resistant to institutional power? Do configurable musicians view their own work as critical? Does it even matter whether they do? There is no single answer...

    • 11 “Plus Ça Change” or Paradigm Shift?
      (pp. 193-208)

      I have nearly reached the end of this book, and have yet to conclusively answer my fundamental question. Does configurable music presage a discursive break in our understanding of what music is and how it operates, and therefore portend a breakdown of the existing social order? Or is the rise of the DJ simply one more development in an ongoing dialectic between cultural regulation and resistance, as easily contained within the strong yet flexible boundaries of the modern framework as atonality, the birth of sound recording, and the electrification of blues and rock music? Clearly, the answer to this question...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 209-226)
  11. Index
    (pp. 227-242)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-244)