Sonic Outlaws is an amazing documentary on Negativland and other artists who sample/deconstruct music. Ironically, I picked up this film at I Luv Video on Airport Blvd. a couple of years back, but it’s fittingly available for streaming on Youtube. SST ended up suing Negativland. Getting sued by your own label? Man, that blows.
The $64,000 question—is transformative use of recorded music theft or art? The answer: It sure isn’t theft. Sample away. What bands like Negativland were doing was the musical equivalent of Hannah Hoch’s photo collages. What they created was often funny as hell. (Casey Kasem losing his shit over a U2 track he’s badmouthing? Sign me up!) Their creations are totally different from what the original artists intended—it’s fair game to record and sell this music. There needs to be a commonsense element to all of this. Negativland, like a lot of SST’s roster at that point, was not a moneymaker. Let’s be clear: BEFORE the lawsuit, Negativland LOST SST money. The idea that they should pay out money to Island is absurd. Again, they didn’t make any because at the core of it they weren’t creating a commercial product. The idea that they somehow hurt U2’s sales or used their music in any commercial sense/plagiarist manner is asinine. However, that’s different than, say, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” whose main hook was lifted verbatim from Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” “Planet Rock” did make a lot of money for Tommy Boy, and seeing as they lifted the main hook from Kraftwerk (without changing the music whatsoever), including Kraftwerk in on a small cut of royalties—like an unknowing collaborator—is fair. (Had “Planet Rock” been a dud, no royalties should be owed.) The problem is music industry lawyers and the industry itself. They make money bringing suits against others and they couldn’t care less about music or musicians, art or the future of the business. There is no commonsense approach to any of this stuff, so a whole genre of music is pushed to the margins because of bogus intellectual property right claims. (If you ever attempt to get a vinyl record pressed, pressing plants make you sign a waiver claiming there are no sampled tracks on the sent-in songs. My friend forgot to get a mechanical license for a deconstructed CCR cover. They actually CAUGHT that and he had to pay the $75 to Harry Fox on a single he was sure to lose $300 on. It’s doubtful John Fogerty ever saw a dime, but artists always get ripped off. The record biz blows. I’m told Spotify is now the record biz and they blow too.)
Fun Fact: Negativland got their name from a Neu! track. Neu!’s Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were early members of Kraftwerk whose music gave Afrika Bambaataa his biggest hit.
So do I have any real world experience with this stuff? Yes, I do. About a year ago, I was interested in rereleasing a Gibson Bros. LP from 1991. I knew Jeff Evans and Don Howland from the Gibson Bros. and I thought the record was long overdue for a repress. However, I knew there was a problem going back to 1991. Homestead, former label to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., released the album and had to pull it. Jeff and Don had sampled a few seconds of another band’s song that they had some beef with—and yell over the sample, “Piece of shit!” The other band (who also owned the record label the track appeared on) didn’t think the sample was funny. Amazingly, this supposedly grassroots band/label pulled a cliché industry move and sued the Gibson Bros.’ label Homestead! The album was pulled from distributors and copies now sell for over $40. I was told by a friend (who years earlier was interested in rereleasing the same record) that to license the record I’d also have to pay off the legal expenses Homestead incurred. Point being, the lawsuit was frivolous and petty—used simply as a cheap shot to derail the Gibson Bros. (The band who sued the Gibson Bros.’ label was taken to task in the underground fanzines, some of whom refused to run ads for their label or review their material.) Like I said, most of these suits are bullshit—just cash grabs for bands/musicians/labels who feel they’ve been scorned. If you’re employing transformative use of a song, do it. You’re creating something original. If you’re just straight lifting backing tracks and make a lot of money in the process, a small royalty should be allocated to the original artist. It’s not rocket science. Anything made commercially available should be fair game for culture jamming. Lawyers should be banned from the industry.
Fun Fact: Any time a contract is presented to me by an artist, I tell them they have the wrong record label. I don’t sign contracts and I don’t have the bands on my label sign them. They retain all the rights to their music and if they want to handle their own digital distribution that’s their right. I’ve worked with approximately twenty artists/bands. To my knowledge, all of them would gladly work with me again. If another artist sampled any of the music on my label, I couldn’t care less. Thanks. Hopefully they do a good job with it. They can’t lose any more money than I did on it. After all, people don’t pay for music nowadays.
There’s some BS in this documentary. For instance, Radiohead is championed as a band who gives fans the opportunity to compensate them whatever they think is a fair price for their music. Think about that for a second. When did Radiohead achieve widespread recognition? Early/mid-’90s. And how did they end up on MTV and on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? Through CAPITOL RECORDS’ PR/MARKETING DEPARTMENT! They’re a HUGE band whose rise is heavily indebted to the industry they’re supposedly giving the middle finger to. It’s a luxury a band like Radiohead can afford when they’re charging over $100 a head for tickets. Get the hell out of here. It’s sort of ridiculous that a band like Negativland and Radiohead are in the same documentary. They have absolutely nothing in common.
What’s the future of music/culture in the digital realm? Not good. Y’know, the record industry (correctly) gets lambasted in a lot of these readings. But what the hell is Spotify?! That’s one of the biggest damn cons going right now. Very reputable labels DO NOT work with them (Drag City held out for years; I still refuse to listen to Spotify or place my tracks on there. A few artists I’ve worked with do the same). They pay damn near nothing and impact downloads/sales–they’re taking money away from musicians. Artists are entitled to own their work and do whatever the hell they want with it. It’s nice when you HAVE a job with SECURITY that you can advocate for a race to the bottom with music. HOWEVER, when you’re actually making it/releasing it, it’s a hell of a position to be in. The problem isn’t “digital”–lots of potential good there–the problem is funding. (I’d argue that capitalism was never really a good fit for music. The best music typically doesn’t sell. How many records did the Velvet Underground sell in the ’60s and ’70s? How many did Debby Boone sell? Captain and Tennille?) There needs to be new revenue streams for artists. It costs roughly $2,500 to press up 500 LPs. It costs anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 to run a PR campaign (if you decide to go down that route). Touring is hell. A reliable van is $6,000. Cost on a 45 is roughly $4 per record; distributors expect you to wholesale them at $4, meaning ZERO markup. It’s no coincidence that most record labels are run by very moneyed individuals. And there are a few folks like me–burning it at both ends, handling all of my own promotion, working out three different distribution channels, pressing plant delays and all the other bullshit. Again, all of this stuff takes on a whole different light if you’re ACTUALLY DOING IT!