Rip! A Remix Manifesto, or A Celebration of Immoral Originality

The Internet and copyright laws. "Rip! A Remix Manifesto," by Brett Gaylor. What I thought would be a good documentary on the subject that would bring good, solid arguments for reviewing the current laws proved to be a major, upsetting disappointment. My opinion: cheap, myopic, and juvenile; effective at convincing brainless high-schoolers that some forms of theft are OK.  

This film (available below) claims itself to be about a war over ideas, but it’s anything but that. It’s merely a self-serving justification for a cut & paste musical genre that a few want us to consider as a bona fide art form, i.e. mash ups/re-mixes. 

I personally have very little respect for this genre of music, not because I don’t understand it, but because all that it symbolizes doesn't sit well with my personal convictions and philosophy. I see it as a shallow form of self-expression which is more about “processing” than real “creation”; this is a sad statement on future generations, in my opinion, though it’s clear that very few of them will see it as such.  

Art forms like mash ups and re-mixes move us closer towards the synthetic, into a world where nothing new is truly being created, where individuality and identity are devalued, and interplay and communication is reduced to pushing buttons. Such forms are elegies to consumerism and actually don’t accomplish anything towards the goals they purport to represent. Where’s the real discovery? The real creation? Why can't such artists compose their own music or create their own mixing material and samples? Can they actually be considered musicians? Such art forms are about rehashing the past and not really about moving forward; it's not about progressing and building upon, but entirely about reformulation.     

The very idea and logic appears ludicrous to me. Big corporations bombard and control us through media, so we’ll immerse ourselves in this media and depend on it to express ourselves? Wouldn't a refusal to participate in this culture, moving away from these modes towards more meaningful and natural art forms be the smart thing to do? But, no, the appreciation of true originality seems to demand too much from its audience, so let’s blend and re-spit all that was famous years ago and let’s call that the new generation’s art form?  
The riff from “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” had its time and place. I don’t need to re-hear it time and again with different push-button beats or mixed into “Karma-Chameleon” instead of some Beyonce song.   

No wonder serious artists are all struggling and starving. But if no one is funding them, what are future generations going to be mixing?  

The film clearly advocates, as if it’s a positive, the idea that “the information age is all about copying ideas.” This idea is not about proudly creating and sharing one's self, but about how much one can get away with by doing as little as possible, which explains why there’s a mind-blowing number of sites that offer absolutely nothing more than articles and posts stolen from all sorts of "old-school" creative people. I'm supposed to believe that this is about community building? Bullshit! It's about lazy, personal fame and ad dollars. And seeing what’s mostly being shared on social networks, it should be clearer that the new culture is all about safe cultural identifiers and stupidity, i.e. the spectacle...
For original content providers, it's awfully upsetting to see others profit from something they’ve worked hard on creating. Should such people simply accept that “that’s the way things are,” as the film suggests, and give up to rip off others instead? 
For that’s a big part of the problem that extends beyond the issue of banal mash ups. I understand that using parts of something to create something new is entirely different from flat-out plagiarism, but the line is more often than not thin, and opens up a complex can of worms that this documentary never even touches upon. 

The film even boasts Napster as “the greatest library of human creativity, ever. And [it was] done for free,”  claims Cory Doctorow, a digital culture critic. This view seems so retarded to me I don’t even know where to begin. If Napster founder Shawn Fanning had shared it, he would have bought and provided the albums rather than pocketing those billions of dollars. The reality: one person became a multi-billionaire while artists—not just labels—were seeing their record sales drop. And this includes the new artists who invested all they had into creating and publishing their first album only to see it being distributed for free, and forced to spend their days in a cubicle or waiting on tables because they can’t possibly charge $200 for a concert ticket and attract 20,000 people. This view marginalizes art greatly and assumes that it only belongs to domineering corporationsis this the limits of their culture? And do Gaylor and Doctorow really believe that everyone is downloading entire albums and films just to do mash ups? That's incredibly naive. How many users are actually using these networks to share/make known their own creations?  
Sites like Napster—who aren't designed for viewing/listening, but only for downloading—are about personal greed, not about creating a rich cultural library; that’s simply glorified justification for not wanting to pay for a product. Wake up, Doctorow.

Here’s one of the main problems with the film and Gaylor’s viewpoint and why I think it does more harm to “art” than it does good: it only focuses on a few major and oppressive corporations and demonises or attempts to ridicule them using cheap spin techniques. Nowhere are the real artists, those that create the material that make mash ups possible, interviewed. The opinions expressed in the film seem to consider that this only touches mega-stars; the film even treats them as unreachable entities, somehow assuming that a certain, undefined level of popularity automatically propels these people's creations into the public domain. Unfortunately, that's blind La-La land fantasy. Sadly, the feelings and opinions of artists of all stripes are entirely inexistent in the film, and so it ends up being nothing more than see-through propaganda to justify re-mixes and illegal downloads, loosely using more serious issues pertaining to patent laws as smokescreen.

But then what’s preventing Fox News from taking footage of this video and rearranging it into a Hitler-loving fluff piece that celebrates Walt Disney before asking the public to stone Gaylor? What’s stopping anyone from reformulating facts, presenting anything one says or does out of context or in a specially constructed one?  The issues are much more important than the right to create some great dance-floor mixes.

I really wonder how Girl Talk, the mash up artist featured in the documentary, would feel should several of his signature remixes end up as the soundtrack to a Wal-Mart commercial or some campaign glorifying some crazy despot, while he has no say and he’s not collecting a dime. By the end of the documentary, it was reported that he’d left his day job to focus on “his” music. And what if he, as he hopes, gets to record a legal, worry-free album, which he'd no doubt hypocritically do with a company like EMI in a heartbeat? Will he really be hoping that only one album sells so it can be uploaded on some P2P file-sharing program? And as far as gigs... there is irony in that he thinks he should get paid to play what he believes should be free.   

It’s easy for someone like Girl Talk to say that all those slaved-over songs should be his to do with as he pleases, primarily because he’s not offering anything that entirely comes from himself, i.e. something that’s a pure expression of his being. As far as artists go, he’s a fake of the worst kind.
And re-mixing re-mixes has to be the lowest art form possible, period, so by his own view, I hope he realizes that what he offers is fleeting and has no lasting value. It’s entirely empty. A statement on that next generation?

The four-point manifesto is a joke, the first point, “culture always builds on the past,” a lame attempt at saying “stealing” is OK, and the examples they provide are incredibly weak, such as Led Zeppelin—who, it is well known, have been highly criticized for having ripped off blues artists. Grunge depended on Punk which came to be because of rock n’ roll which was built on the blues... BUT there’s a big difference between “influence and building on” versus “copying/stealing”.

In trying to sell us the idea that mash up-style art has been around for a while, an important fact that’s omitted from the film is that William S. Burroughs used his own texts when creating his cut-ups, using the technique to give new interpretive modes to his own creations. Ditto for many other 'important' sampling artists. That, to me, is one hell of an important difference, and the inability to see or mention the distinction an example of the ignorant view this film chooses to adopt. Burroughs certainly didn’t take a line from Coleridge, one from Plath, one from...

And, again from the mind of Doctorow, we’re given the “everybody does it so it’s ok” argument? Really? Comparing this to Victorian mores on masturbation, assuming we all do it but are ashamed to admit it? Where's the real respect for artists? They don't count if we all do it? Really?       

A good portion of the film focuses on Walt Disney—who actually borrowed from the public domain, so, although a distasteful character, how exactly did he “steal” material?—as well as some ex-hippie, Dan O’Neill,  who, for reasons which seem lost in a sixty’s drug haze of era-crazed anti-establishment, was hell bent on pissing off the Walt Disney Company in the name of freedom of speech. The rational? Mickey Mouse is so popular he should belong to all of us (but isn’t this the same type of dangerous and insipid attitude with which Britney Spears is treated?). So, rather than creating his own characters, he insisted on drawing comics that featured Mickey Mouse look-alikes, launched the “Mouse Liberation Front” (M.L.F.), and called himself a revolutionary, losing countless and pointless court battles.  
And why is this supposed to convince me that “stealing” is right?

And I question whether using the proliferation of mash ups in Brazilian favelas is really a good idea? The extreme poverty faced in such communities raises many questions, the limited/lack of access to worthwhile, diversified educational and cultural programs being but one of them.  

Later in the film, the same dork that provided the vapid masturbation metaphor manages to one-up himself. After admitting, “... we’re discussing the means by which music may be stolen,” the argument he provides is essentially, ‘well, technology allows us to steal, so too bad. That’s how it goes.’

I agree, the fines are too severe. And the process costly, so it’s easy to think that it’s only the big corporations that are evil, but that’s only because the “little guy” doesn’t have the funds our resources or know-how to file suit against those that steal his/her album or text or short-clip, etc., but believe me, the anger and frustration they feel is very real, even if you never see their faces in court.
New opportunities are indeed being offered, and all have to rethink their game plan, but morals and integrity should still be a part of the process. 

Oh! Now that I think about it, to demonstrate just how shallow this film is, perhaps I should have simply mentioned the part where we see Paris Hilton dancing during a Girl Talk concert, to which the narrator says, “Look. There’s Paris [Hilton]. It’s official, copyright infringement is hot!”

Film, on the source site:

Keep on clicking!

© 2011, Pascal-Denis Lussier


Mononk Fran├žois le Bussi├áre said...

I don't have time to view the movie at the moment. But, not to glorify the man, only to see this in some other scope, Cory Doctorow is also a Sci-Fi writer. You can dowload most of his books for free on his site, as most of them are on a Copyleft/creative commons type of arrangement. apparently, this has given him visibility that permits his paperbooks to be sold (and have movies made of them). Of course, this doesn't concern the mix/mashup artform, but still it touches the napster spot. Of course, the difference is the Beatles and the Stones didn't put their music on copyleft/cc instances.

Pascal-Denis Lussier said...

Good point. And sure, but his sci fi books are--well, apparently--his own creations, not a stew of lines stolen from tons of different authors. Creative commons are a good thing and I'm all for that, but nor should everyone and everything be automatically forced to become part of some creative commons just become some people want to freely trade and re-mix anything they feel like--that right should still belong to the creator. What's the real percentage of P2P users who are actually uploading and sharing their own creations? Sadly, probably less than 1%. But, yes, some are making their creations freely available in the hopes that it helps to launch a 'career' for them (which means they're hoping to get paid at some point)... but don't be fooled, someone somewhere is profiting highly from this new reality.
And even then, there are clear and simple crediting considerations with creative commons that many people can't even bother complying with/respecting, especially with images where many are simply redistributed/re-used in order to attract ad clicks, which, in essence, violates the terms of creative commons.

The increasingly dominant attitude is mostly about getting 2-minutes of empty fame--why people are willing to makes asses of themselves lip-syncing on YouTube--while respect for others' work is lost in a fog of "Me , myself, and I's". Once stripped to the core, few of the real motivations are admirable (though some are).

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