OTM On Girl Talk: They Say That I Stole This Song
On The Media devoted its entire show this week to The Future of the Music Industry. The occasion is the 10 year anniversary of the record industry confrontation of the peer-to-peer file-sharing service, Napster. The hour is guided by public radio and TV reporter Rick Karr. I encourage you to listen to the full program, but today I choose to quote from the piece that looks at sampling. In it OTM producer Jamie York talks to Girl Talk, Hank Shocklee and Duke Law professor James Boyle.
Girl Talk is the performance persona of Gregg Gillis, now a professional musician but until just a couple years ago a biomedical researcher by day and a deejay by night. Here’s how Gillis describes what he does to OTM producer Jamie York:
I basically take preexisting pop songs and I cut them up and rearrange them and collage them together and try to manipulate them in a way that it becomes something new, try to make new pop out of old pop. … It starts off with your drums from Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. Then you would hear a verse from a UGK song. … And then you would hear a bass line from Spencer Davis Group. … And then you would hear drums that I program myself with drum machines, and you would hear hand claps that come from an Afrika Bambaataa song. … So it’s kind of like that, enough to get a pace of 300 songs in like 50 minutes or so.
It must be heard to be really appreciated:
Gillis is also the subject of the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto. A project of Open Source Cinema, you can watch the full movie via its YouTube channel. Or download it in its entirety for free here.
In the video clip at the top of this post, filmmaker Brett Gaylor goes to the United States Copyright office to ask Marybeth Peters, Registrar of Copyrights (and working in the copyright office for over 40 years) just what’s wrong with what Gillis does. It’s a fascinating sequence followed by the most impressive multi-media rumination on the derivative nature of music I have ever seen. Be sure to click the HQ button on the embed; It’s a visual and aural treat as well as an intellectual provocation. I urge you to watch.
Gillis is a true talent and I’m a big fan. I paid, voluntarily, $50 for Feed the Animals. Gillis is glad to give it away for free, confident that fans like me will pay his way. At least so far he seems content to make a living creating his art, not driven to strive for the wuthering heights of Madonna-style-stardom. He has, of course, achieved his own kind of stardom. Profiled in GQ this month, he’s also earned the heady notoriety of being called “a lawsuit waiting to happen” in the NYTimes Magazine.
OTM asked their Duke Law professor Boyle just why Gillis hasn’t been sued. His rundown of the reasons is illustrative of the pickle the music execs find themselves in these days:
There is the story that the labels learned from DJ Danger Mouse and don’t want to risk creating the Che Guevara of the digital sampling age, the lost hero to which all of us will offer reverence and thus make him even more popular. Another story is, they’re going, hmm, this is really interesting. Let’s let him run a bit, and when we finally see how things are playing out then we’ll figure out a way of getting a revenue stream out of this. A third story is they realize it’s actually fair use and they don’t want a bad precedent brought against them. And then a fourth one is that they are gibbering in terror and are so scared by this new phenomena, they’re incapable of rational action of any kind and so are caught in a kind of fugue state, as the digital music scene develops.
So which is it?
Says Boyle, “If you went around the music industry and asked people, why haven’t you sued him, you would get all of those answers.”