'Tis is the season of the mashup. Mashups are the combining of two or more songs into a new musical collage. The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works. The concept of mashups has been around for years; one of the earliest popular examples, a 1978 novelty song known as Stairway to Gilligan's Island, inserted the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song into the music of Stairway to Heaven. (Full story here).
Back in the day, such mashups had to be done acoustically; with the rise in digital media extraordinary musical collages can now be done by enthusiastic fans with computers and talent.
Unfortunately, such mashups don't sit well at all with the recording industry, which prefers to attack fans rather than encourage them. Stairway to Gilligan's Island was banned almost from the moment it first appeared (but -- thank God for the Internet! -- it's once again widely available via P2P). The most famous example occurred with last year's The Grey Album, DJ Dangermouse's excellent collage mix-up of The Beatles The White Album and JayZ's The Black Album. Despite being selected as the number one album of the year by Entertainment Weekly, The Grey Album received a "cease and desist" letter from Beatles song publisher EMI, which effectively outlawed the music. (Have no fear; it's still widely available here and via P2P, samizdat music for a revolutionary digital generation.)
EMI's heavy-handed attempt to ban the album earned them much contempt in cyberspace, and on Grey Tuesday (February 24th, 2004) hundreds of Websites carried mirrors of the complete Grey Album in protest. Far from stopping this new work of art, EMI in fact brought it worldwide exposure.
BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow summed it up nicely:
Copyright maximalists like to contrast copyright with the old system of patronage, when you could only make art if you could convince the Pope or a duke or a king that your art was worthy. Patronage really distorted creative expression, and copyright did indeed promise to decentralize authority over what kind of art was permitted.
But the EMI rep's answer to the Grey Album is patronage. "You must not make this art unless we permit it." If you work for one of a few big record companies, you can use their legal apparatus to clear the material you want to use in a mashup. Otherwise, your art is illegal and will be censored.
I think patronage is wrong -- I agree with the maximalists here. Let's end it. Let's share these mashups, make samples without permission, and continue to produce art without permission from the latter-day aristocracy of creativity.
Cut to the present. Another great mashup, this one a remix version of Green Day's phenomenally popular American Idiot called American Edit. The mashup's creators, who go by the Green Day-flipping handle "Dean Gray," release their extraordinary album and ten days later they, too, get a "cease and desist" order, this one from Warners, Green Day's label. Another "Grey Tuesday" (December 13th, 2005), roughly a quarter million downloads, more embarrassment for the recording industry, and worldwide publicity for American Edit, which is still also available all over the Net via P2P (and HIGHLY recommmended by yours truly).
Here are a couple of other mashup albums to whet your appetite:
Q-Unit: Greatest Hits combines 50 Cent and Queen. The results are fun, if less revelatory than those in American Idiot. The back cover art is a terrific visual mashup: 50 Cent reimagined as Freddy Mercury!
And, just in time for Christmas, the funky Santastic: Holiday Boots 4 Your Stockings.
Imagine if Picasso had received a "cease and desist" order from reps for the African sculptors who inspired his seminal 1907 classic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He might have painted Blue and Rose people for his entire career!