Category Archives: Postmodernism

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

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The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 1 of 2)

I give Terry Gross and Jay-Z credit for the timing of this blog entry.

On November 16, 2010, Jay-Z appeared NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Jay-Z was on a media blitz surrounding his new book that was released that day, Decoded–part autobiography, part analysis and discussion of his most provocative songs. As I was listening my ears perked up when Terry Gross asked him what he thought about The Grey Album, an unauthorized remix-mashup of his Black Album done in 2002 by DJ Danger Mouse. For fans familiar with previous comments on The Grey Album, Jay-Z’s response to Terry Gross was not surprising:

“I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity. And that was a genius idea to do, and it sparked so many others like it. It’s really good. … I was honored someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on quote-unquote the same song with The Beatles.”

DJ Danger Mouse’s “genius idea” is something I’ve been thinking about since I first learned about The Grey Album back on Grey Tuesday (Feb. 24, 2004). This is a paper in which I address The Grey Album as a critical moment in the cultural reception and popularity of the mashup in the digital age. As Jay-Z notes, “it sparked so many others like it.” In fact since 2004, the influence and the legacies of the Grey Album have come into sharper relief. What started out as an underground project is now fully mainstream. And as Jay-Z’s comments reminded me, The Grey Album is still a very relevant topic, one that continues to be brought up in discussions of culture, digital and otherwise. Moreover, there is a tendency in writing about digital culture–as a kind of history of the present–to focus on the latest phenomenon, the newest tech wrinkle, this day’s RSS feed. Today’s blog entry desires to fight against that tendency and I am curious to explore if time has given me any new perspectives on The Grey Album.

Today’s blog entry traces its roots back to 2006. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I presented twice in 2006, but never published. As always, I welcome feedback on these ideas. In revising this paper I realize that it bears many of the marks and quirks of digital culture circa 2006. It’s amazing how fast things have been changing lately. The earliest version of this paper was written prior to rise of Facebook, and while Youtube was still a fairly new phenomenon. But I am leaving in many of my original thoughts and potentially dated references in this time period since it is a kind of snapshot: a moment of early adoption of a nascent cultural practice.

Due to its length, I will publish it in two separate blog entries, but it is intended as one paper.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup


“Now can I get an encore? Do you want more?”

–Jay-Z, from the song “Encore”

1. Yesterday and Today

At the 2006 Grammys, rap artist Jay-Z and the nu-metal band Linkin Park won an award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for their hit single, “Numb/Encore,” which took Linkin Park’s musical riffs from their song “Numb” and combined it with Jay-Z’s lyrics for his song “Encore.” In essence, the collaboration amounted to something that DJs have been doing for a long time; namely, it was a mash-up, a musical remix genre that operates according to recombinatory logic. The mash-up takes the vocal tracks from one song and combines it with the instrumental tracks of a different song. As Jay-Z and the multiple members of Linkin Park crowded around the podium to accept their 2006 Grammy award, the first persons mentioned in the “thank you” speeches were not record companies, family members, friends, fellow musicians or even agents; rather Chester Benington of Linkin Park thanked the lawyers who made this mash-up possible. Welcome to the world of remixes and mashups, where this type of collaboration, even when pursued by the original copyright holders themselves, runs into a gamut of legal obstacles, and successfully navigating the labyrinth of the copyright industries is as important an artistic challenge as creating new music from the loops and samples of pre-existing lyrics, beats and rhythms.

However, that was all prologue to the moment when things got really strange at the 2006 Grammys. After winning the award, Jay-Z and Chester Benington gave a live performance of “Numb/Encore,” and towards the end of the song they where joined live on stage by Sir Paul McCartney who started to sing the classic Beatles song “Yesterday.” While it might have been just the usual superstar pairing of famous artists, which frequently occurs at these types of award shows, this appearance was different. There was clearly an intention behind the performance, even if that ostensible purpose was not being publicly declared in the moment.

Jay-Z, Sir Paul McCartney, Chester Benington (Grammys 2006)

Why did Paul McCartney perform with a rapper and a nu-metal band, and what in any case did “Numb/Encore” have to do with a classic Beatle tune? This live performance provoked strong reactions. It led more than one online fan to exclaim that it “might be a sign of the apocalypse,” and Tom Breihan of The Village Voice deemed it a “truly inexplicable cultural moment.” But even in less dramatic terms, “Yesterday”‘s appearance within the musical context of “Numb/Encore” probably left many members of the viewing audience simply scratching their heads. While it may have resembled something like a pop music Rorschach test, it really was a litmus test.

For anyone familiar with 2004’s Internet-based smash-hit The Grey Album, Paul McCartney singing alongside Jay-Z and Benington was an acknowledgement of a maturing and powerful cultural logic. But one’s reaction to the performance was contingent on one’s relation to remix culture. Record company executives had to be upset by the performance, which on some level, validated copyright violators and a post-Napster peer-to-peer music sharing mentality that many of them find anathema. It reminded many consumers who legally purchased Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s song that it came out of “free” or “folk” remix gestures, and moreover this was not the first time that Jay-Z’s lyrics were associated with the music of the Beatles. For the performers themselves, musical legacies were at stake: Paul McCartney continued to assert the importance of his Beatles’ work in the age of hip-hop, and Jay-Z publicly demonstrated his role as a risk-taking rapper and pop music mogul. However if one was completely unfamiliar with remix culture, it was likely that the performance sounded like a cacophonous confusion of rap, metal and pop–a failed supergroup moment that was much less than the sum of its parts.

And while it would be hard to quantify how many members of the audience knew about its connection to remix culture, for those who had listened to The Grey Album–especially millenials or net-gens brought up on mp3 downloads, hip-hop and iPods–the irony of the song’s title “Yesterday” would not have been completely lost on them, even though they were not even born when Beatlemania burst forth on American television screens on the Ed Sullivan Show. What ultimately brought Jay-Z, Linkin Park, and Paul McCartney together that night in March 2006 was something fiercely contemporary–an experiment just two years earlier by Brian Burton, better known as a British DJ who goes by the psuedonym of Danger Mouse.

2. DJ Danger Mouse and The Grey Album

“It was my intent to create an art project.”

–Brian Burton aka DJ Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse

DJ Danger Mouse got his name from his favorite cartoon, a 1980s British animated mouse of the same name, and Danger Mouse’s relationship to animated characters occurs throughout his creative output. In addition to a cartoon character supplying his DJ persona, Danger Mouse has worked with alt-rapper MF Doom on the 2004 release “The Mouse and The Mask,” which contains guest appearances from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon characters like Brak from Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Also, in 2005, he worked as a producer with the Gorillaz on their album, Demon Days, and the Gorillaz are an “animated band” that does not really exist. When asked to describe his style in 2004, Danger Mouse called it “bastard pop” along the lines of his commercial successes like his early work with Jemini on the album Ghetto Pop Life. For his hit, “Crazy,” he collaborated with singer Cell-Lo Green as part of Gnarls Barkley. “Crazy” in April 2006 set a record in the UK for being the first single ever to reach the top of the British pop charts on the strength of Internet downloads alone.

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) on set of TRL in 2008

For DJ Danger Mouse, it seems as if his contention that the “art is more important than the artist” is ringing true. His work spans multiple and ever-changing personas, including his recent involvement in Broken Bells, his collaboration with Shins lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer.[1] While he has worked successfully for several years now in commercial music circles, a large measure of his acclaim comes from projects like “Crazy” and The Grey Album that begin their lives as Internet phenomena.

In early 2004, DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album, a mash-up of tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with musical samples from the Beatles’ White Album. It was a high concept project. The blending of the high modernism of the Beatles’ White Album with the postmodernism of Jay-Z’s a cappela vocals from The Black Album has a wonderful dialectical ring to it, and in practice, the melding of these two musical artifacts–which might have seemed very incompatible–is a successful and groundbreaking effort. For example, in the song, “99 Problems” Jay-Z’s hard-core raps are matched by the sonic debris of the raging guitar riffs from Helter Skelter. For Jay-Z’s “Encore,” Danger Mouse sampled the vocal hook “Oh Yeah” and the guitar lead from the song “Glass Onion” with the infectious pop instrumentality of George Harrison’s “Savory Truffle.” In many ways, the samples turned the original Beatles songs inside out. Danger Mouse’s skillful mashups and the overall concept captivated fans of remix culture. Many of the tracks were considered “better” than the originally released version on The Black Album.

Originally, DJ Danger Mouse had planned on making only a few copies of his remix experiment (according to published reports, he planned on a limited run of 3,000 copies), so he did not bother at all with attempting to get rights clearances to the Beatles’ tunes he was sampling. And prior to digital music on the Internet, Danger Mouse’s remix would most likely have been released as a 12″ specialty vinyl EP, restricted to being played in a few dance clubs, sold in a few record stores in the import remix bins, and never moved beyond the bounds of its sub-cultural and/or underground origins and circulation. However, The Grey Album received widespread notoriety when EMI (one of the copyright owners of the Beatles’ musical catalog) sued DJ Danger Mouse for copyright infringement. This action had the opposite effect than EMI intended. As Mike D. of the Beastie Boys has said, “What can be cooler than being sued by the Beatles?”[2] Downhill Battle, a music activism group, took up Danger Mouse’s cause, and the resulting event was Grey Tuesday, where Downhill Battle lined up websites to host the digital files of The Grey Album to distribute the tracks as widely as possible on the Internet. On the protest’s biggest day–Tuesday, February 24, 2004–the tracks of The Grey Album had at least one million downloads, making it the number one album in the United States that day, outperforming such commercial artists like Norah Jones and Kanye West.

Subsequently, spurred on by DJ Danger Mouse’s “success,” other mainstream artists were remixed with Jay-Z’s a cappela tracks, resulting in similar projects with the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, and Metallica. One video project also emerged from this moment, Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video, which was a video mash-up of film clips from the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night with concert footage of Jay-Z, and some original green screen effects and additional motion graphics. However, the project probably had its most interesting outcome when Jay-Z himself decided to release remixes of tracks from the Black Album. Lining up the nu metal band Linkin Park, Jay-Z embarked upon a project under the auspices of  “MTV’s Ultimate Mash-Ups.” Released in November 2004, the mash-up track “Numb/Encore” garnered a Grammy nomination, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The many lives of the Grey Album and its influence on remix culture in an age of social media is the focus of this paper. I believe that the “grey” in the title of Danger Mouse’s project is a useful metaphor for understanding changes now underway on computer-mediated networks. There has been a “greying” of the Internet in two senses.

First, embodied by the logic of a mashup, a “grey” Internet is emerging as people, laws, codes, corporations, governments and technology remix the very foundations of the Internet, and blur the boundaries between utopian and dystopian possibilities for the medium. Emergent online realities are neither the “white” cyberspace frontier fantasy of the pre-Dotcom era nor the “black” Big Brother corporate enclosure model. The Internet is more “grey” than ever, especially in its privileging of individual agency in the network architecture (participatory culture), in the tensions between social networking and privacy concerns, and in encouraging remix aesthetics in a legal and corporate system diametrically opposed to it.

Secondly, the Internet is “greying” as it ages. In this sense, it is a “living web,” a network of sites that learned from the youthful indiscretions, a network that grew up in the aftermath of the Dotcom era. This “greying” Internet is being bombarded by problems generated  by growth and necessity: questions of net neutrality, battles among Internet giants such as Google and Amazon, the rise of the mobile web, and the enclosures created by social networks such as Facebook. It is not surprising to me that Tim Berners-Lee has just come out to defend the youthful vision of his Web in a Scientific American article. 1989 seems so long ago in digital time. Intriguing, in the sense of “greying” that I am advancing here, Berners-Lee states in his article:

“Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help. Not so. We create the Web, by designing computer protocols and software; this process is completely under our control. We choose what properties we want it to have and not have. It is by no means finished (and it’s certainly not dead).” (Scientific American, Nov. 22, 2010)

The Grey Album is an intriguing cultural experiment to follow: it moved from relative obscurity to mainstream visibility, from a DJ-based subculture to mainstream commercial television, from a singular remix to a plurality of remixes, from an audio-only project into a host of creative enterprises. The Grey Album is not a monolithic story of alternative media production. Following traces of the project through the cores and peripheries of folk and commercial cultures, The Grey Album resembles not so much an object as a “net of nets,” a blurred and blurring cultural meme, moving rhizomatically through the “meshworks” of an increasingly distributed Internet platform.

3. DJs, Remix Culture and Social Media

“We need to think of music as information, not simply as rhythms, but as codes for aesthetic transformation between blurred categories that have slowly become more and more obsolete. For me, the DJ metaphor is about thinking around the concept of collage and its place in the everyday world of information, computational modeling, and conceptual art.”

–DJ Spooky

This paper is predicated on two premises. First, remix culture has become a dominant mode of cultural production, a nexus of activities through which we can better understand what is happening in today’s global, computer-mediated networks. Second, the Internet, as a site of cultural production, is in a period of change, most commonly referred to today as Web 2.0, but also known as social computing. Social computing finds its greatest examples in new forms of online collaboration and media sharing such as blogging, podcasting, wikis, photo-sharing services like Flickr, video sharing services as Youtube, online communities like Facebook and Second Life, and online merchants such as Amazon.com, Netflix and iTunes.

As a mode of production, remix activities continue to grow in popularity. I like Bernard Schutze’s observation that “in remixing, one acts upon existing cultural materials pilfered from the vast landfills of the already mixed and mediated landscape.”[3] Remix artists foreground social interaction and cultural communication, and remixes blur boundaries and privilege polysemy. But this is far from a new phenomenon. It has a long history. Contemporary remix culture connects to many aesthetic movements in the 20th century, especially certain privileged moments of modernist art. It comes out of an artistic continuum that contains a wide array of visual and audio precursors: Sergei Eisenstein’s montage, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andre Breton’s surrealist games, William Burrough’s cut-ups, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s pop art, Joseph Beuys’ performance art, James Tenney’s avant-garde music, Grand Master Flash’s scratching, and John Oswald’s plunderphonics, to just begin to scratch the surface. But it has been in the realm of digital media, that remix culture has truly flourished and moved from a mostly high art aesthetic into a practice of everyday life.

PCs and Macs now come equipped, right out of the box, with basic creativity programs that allow even the least artistic computer users to engage in some forms of remix. There are many available online tools that encourage remix practices. Plugging into remix culture has never been easier. End-users on millions of computers can be nonchalant about the “aura” of the artist, and decenter the “author function” to the very margins of the mode of production. Users of Adobe Photoshop can create image-collages that required sophisticated knowledge of photographic emulsion just a generation before. Apple Computer’s and its suite of iLife programs, including Garageband, iPhoto and iMovie, encourage remix aesthetics in their very programming and pre-set templates such as iMovie’s new trailer remix tool. Garageband comes pre-loaded with thousands of musical samples, and users are encouraged to make their own “original” compositions out of these pre-recorded musical bits. Articles in Wired Magazine actively promote this as an “age of remix,” where this is a dominant mode of cultural production. Never before have amateur media producers had such professional tools at their disposal as they do in the current moment. We are witnessing the rise of the “pro-amateur class” in media production.

The pro-amateur is not only a key authorial presence in remix culture, but in digital media culture and on digital networks generally. In many ways, the pro-amateur is also important in educational circles, where digital creativity is increasingly finding its way into the curriculum and is considered an important skill for productive labor in the 21st century. According to scientist John Seely Brown,

“Most of what we learn we learn with and from each other [involves] doing things, things that matter to us. For example, the capability of today’s more participatory web starts to enable us to form communities of interest and to build and share things together. The remix movements are an obvious example…what I see unfolding is an organic culture of learning for us all…. from sports fanatics to geeks to authors, artists and amateur astronomers. Let’s just call it the rise of the pro-amateur class–serious explorations and creations we do for the love of doing it. Remember the term amateur comes from the Latin ‘amatour’ meaning for love. This more learner-centric, socially based learning, will enable us to keep up with the pace of change and enable us to feel comfortable with having multiple careers as both we and the world unfold at a challenging pace.” [4]

In this sense, many DJs are pro-amateurs, as we will see in the case of DJ Danger Mouse. But bloggers, podcasters, and alternative news services like Indymedia.org, the Daily Kos, or Moveon.org are other great examples of the pro-amateur. It is not amateur as in the words most negative senses–“inferior,” “unprofessional” or “naïve”–but amateur as operating outside of the imperatives of industrial culture. Avant–garde filmmaker Maya Deren, among others, has persuasively shown that the amateur might in fact have certain advantages over paid professionals in the culture industries. In most cases, there are no or limited commercial imperatives behind blogging or podcasting or alternative news services. We are witnessing an explosion of amateur producers who are creating what Yochai Benkler would deem a “wealth of networks” that is revolutionizing the way we locate information, obtain our news, and participate in shared cultural activity. This has spawned a large diversity of creative productions that challenges existing notions of mass media and traditional communication apparatuses.

But these changes are not happening in a cultural or technological vacuum. We are in the era of social media. In 2006, this new term has had its “coming out” party in major periodicals like Newsweek, which calls social computing the “new wisdom of the web” or “the living web.”[5] Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, is one of the major thinkers behind a new conception of “design patterns and business models” for software development involving online networks.[6] It is useful to remind ourselves of the initial expectations surrounding social media. Before the term had widespread currency, O’Reilly said that:

“Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.” [7] (emphasis added)

As this quote ably demonstrates, remixing was always already seen as a central activity in Web 2.0 culture. Lev Manovich, building on the work of Richard MacManus and Joshua Porter, argues that remixing will be abetted by another change: the web is going to be dominated by microcontent. MacManus and Porter see it this way: “Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is broken up into “microcontent” units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregrate and remix microcontent in new and useful ways.[8] Importantly, as Manovich suggests, “…it is much 
easier to ‘aggregate and remix microcontent’ if it is not locked by a 
design. Strait ASCII file, a JPEG, a map, a sound or video file can move
around the Web and enter into user-defined remixes such as a set of RSS 
feeds; cultural objects where the parts are locked together (such as Flash 
interface) can’t. In short, in the era of Web 2.0 and social media, ‘information wants to be
 ASCII.”[9] In this sense, when Jay-Z released an a capella version of The Black Album, he turned his vocals into microcontent. His rap lyrics have been remixed frequently because his vocal tracks are not trapped within the sonic packaging of The Black Album. By transforming his vocals into microcontent he gave voice to hundreds of remix artists, and in doing so, also amplified the reach of his voice–a lesson that is difficult for some contemporary record companies to understand. Microcontent brings up the issue of niche, narrow, splinter or sub-cultural communities, and one could argue that by definition, microcontent supports the potential for a greater diversity of content than witnessed in Web 1.0 culture.

But the idea of ever-greater amounts of diverse microcontent might portend more problems than solutions in arenas of cultural production. If the audience continues to splinter into very small units, what will happen over the long term to the “mass audience?” In this sense, I am not arguing that microcontent alone will usher in a new period of “free culture” on the Internet. Given the history of co-optation of folk cultures by mass media industries, corporate media conglomerates benefit from a splintered folk culture and can take advantage of a network of pro-sumers that diffuses their collective bargaining power across a global network. Trends, like Apple’s Garageband and iMovie, shows that certain segments in the culture industries welcome microcontent which they repackage as “free” content, while users still have to pay for software, access, storage space and network bandwidth.

Here the notion of the “long tail” is useful. Chris Anderson first used the term in a 2004 Wired Magazine article, and in a subsequent book.[10] In an analysis of blogging, Anderson argues that only a handful of blogs have large readerships, while most blogs have very few readers. Even so, the total readership of the blogosphere is distributed across all of the blogs and that the aggregrate audience for the less-read blogs is larger than the audience size for popular blogs. Frequently, this insight is understood in terms of business models: it is used to explain the success of Amazon.com or Netflix, where their very structure of revenue-generation benefits from the distributed nature of this effect. When competing with “brick and mortar” stores, such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, Amazon can afford to stock books that have almost no large readership because there is no “limit” to how many books Amazon can afford to stock in its online “store.” Alternatively, Netflix claims that “unpopular” films create more revenue than all of the popular new releases.

But what does this have to do with DJs, remix culture, digital entertainment and social media? It matters because the long tail model suggests that cultural productions do not have to appeal to the largest potential audiences. This is in distinction to the traditional world of mass broadcasting, i.e. the way that a film has to recoup its hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in its opening weekend, or the way that TV shows have to have large audiences to generate sizable advertising revenues. In the aggregate of the “long tail,” niche tastes can be catered to, and folk, avant-garde or non-commercial productions can succeed with rather small audience sizes. In this regard, remix culture can be successful even when it is narrowcast or splintercast on the Internet.

As narrowcasting takes hold, what will be the dominant model of cultural production? Can alternative or non-commercial productions in this sense really compete with corporate media culture? As the work of Henry Jenkins suggests, we are more involved than ever before in remix activities, but is this really posing a threat to the interests of media corporation? It is far too easy to envision the corporate re-appropriation of much of the collaborative work behind remix culture. While the medium might be the message, we are still willing to pay for messages in certain media, such as the fees attached to text messaging on cell phones. Furthermore, while many musical remix projects do not require much capital, other media forms, such as Hollywood films and major label music releases, are dependent upon expensive and time-consuming production processes including access to large teams of personnel, high-end equipment, professional guilds and talented performers.

Remix culture is symbiotic with popular culture. The best known mash-ups require recognizable and popular entertainment sources to succeed. Part of the genius behind the Grey Album is that the Beatles music is culturally ubiquitous. It would have been a very different project, if DJ Danger Mouse mashed up Jay-Z to the music of John Cage. That would have also drawn a lawsuit–John Cage’s estate is notoriously litigious–but such a project would not have become a cause celebre. The popularity of the referent in a mash-up matters. And if there is vanguardism in remix culture, it does not strike me as avant-garde in the traditional sense. It is not so much about “shocking the bourgeoisie” as media-savvy work aimed directly at youth culture, a culture that has always explored the worlds of bricolage, fantasy, and sub-culture.

UP NEXT:
The Greying of the Internet, Part 2: Grey Tuesday, Copyright Activism, and The Grey Video


Footnotes:

[1] See for example the Wikipedia entry on The Grey Album for Brian Burton’s take on the artistic freedom of remix culture

[2] Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul’s_Boutique

[3] Schutze, Bernard. “Samples from the Heap: Notes on Recycling the Detritus of a Remixed Culture.” inHorizon Zero: Issue 8. Remix: Generate, Regenerate, Transform.  http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/remix.php?is=8&file=5&tlang=0