Week 10: Mashups and the confusion of copyright

Video ‘mashups’ have become increasingly popular with audiences worldwide. A visual and audio sensory experience, the VJ-driven mashup format, part of the youtube culture, is easily sharable and offers something familiar presented in a completely different way.

Here I examine two Mashup artists worthy of note. Firstly, Cassetteboy, an English electronic music and comedy duo, who make political statements using skilful editing techniques. Secondly, I will look at the work of Kutiman, an Israeli producer, musician and animator, who is famous for making compositions and music videos from a pastiche of user generated youtube videos. I will then briefly examine the hazy area of copyright that such formats occupy.

As Thompson (2011, p180) points out, mashups are ‘commonly used for political commentary, humour and critique’ and Cassetteboy is an act that falls into this category (see video below).

Kutiman goes a step further. Whilst not conveying such overt political intentions as Cassetteboy, the methods used by Kutiman to make his videos are quite astounding. Using clips of user generated music uploads, he combines musicians from all over the world, who are not aware of the production process until a track is released incorporating their playing. The documentary Presenting Princess Shaw, portrays ‘Princess’ and her everyday struggle to make music and get noticed. Working 12 hour shifts in a care home, she has no idea that over in Israel, Kutiman is making musical backdrops from her acapella youtube uploads and the instrumentals of other (also unwitting) musicians. It is only the day of the first track’s release when her youtube page starts receiving hundreds of views (she is unknown and has hardly any youtube activity beforehand) that she realises she is part of a new phenomenon of music making and has gone viral. Kutiman makes no money from the mashups; instead his work is of cultural value and it is in rare live performances at prestigious high brow venues (the documentary opens with him playing at The Guggenheim Museum) that we begin to see the depth of his popularity and kudos.

Both of these artists raise questions surrounding copyright laws. They both use existing works by other authors to create entirely new pieces of work. The authors and copyright owners become part of a montage / collage that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

As Thompson states, (2011, p181) the notion of copyrighted material not being altered is “becoming obsolete”. With new technologies, new copyright laws are in constant catch up. According to Thompson, the essence of mashups as an artform, similarly to beatboxing is comparable to the ways in which folklore, and folk music, was passed on and altered over time. Guardian writer Julian Hoffman (2015) argues that Kutiman and his kudos would be nothing without “genuine people like Princess to exploit…or celebrate, depending on your view”, and refers to him as a ‘manipulator’. I thought the film was innovative and celebratory, and shows the potential for yet another form of music production that ignores boundaries of time and space. The mashup can be a way of turning familiar sounds and imagery on their head, or combining artists who have never met. That can only be saluted when done successfully.

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