By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“Everything about it is appealing! Everything the traffic will allow!” belts a recorded Ethel Merman for the gazillionth time this century, before she suddenly trips into a cut-and-paste stutter. “Nowhere can you get that happy feeling! When you are stealing! When you are stealing! Stealll-ling!”
This moment of aural collision emanates from the dimly lit audio equipment of Negativland, grand patriarchs of sound-collage satire. The San Francisco--based collective’s recent tour, which visited Los Angeles‘ El Rey Theater, was a masterpiece of sonic and visual loopery, borrowing and re-contextualizing some of America’s most entrenched pop culture. Often described by their own self-coined term “culture jammers,” the group‘s 20-year modus operandi is to point out commercialism’s insidiousness by displacing it, wrenching pop icons from their usual comfy context so they‘re out in the light and viewed anew. That Merman recording’s been seeping into our collective unconscious for decades, and Negativland‘s self-appointed job is to shake it out.
“Let’s go! On with the stealing!”
Negativland has dedicated its lengthy career to the art of thievery. After all, you can‘t re-contextualize a snippet without having a snippet to re-contextualize, and most mega-corporations won’t grant official permission for you to tweak them. With or without licenses (and usually without), Negativland‘s crafted collages have shot down stalwarts like Pepsi, corporate radio and the rock band U2, whose record label’s ire was sufficiently raised to cease-and-desist Negativland‘s 1991 “U2” single into eBay purgatory.
The ensuing debacle gained Negativland some notoriety, turning the band into experts on legal gray areas such as fair use, parody and copyright infringement. In 1993, during the U2 aftermath, Negativland’s Mark Hosler gave an interview to Paperback Jukebox, where he predicted the following future:
“Eventually you‘ll be able to put CD-quality sounds up on the Internet and people will be able to download it anytime they want. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to own it, control it or legislate it, the technology has gotten away from them. Of course I‘m being optimistic, but I think that the [copyright] laws are going to become outmoded.”
Hosler’s prescience is noteworthy. New upstart file-sharing technologies, the best-known of which is the MP3, have us close to perfecting digital reproduction of CD-quality sound. Yet, while Napster developer Shawn Fanning was born around the same time Negativland formed, MP3-sharing programs like the one Fanning created are now helping turn Hosler‘s hypothesis into a cold, hard and worrisome reality. If, as the record business once fretted, “home taping is killing the music industry,” some see MP3 sharing as the final dagger through its heart -- a thought that anti-corporate types like Negativland would appear to relish.
In part, they do. “Anything that cuts the legs out from underneath the giant corporate cultural producers, I’m all for,” says Hosler. “If it scares the hell out of them, I think it‘s great.”
But it’s the third part of Hosler‘s prediction, how to appropriately revise those pesky copyright rules, that’s naggingly up for discussion. Though Negativland has long called for an overhaul of copyright law, seeking exemption for fragmentary usages like those in its own work, there‘s still the underlying premise of copyright as a means to financially compensate creators. With music fans swapping files as fast as their modems can gulp them down, the old-school record biz with its high CD prices is far out of the loop, but those traditional record labels have mechanisms to pay artists royalties -- something peer-to-peer file sharing doesn’t currently provide. Some artists fear that, if Napster-type programs displace traditional CD purchasing, they‘ll no longer be making a living, and there’ll be less art for everyone.
“How do we get paid?” wonders Hosler. “We make very, very little money doing what we‘re doing. If we made even less, we’d be screwed. We‘re just dinosaurs. We’re operating under the old model [of distribution] too.”
This is an ironic state of affairs, since Negativland -- along with fellow partners in clearance-free culture jamming like Evolution Control Committee (whose 1999 “Rocked by Rape” single liberated audio of Dan Rather and ACDC) and John Oswald‘s ongoing Plunderphonics project -- has created entire manifestoes based, in varying degrees, upon musical theft. Negativland sells T-shirts that read, “Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value.”
Most fair-users, including Negativland, make a strong distinction between re-contextualization (what they do) and piracy (what a thief does). Piracy is the wholesale copying of an entire artwork (a song, a film, a book), reaping profits duly owed to the work’s rightful creator. But re-contextualizing involves taking just a snippet of someone else‘s art -- never a work in total -- and reusing it within an entirely new piece, often to comment directly upon the original work. It’s an art form that predates copyright law: The entire folk-music tradition is based upon embellishing previously existing songs.
“Music should be treated more like a science,” says Robin Rimbaud, who, under the name Scanner, is known for integrating stolen cell-phone conversations and other found sounds into his music. “In science, when you work, you research one area and take information from [another] area, and so on. People carry on taking ideas from other places and combining them and seeing what you come up with. It‘s like a potion you’re mixing up.”