Gregg Gillis of ‘Girl Talk’ Talks CopyrightJanuary 28th, 2009
Gregg Gillis is Girl Talk – a 27 year old former biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh who used to research such things as the effect of light on human circadian rhythms, in order to cure the symptoms of jetlag. These days, Gillis has his own jetlag to deal with, and the rhythms are more of the dancefloor variety. This week he played two sold out shows in New Zealand. As Robert Levine wrote last year in the New York Times :
Girl Talk makes danceable musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs; there are more than 300 samples on Feed the Animals the album he released online at illegalart.net in June. He doesn’t get the permission of the composers to use these samples, as United States copyright law mostly requires, because he maintains that the brief snippets he works with are covered by copyright law’s “fair use” principle (and perhaps because doing so would be prohibitively expensive).
Girl Talk’s rising profile has put him at the forefront of a group of musicians who are challenging the traditional restrictions of copyright law along with the usual role of samples in pop music. Although artists like the Belgian duo 2 Many DJs have been making “mash-ups” out of existing songs for years, Girl Talk is taking this genre to a mainstream audience with raucous performances that often end with his shirt off and much of the audience onstage.
US academics like Lawrence Lessig ( who visited New Zealand late last year ) routinely cite Girl Talk as the leading example of a ‘mashup’ digital culture that is increasingly at odds with the ownership rules of current copyright law. As Kathleen Fitzgerald wrote in her recent review of Lessig’s latest book Remix:
The creative practices of today’s youth include a range of activities — file sharing, most notoriously, but also the production of mashups — that are illegal under the current copyright regime, but criminalization is having little success as a deterrent. Instead, the focus on “piracy” is changing our relationship to the law itself, which has come to seem arbitrary and unfair, and it’s hampering creative and educational uses of new technologies. It’s time to consider, Lessig argues, whether the costs of this war are too high.
Certainly, scare tactics based around concepts like ‘piracy’ plainly don’t work, and are being widely ignored. Today’s conflict between digital culture and copyright law are in fact, only the iceberg tip of a long, historical evolution. It was only 100 years ago, as Fitzgerald points out, that most of the music that people heard was what they made themselves. Initially, she says, the spread of technologies for music recording and playback didn’t democratise music itself – instead, it expanded the ability of the populace to hear professionals play, thus gradually transforming most people from producers into consumers.
As music and other artistic forms of expression became professionalized, they became increasingly subject to notions of ownership that became encoded in copyright law. For much of this time, the focus of copyright law was on controlling the competition between producers, not on seeking to control or criminalize the reading and listening habits of consumers. “Copyright law was understood to restrict publishers from releasing competing versions of texts, rather than restricting consumers in their uses of those texts. “
This situation has now changed in the age of the computer, and Girl Talk is now at the forefront of the creative and legal conflicts this has generated. The tools of creative production are now on everyone’s desktop, yet the rules of copyright law that belong to an earlier proprietorial age still apply. As Fitzgerald sums up :
On the positive side, this change has the potential to transform a professionalized, read-only culture back into a widespread amateur read-write culture. On the negative side, however, computer technologies have caused the jurisdiction of copyright law to spread from producers to consumers and thereby increasingly restrict the uses we can make of the culture we participate in.
Last year, New Zealand changed its copyright law to enshrine various forms of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Belatedly in some quarters, there have been concerns raised about the onus placed on Internet Service Providers to police copyright infringement, under section 92 C, and about the draconian penalties that libraries may face under section 92A. Ridiculously, for a law change meant to bring New Zealand into the 21st century, the act of copying of one’s own CDs to one’s Ipod or for use in the car has not been clearly legalized. Fitzgerald again :
Through DRM and the advancement of copyright law, the war on piracy has shifted its focus from the illegal reproduction and distribution for profit of texts, films, and music — something we can all probably agree should be controlled — instead leveling its sights on the uses consumers make of media texts, the sharing and remix of such texts by fans, the kind of amateur creativity that had been at the heart of American culture prior to the twentieth century. But the result has not been a reduction in illegal file sharing but instead an increase in violation of the law; as Lessig points out, “Even the good become pirates in a world where the rules seem absurd.”
Scoop political editor Gordon Campbell spoke to Gregg Gillis this week about some of these issues, and about his Girl Talk project. Images from Girl Talk’s recent Wellington show – dozens more images from the show at Neon Sleep
Campbell: During the past couple of years you’ve become a poster child for the creative commons/copy left movement. Do you feel a disconnect between what you mean to Net activists like Lawrence Lessig, and what you mean to the kids who come to Girl Talk gigs?
Gillis: I view it as two distinct worlds. When I started doing this music I felt a certain way about copyright, but it was not a point I wanted to push with the music. Even though it was an interest to me, and even though I had come to this music [of Girl Talk] with a background in people like Negativland and John Oswald – people who have been more aggressive when it comes to shifting the way people think, and in challenging copyright.
So while I was aware of [copyright issues] when I started, I also come from a background of listening to a lot of hip hop… where [sampling] was more or less implied within the music. It was something I didn’t want to have to talk about at the show, to y’know, stop the music to talk about copyright – but it was something that was there. When you release music like this, it’s obviously an issue.
Yet I think the bulk of people who come out to my show probably don’t even think about copyright in these terms. Young people now see remix music, remix video and all of that as just being the norm. Go on Youtube,,. go anywhere – it is what it is. A lot of younger people coming out of the shows don’t think oh, here’s some renegade, or outlaw pushing copyright laws. So definitely, there’s two separate worlds out there.
Campbell: Did the way the copyright battle between Negativland and U2 got settled [ Negativland used a U2 song in a satirical collage that U2 sued over] set any precedents that helped or hindered what you can do with Girl Talk?
Gillis: It didn’t have much impact. I feel that was a whole different era…it was a hit in underground circles in the States on college radio. It was more an underground thing. I feel anything that had that kind of circulation these days sampling U2, would be nothing. Sharing ideas has become commonplace in the culture. But those people did set the groundwork, and made me a bit more paranoid.
Campbell: I didn’t mean stylistically, I meant legally. Has that been a step in the right direction, the way that conflict with U2 got resolved?
Gillis: The outcome – as far as I know for Negativland – is that they basically, went bankrupt in defending it. It kind of went nowhere. I feel like it maybe raised the public consciousness of it being an issue, but legally, I don’t think it pushed out the limits any further.
Campbell: Is the music on your new CD copyrighted?
Gillis: No, there’s no copyright on them. On all the works, there is the ‘Creative Commons’ license, meaning they’re open to be re-worked. We have a non-commercial Creative Commons licence which basically means that you can’t just appropriate a song of mine and use it in a commercial. But you are allowed to re-mix my work and do whatever you want with it. And then do whatever – you can sell that. It can be protected under fair use, the same way my work is protected under fair use. So my work is not copyrighted. I don’t know how I would actually go about doing that, and I don’t want to do that.
Campbell. Yeah, the legal defence you have is fair use. But I thought that depended on whether you were making a commentary – ironic, satirical whatever – on the original work, rather than primarily being derivative of it. That was the defence that 2 Live Crew used when they ‘satirically’ sampled Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman’ So, what do you see your use of samples as primarily being ?
Gillis : Yeah, I think there is a level of commentary there. For me, the whole point at the foundation with fair use is – is it transformative? Does it become something else? Another point is – how is it impacting on the source material’s potential sale? Is it debasing it?
In the case of my works I feel like even though there are blatantly recognizable bits and pieces of lots of music – to me, it still feels like it becomes something else. That’s the ultimate goal – something that becomes its own entity. And along with that, I don’t think its negatively impacting the sales potential of what it is sampling. I think its probably turning a lot of people onto different music, and a younger generation onto older [stuff] they wouldn’t potentially listen to. And I also think there are different levels of commentary in there, too.
For me the main commentary is this. All bands by releasing music to the public, are asking for attention. You’re creating a character. Whether you’re doing it by creating a character like Radiohead who really tried to come off as artsy and intelligent – or whether you want to come across like Justin Timberlake, where you want to come across as hip and sexy, or whether you want to come across as 2 Live Crew, and be abrasive and offensive. You’re still creating a character. It doesn’t really represent you as a human being, and you’re selling that character. So I feel like, when I break it down to different levels, its commentary – that this is all some form of entertainment.
Campbell. Sure. And beyond that cultural leveling out of the characters that are contained within the samples, what’s creatively distinct about Girl Talk is the beats that you make, and the transitions you choose. To do that though, it strikes me that you must listen to music in quite a different way to most people. Most of us listen down our singular little channel of preference – but you seem to listen for what could possibly be complimentary, amid all the diversity out there.
Gillis. Right. I feel I kind of developed that with a lot of my friends who I grew up with. You meet some underground musician types, and the kind of common, negative cliché is that they’re elitist. They dismiss a lot of mainstream music. I experienced so much of that growing up that I feel like a lot of people – including my friends and I – went through to something that’s almost the opposite. Growing up was almost challenging each other to be into things. Like, if you don’t own every Elton John record, and you don’t love every one of them what are you – some sort of loser?
The opposite of elitism was the kind of way I came up, and at this point I’m still trying to hold onto that. I do like certain things more than others, but when I don’t like something I try to take a step back and objectively kind of analyse it – like, why do people like this ? Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean its bad, or good. I think with my own works that [openness] has been a valuable thing, because it means that any song can just be an instrument. And you can use it in many different ways. Speed it up, slow it down, chop it up. So even if I don’t like something, I might be able to work it, appropriate it, do something with it.
Campbell : If much of the creativity lies in the juxtapositions, can you give me a couple of examples from the Feed The Animals CD that you’re particularly proud of ?
Gillis : Yeah, on the new one, its funny because it is a big editing process. When you do music the way I do it – or any electronic music – you know as far as your chops go, [it depends on] if you can chop something up tightly, but still cohesively…that’s it. That’s the equivalent of solo-ing on a guitar.
On the new one, this will sound ridiculous but my favourite parts are very specific, half second segments that tie things [together]. There’s one that’s like, a combination of Rick Springfield “Jessie’s Girl” and a T-Pain song, and then it kind of segues into the “Jessie’s Girl” chorus with a Three-Six Mafia song over the top of it, but there’s also a half second Veruca Salt stab – and it sounds like she was just in the room. Even though it’s a completely different source, from a completely different era. it sounds like it just flows. Things like that, I really like.
And as far as the more straight up combinations, its a trial and error process for me. Most things don’t work, certain things I try over and over and over and they don’t really don’t fall into place. On the new one, there’s a particular segment, where there’s Public Enemy ‘ Rebel Without a Pause’ combined with Heart’s ‘Magic Man.’ Both are songs I really love, and had been trying to work together and just failing, failing, failing – and then they came together while I was assembling the album. Which is rare because most of my ideas come together in live sets or in performance, so that was a last minute thing that went on the album. Its probably my favourite part on the album, I would say.
Campbell: ‘Jessie’s Girl’ is such a naked, intense song about envy, to be found in a little pop song…
Gillis : Yeah, its pretty blunt.
Campbell: But its still surprising to me that you can do this. There are sample trolls out there – like the guy who owns all of George Clinton’s work, and I look at his readiness to sue and wonder how come no one is going after you in court. Do you think they’re afraid of losing, and of creating a negative legal precedent ?
Gillis: Yeah, I think so. That would be my guess. The way the album has been received as far has been to do with the whole ‘fair use’ argument – is it transformative, does it become something new…The fact is, the past two albums have received a fair amount of press, and I’ve gone on to play festivals where the music has been surrounded by other progressive musicians and I’m kind of in the same boat as them….I feel like that [fact] alone, the fact that success has not got [anyone] that fired up to sue, means more or less, that I could be on the winning side of a fair use argument.
In the United States in the history of the use of sampling, there’s been a lot of scare tactics. When you get into sampling music, or when a lot of writers first got into writing about me they’d say, oh, he’s gonna be sued by a hundred artists. That’s the way people write about sample-based music. They don’t say oh, its fair use , it’s a grey area.
Campbell. Or those early writers on sampling also tended to depict it as artists being ripped off – when commonly it is not the artists ( who are often the wage slaves of the record label ) who own the copyright, or have the economic stake in this.
Gillis. Right. And if someone did sue, and we did win, that would open up all these young peoples’ minds to say, oh I can do this, I’m allowed to do this. Like you’re saying, it could set a precedent and be a very positive thing, but for the labels it would obviously be something they would be worried about.
Campbell: Mindful of this legal tightrope you’re walking with sampling, are their any artists you would regard as being a no go zone, because the danger of being sued is higher ?
Gillis : Like I said, the music for me is so trial and error that when I’m working on something, I’m always fiddling around….And when I start sampling the furthest thing on my mind is whether the band would care or not about me sampling them. And with that, there’s someone like Metallica – a band that where I was fiddling with their song “One” it happened to click really well, and I started playing it live, and so when it came to putting out the record, I couldn’t not include this, because its one of my favourite things.
Now, they have a really big history with the whole Napster thing.. If you went up to anyone in the street and asked them to pick five artists who might be a problem, I’m sure that Metallica would be in most peoples’ top five. That’s something where – putting the album together I was aware of it. But when I’m making the music, I try not to be concerned about who I’m sampling and fair use and things like that. When I basically make the product and at the end I analyse it – its then that I step back and say is it illegal that this should be released, and do I think I’m actually hurting any of these artists ? So, [in answer to your original question] no, not really.
Some of the classics like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin who I haven’t really sampled on record too much, that’s a whole other issue for me. I like them and I sample them a little bit. But with the Beatles, who I love, I don’t know them as well as many know them. I don’t feel its morally right or wrong but its more like …if I sample a classic song, I want at least to know it as well as the average guy does.
Campbell : Right now, the process of sample clearance seems so unwieldy and expensive, it ends up penalizing the artist and the copyright holder – since it tends to stop the process in its tracks. Can you envisage any workable changes to copyright law that would free up the logjam ?
Gillis. Yeah, we were trying to think things through at the last release. We were almost going to propose our own system and just put it out there and do it, and offer them money. But that sort of undermines the fair use argument That’s kind of the reason why we didn’t do it.
One of the ideas we had is that – if the work is deemed to be transformative, and you still wanted to give out royalties – of having some sort of roof on the overall project, as to what you could pay. And if it was a percentage of the money per albums sold, there would have to be a limit, you know? After you’ve sampled 300 bands, you can’t really pay them the same amount as if it was one sample on an album. Its also very different whether you’re selling a million albums or 500 albums, though I don’t think that should really change whether you can use that song or not. So a rule could be – maybe always being a percentage, and there being some sort of limit there as to what you would be wiling to pay out [based on ] the average number of CDs at this point in time.
Campbell: It seems to me there is economic stake in copyright, but there’s also a moral stake. Don’t other artists have the right to disapprove of your transformation of their work?
Gillis: Absolutely. But the thing is, I feel like all music is based on influence. A lot bands that came after Nirvana, I’m sure Kurt Cobain is rolling over in his grave about it. He went on to influence some of their music. And what about the blues guitarists – I’m sure they don’t like everything that came from that. Or with the Sugar Hill Gang and hip hop, I’m sure they’re not into everything that came from that. Its kind of the nature of art, really.
Campbell : Well, last year in Congressional hearings, Representative Mike Doyle mentioned the appropriation by Paul McCartney of a Chuck Berry bass riff for “ I Saw You Standing There…”
Gillis: Exactly, I feel like sampling – to varying degrees – is very similar to taking a guitar riff like Mr Doyle was saying, or re-arranging something and making something new out of it. Especially so with people growing up around my age listening to hip hop, and always understanding sampling. My first album I bought was Bell Biv Devoe – and there were very few actual instruments played on that record. Public Enemy were among my first records. Its just the way I kind of understand music.
Campbell: And an older hip hop record like De La Soul’s ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ is unimaginable without sampling
Gillis : That was just the music of my childhood, basically, and for a lot of people. Its an instrument, and some people maybe don’t like what their music went on to influence, but that’s what happens.
Campbell : Lewis Hyde, who has written influentially about the role of the artist in a market economy, has argued that the romantic notion of the lone inventor in their garage or artist in their garret – the sole creative spirit, solely due all the rewards of their creation – is highly over rated. Tracing things back all the way to Benjamin Franklin, Hyde argues that American creativity has more often been a shared, communal act. Do you see any continuity between what you do and that strain of American invention – which recognizes that creatively we all, one way or another, stand on the shoulders of giants ?
Gillis: Absolutely. And I think that’s true of all music, of all cultures. The passing on. The most blatant early example is of playing a song to your family, and maybe them playing it their friends, and it traveling- and they appropriate that song and go and spin on it and tell their own tale. Negativland and John Oswald were the pioneers of cutting up physical media, but it dates to way back before then.
Campbell: Back at least to the likes of Charley Patton and his impact on the Delta blues…
Gillis. Exactly. Anyone who is a music fan – if you take a step back you can hear any song new or old, and go oh, they probably listened to this band or that band. And that’s not a negative thing,. Its not bad, its cool. I think its funny when I see people writing about bands and they go oh, they’re ripping off this, or they’re ripping off that. Everyone is. They’re just being more blatant about it. So I’m into all of that. I think that’s just where we’re going.
The way that young people understand that [process] now is maybe a lot different. The idea of taking a song and re-mixing it or taking a video and chopping it up and putting it on Youtube and it being your own idea…and a completely valid idea, The resources are there, they’re on computers all day long generating new content based on pre-existing content. That’s kind of what we gain by losing the physicality of the CDs and the vinyl right now. But with digital media, you have this whole other level of interactivity.
Campbell : Finally if I see a downside in all that, it is that the rites of appropriation are partly a reflection that a lot of people feel locked off and locked out, Such that they feel this is not a culture that they belong to – but that its products are there for the plucking. I think that readiness to appropriate is partly due to the fact that we’re now all living, one way or another, in a robber’s realm.
Gillis : That’s true. I think people do have a different level of respect. But I think that’s cool too, though. Its kind of breaking down those walls…I can’t even imagine 20 years from now, the way that people are going to understand making music. Like, I love buying albums, I love buying CDs. Yet all that is going to die off, all that is moving to this new generation who will have no nostalgic connection to any of that. They will have grown up with everyone sampling everyone, and with the greatest artists being Youtube generated. And that’s cool – and I’m not going to understand any of it.