Is there such a thing as a “definitive” version of a piece of music anymore? Even before the Internet’s rise, the multitude of remixes, dub versions, and collages that permeated hip-hop, dance music, Jamaican music, and sometimes rock and pop have called the idea of permanency into question for music lovers. And since the web became central to modern life, its instant distribution, easy-use sound-production and editing platforms, and capacity for finding music that otherwise might have taken years to track down have only complicated things further.
Rutgers journalism and media-studies professor Aram Sinnreich studies these complex patterns in Mashed Up: Music, Technology, And The Rise Of Configurable Culture. It’s worth knowing in advance that this is an academic book, full of close arguments whose density makes them less than ideal for lay reading. That said, Sinnreich does his best to overcome academic strictures—he isn’t overly jargony, and his fan’s-level understanding of the music he writes about is plain and engaging. (“I am keenly aware that I lack a clinical detachment from my work,” he admits in the book’s introduction. Hallelujah.) It helps, too, that Sinnreich is tackling territory that hadn’t previously been given nearly as thorough an overview as it deserves.
Central to Sinnreich’s book is the wide terrain conjured by the word “remix” and the limits of current copyright law in the face of changing creative systems. He’s more interested in quizzing out the terms of the swirl of activities, ideas, and structural questions that digital musical production and distribution have brought forth than in attempting to settle on simple answers. He divides his terrain into six binaries—art/craft, artist/audience, original/copy, composition/performance, figure/ground, and materials/tools—that are fast eroding, but have exemplified musical discourse in the modern era. (That era, per the author, begins in 1830, with Hector Berlioz’s restoration of Beethoven’s original scores after they’d been altered to fit the Paris Conservatory’s harmonic principles.)
Sinnreich spoke with a number of DJs, producers, remixers, and industry professionals for this book, and while his own arguments are thoughtful and thought-provoking, Mashed Up is liveliest when he structures his subjects’ words into debates. For example, the distinction of whether making mash-ups (at its simplest, vocals from A plus music from B) is composition or performance sparks plenty of disagreement between a number of practitioners: Strictly Kev dubs himself “an editor,” while DJ Axel opts for “director.” Or, as Sinnreich quotes intellectual property attorney Gary Andelman on the issue of creatively reworking existing audio material, “the tools are legal. But what you’re creating is illegal.” No doubt if the book had been written in the past few weeks, it would include a section on the recent rise of “800 percent slower” remixes that have lately proliferated on Soundcloud—not to mention a section on Soundcloud itself.