In 2003, Danger Mouse, a.k.a. DJ Brian Burton, took music samples from the Beatles’ “White Album” and edited in Jay-Z’s vocals from his “Black Album,” creating the “Grey Album.”  This record became one of the first mainstream mash-up albums, and Rolling Stone Magazine called it “the most talked about musical event of 2004.”

Mash-ups, the genre that the “Grey Album” is a part of, fall into a legal middle ground.  Downloading, sampling, and distributing recording artists’ music violates copyright laws, which are still trying to catch up to this new technology.  Sampling and remixing music isn’t a new phenomenon, but only recently became a complicated legal issue.  The music industry is now suing its consumers, despite the fact that few current laws regulate this kind of music sharing.

(“What More Can I Say” by DJ Danger Mouse)

In the digital age, copying and spreading music is a much easier task.  Every time a music file is downloaded illegally, a new copy of it is made which can be shared in turn.  “Basically, the music industry is slipping towards anarchy, and the record companies are trying to keep control of their revenue streams,” said Professor Sam Howard-Spink, professor of music copyright law at Steinhart School of Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University.

Copyright Laws

The Sugar Hill Gang was the first band to feature music sampling in their chart-topping hit, “Rapper’s Delight.”  The group sampled a beat from Chic’s popular disco song, “Good Times,” added a few other instruments, and rapped on top of it.  “This sort of sampling led to what I like to call the ‘P. Diddy’ kind of sampling,” said Josh Terrill, a content coordinator for the record company Artist Arena.  “Artists like Kanye West or P. Diddy loop one song and then karaoke on top.”  These practices, which Terrill considers to be an augmented interpretation of traditional practices, have been around since music has been recorded.

Copyright laws, which were originally designed to foster creativity within the music community, were adjusted and reinforced after Walt Disney created his empire. After Disney passed, the company he left behind lobbied Congress to strengthen copyright laws in order to protect his images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters.  Now, a copyright lasts the lifetime of the composer plus either 75 or 95 years depending on how strong the cultural impact is as determined by congress.  At that point, a copyright can be renewed if the property is still deemed culturally valuable.  Basically, Mickey is still the exclusive property of Disney because he still brings in profit.

After the Internet

According to Professor Howard-Spink, in order for piracy to have existed before the Internet, a lot of money needed to be invested. “You would need to have every stage of production to copy music illegally, whether it be pressing vinyl, making tapes or CDs,” he said.

Now, with the accessibility of the Internet, mash-up artists tend to ignore the part about buying the rights, and instead just mix with what they like.  This can, however, lead to a win-win situation. “If [mash-up artists] are playing your music it means they like it,” said Terril. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t use it.”  This means that, if the original song is good, both the mash-up artist and the original artist can receive publicity. Of course, this is where the legal trouble tends to follow.

Girl Talk, a.k.a. Gregg Gillis, is a famous mash-up artist who uses an average of 21 music clips per song. If he paid, the cost would average $260,000 per song and $4.2 million per album according to “RiP: A Remix Manifesto.”  Instead, he and other mash-up artists use legal loopholes to spread their music, since they are not allowed to sell their work for commercial gain. “Technically, Girl Talk is not for commercial purposes.  His album is a pay what you want,” said Howard-Spink.  Girl Talk chose to allow the consumer to decide what to pay, saying that this “[makes] it easy for people to get their hands on the music, which is my number one priority.”

By not asking a specific price for his music, Girl Talk makes the argument that his music is not for commercial reasons.  His 2008 release of “Feed the Animals,” the second most popular album of 2008 according to Blender Magazine, brought him enough recognition to earn him top booking at music festivals across the country.   This brought him the income of a recording artist, even with a strictly promotional and not commercial album.

(Mash-up videos featuring all the songs that Girl Talk samples in his album “Feed The Animals”)

Bridging the Gap

The music business is still trying to bridge the gap between mash-up artists like Girl Talk and recording artists.  In 2004, David Bowie held a competition to see who could make the best mash-up from two of his songs, for which the grand prize was a sports car.  The purpose of this competition was not to support mash-up artists as much as it was to promote David Bowie’s own music.  Following the competition, Bowie owned the rights to all of the new songs that were submitted, as well as the original clips that had been used.  This allowed for the struggling mash up artists to get their names out their while Bowie was able to retain all the rights to his songs.  This hasn’t happened very often, but serves as an example of mutual benefit.

This success does not go unnoticed by the music business—mash-ups are so popular online that the music industry has become more selective with their legal attacks, looking for a way to harness this genre without the legal complications.

“There are fights between legal departments and the marketing departments,” said Terrill.  “The marketing departments think this is going to be the next frontier of music, but the legal staff is too concerned with royalties and possible attacks from other companies.”  Until these problems rectify with each other, mash up artists will have to remain in the legal middle ground.