Wednesday, November 30, 2005

why does warner bros. hate american edit?

last week, a duo calling itself "dean gray" released a mashup album called american edit, which blended green day's american idiot album with a bunch of other stuff. at the time, i didn't bother to download it, as it sounded like just another mashup album and my feelings toward green day range from indifference to a strong distaste. (plus, the comments i heard about american edit were generally negative.) mashups have been around for years now, and if they don't do some particularly interesting (or mix artists that you love), they really aren't that interesting anymore.

but then warner bros. issued a cease & desist order, and now american edit has been taken offline. yesterday, i posted a story i found on boingboing about the RIAA's apparent attempts to shut down mashuptown. today, i once again point you to boingboing for a similar story.

the crux of the boingboing post is that "internet activists" want to hold a protest basically repeating last year's "grey tuesday", when dozens of sites mirrored dj danger mouse's the grey album to protest EMI's attempts to censor that work.

while in principle i passionately agree with the fundamental issues—that works like this should be allowed, that these types of works do not "compete" with the originals in any sense, that we have a right if not a duty to comment on our culture—this case (and protest) strike me as inferior to grey tuesday/the gray album in a number of ways.

whether the grey album was itself a good test case for sampling/remixing issues is its own question worthy of debate (i know plenty people who think it wasn't, and i agree somewhat). but regardless of what you think of the quality of music of the grey album, the one thing it really had was a killer hook.

the white album + the black album = the grey album. simple, clever, and easy to explain in one sentence. not only that, but it blended two very popular acts: the beatles, who've been deified in pop music for decades, and jay z, one of the biggest names in hip-hop. the familiarity and popularity of the source material gave it broad appeal, and the witty hook immediately piqued people's interest. the grey album was an internet phenomenon even before EMI demanded it come down, and the buzz around that and the subsequent protest only made it moreso.

comparatively, while american edit does have a clever title, comparatively, its appeal is far more limited. where the grey album mixed two extemely popular artists, american edit only has one—green day—mixed with a bunch of random stuff. green day's popularity is not even close to that of the beatles, and i suspect they're not as popular as jay z either, though i haven't seen any sales figures so i don't know.

the grey album might have been all gimmick, but at least it had a gimmick, and a damn good one. american edit has nothing. it's "a green day mashup record", which might entice green day fans or mashup fans, but won't be drawing in the many disparate groups that were intrigued by the grey album.

not to mention the fundamental point that repeating the exact same protest from last year isn't going to catch people's attention. there's nothing fresh or new about this protest at all, which lessens its impact. a few people will care, but many will ignore it (if they ever hear about it), thinking "they're just trying to be the next danger mouse".

in fact the only way in which this is a better case than the grey album is the money issue. danger mouse printed up a limited number of actual cds and tried to distribute them. dean gray merely posted their content online. so an argument could be made that danger mouse was trying to "profit" from the copyrighted works of others (though to be realistic, he surely didn't see much money from selling such a small number of cds). dean gray have apparently not made one cent, gross or net, which makes their legal case a bit stronger.

still, i would be shocked if this got even half the attention that the grey album got, for marketing reasons if nothing else. even ignoring the quality of either of the two albums, american edit just doesn't have a good enough hook to become a net phenomenon like the grey album was. and it's kind of a shame, because these are issues of dire importance to our culture, and they shouldn't be ignored. if we're going to stage online protests, they need to be well-thought-out and direct attention to the issues at hand, not just "hey, download this silly record that warner bros. doesn't want you to hear."

but, forgetting about american edit and getting back to the grey album, i personally think this is actually the most interesting part of the boingboing post:

As I wrote earlier this week, fighting mashups has nothing to do with reducing "piracy." No one who listens to American Edit will shrug her shoulders and say, "Well, heck, now that I've heard that, who needs to buy the Green Day album?" Censoring this art is tantamount to saying, "This music must go because it displeases us."

I presented this view to an EMI representative at the Creative Economies conference in London earlier this autumn and she responded by saying that DJ Danger Mouse had a happy ending, because they subsequently hired him to produce lawful mashups for them (while still maintaining legal censorship of the Grey Album).

i had no idea that danger mouse was producing "lawful" mashups for EMI. that's kind of sickening.

it's easy to accuse an artist of "selling out" when they "go corporate", and its doubly easy when they operate in a style that is "underground" (and sampling/remixing culture is about as underground as music can be, as the bulk of it is technically illegal). just because it's easy doesn't make it true or fair: for instance, i wouldn't say that richard x is a sellout just because he's been signed and is now working directly with the major labels to create legally licensed mashups. (though i have always thought he was overrated.)

but dj danger mouse working hand in hand with EMI is something different. that's not just signing to a major: it's siding with the enemy. EMI tried with all its might to quash danger mouse's freedom of expression, to censor his work and wipe it off the net entirely. EMI lost that PR battle, so it did the next best thing by co-opting danger mouse. the benefit to EMI is obvious. but what does danger mouse get out of it? how much money must EMI have offered to get him to collude with the very same people who had tried to eradicate his past work? it would be a different matter if EMI had eventually acquiesced and agreed to distribute (or allow danger mouse to distribute) the grey album. but no, EMI basically said "you can't do that, but if you play by the rules like a good boy, we'll let you do something similar." EMI wasn't able to stop the grey album but in the end EMI, not danger mouse, had the last laugh.


Anonymous said...

maybe listen to it before you judge it?

stAllio! said...

the actual quality of the album is irrelevant to my argument, which focuses on the marketing appeal of the concept. regardless of which you think is the better album, the grey album has a far more interesting-sounding concept behind it. it has a far superior "pitch" as they say in the movie biz.

that said, i have since tracked down and listened to american edit. it has some moments that are fantastic. but as for the album overall, i could take it or leave it. not being a fan of green day, most of it left me cold. and the parts i liked weren't even whole tracks, but bits and pieces of a couple tracks, making it difficult to listen to just those bits without making my own re-edit.

i would definitely recommend it to people who like green day. i just don't happen to be one of them.