The Controversy of Mashups: Girl Talk

A mashup takes songs or sounds from other artists and combines them to form a single unified song. The most famous contemporary American mashup artist is Gregg Gillis, a retired biomedical engineer who performs under the name Girl Talk. Gillis makes musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs but does not get the permission of the original composers. Here is a clip of Gillis demonstrating how he goes about creating mashups:

A great controversy over the work of Gillis and other mashup artists remains whether mashups fall under copyright law’s fair use principle, which allows online music reviews to use short clips of songs. According to the U.S. Code: 

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

Gillis argues for the legality of his work and claims that there is currently an impetus for a more open exchange of culture and media. Others strongly support this claim such as Congress Representative Mike Doyle who argues that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity.

However, some argue that Gillis and other mashup artists are simply substituting someone else’s creativity for their own and that such actions should be, and in fact are, illegal. Interestingly enough the current record label of Girl Talk is called Illegal Art. Regardless, both sides agree that the current method of distribution of Girl Talk's songs plays a key role in keeping the controversy out of the courts. Girl Talk’s most recent album, All Day, is available for download free online, as are all his other works.

Gillis performing at Duke University in the spring of 2009.

Regardless of the legality of mashups, their impact on the musical community is difficult to examine. Covers of a single song can serve as a marketing tool, helping an artist's work become more popular, or can, if the work is sold commercially, help the original artist make some money. Mashups, though, do not necessarily do either. Gillis takes small clips from songs, often eliminating all but one intended instrument or sound, and combines many songs together to form a new entity which cannot be easily identified with a single artist. In addition, Gillis does not pay musicians to use their songs. They are not necessarily a useful marketing tool for the original artists, and do not allow the creator to gain additional profit. Mashups do, however, contribute to an environment in which digital media and collaboration are encouraged, which, as future blog posts will address, may help change the future of music.

Here is an example of one of Girl Talk's many mashups:



Glee. It has taken television by storm. It combines high school drama with catchy choreographed song and dance in an hour-long series on Fox. A few famous actors have roles in Glee, but the show mostly relies on less-famed individuals with incredible voices. The show was received well by many critics, and the episodes contain multiple covers of popular songs, both new and old.

According to Fox:

GLEE is a biting musical comedy that has quickly become a pop-culture phenomenon. This season's No. 1 entertainment series among Teens and a Top 3 series among Adults 18-49 and 18-34 boasts critical acclaim, a loyal fan base of "GLEEks," two Platinum and two Gold albums, two Grammy Award nominations, more than 16 million song downloads, the record for the most titles on the Billboard Hot 100 by a non-solo act (beating out The Beatles), the No. 1 soundtrack of 2010 ("The Christmas Album"), an incredible 19 Emmy and 11 Golden Globe nominations - earning it the distinction of being the most-nominated series of the year - and four Emmy Awards.

So the show is kind of a big deal.

Why is Glee so popular?
When it comes down to it, Glee is a typical television show about high school. There is the jock, the cheerleader, the tough guy, the gay guy, the fat girl, the mean girl, and pretty much every other mix of high school drama-inducing characters one can imagine. There is nothing new there. However, the characters also sing and dance, but hasn't that already been done before?

However, unlike High School Musical, Glee strives to add in the song and dance in a realistic manner. High School Musical was extremely popular among the teen groups, but the statistics clearly show that Glee is popular among even adults. Perhaps it is because of the more realistic feel of the show. Kids in high school do not just break out into song and dance. Glee incorporates a glee club (hence, the title), and with many of the main characters as members of the club, the show can effortlessly incorporate many covers into each episode in a realistic scenario. The singers are incredible, the songs are generally well-known, and the dances are well-choreographed, making the show a feel-good sing-along type of experience without being quite so cheesy.

Is everyone such a big fan?
No, it seems not all are true "Gleeks". Bryan Adams and Guns N' Roses refused to let their music be used in the show. Slash, the Guns N' Roses guitarist who made an appearance with at the Superbowl halftime performance with the Black Eyed Peas, said he "draws the line at Glee". And it seems that he is not the only one.

This is an image from a Facebook group of the same title. However, the largest equivalent page for Glee supporters currently has over 11 million fans. And this does not even touch the actual number of individuals who in the non-cyberspace realm watch this show. Executive producer Ryan Murphy said the music community has generally been quite supportive, with some artists even offering their songs for free.

Whether or not you like the show, they certainly are doing something right. Here is an example of one of Glee's many covers:

And yes, that is Gwyneth Paltrow.


Taio Cruz - Dynamite

Taio Cruz released Dynamite in 2010. It still is frequently featured on television and the radio, and has a series of catchy hooks that make the song hard to forget. While it has been covered many times, a YouTube user named Mike Tompkins posted a very unique acapella version worth checking out:

Tompkins' version was created using only vocals as an instrument. At the end of the video he goes through the different sounds, adding one on top of the other so listeners can hear how all the individual sounds come together to make a pretty impressive cover version. Acapella groups use a similar technique for cover songs but generally do not attempt to recreate each individual sound from the original version. This version of Dynamite offers some insight into how incredible the human voice is, but also shows some limitations, as it does not have quite the punch that Taio Cruz's original seems to possess.

Legal issues: When you need permission

When do you need the copyright holder's permission?
Generally, as long as you are not making money off of a cover and are giving the original artist credit, there can be no legal ramifications for covering a song. However, if the song is played at a concert, bar, or other venue where an admissions fee is paid, things can sometimes get dicey. It is always best to obtain permission from the original artist to play things safe, but you still might be surprised regarding how strict The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), may seem.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but according to the ASCAP, you must get permission from the copyright holder to make copies of or re-record an existing song. Anyone interested in distributing physical copies or a cover song should therefore seek the original artist's permission. In addition, whenever another artist's music is used as part of training seminars, conventions, or other commercial or business presentations, permission is required, even if a cover is just played as a fun way to break up sessions.

Business owners need to be especially cognitive of copyright laws, even independent of covering songs. Most people are aware that movies must seek permission to use an artist's song. However, many may not know that the music you listen to when you call a company and are "on hold" is considered a public performance, and therefore requires permission from ASCAP or from the copyright owner. Copyright law is pretty strict, and it is much better to pay the initial fees than deal with subsequent lawsuits.

So how much does it cost to obtain permission to cover a song?
In short, it depends. However, the federal government controls how much individuals covering an original song must pay artists for physical recordings (such as CDs) and permanent digital downloads (such as distributing a song on iTunes). Currently, individuals must pay 9.1 cents per copy for songs that are less than or equal to 5 minutes. For every minute beyond this 5 minute mark, the additional charge is 1.75 cents. So, if you want to charge iTunes users $1 to download your cover song, you will make, at most, 90.9 cents for that song. For a song that is, say 10 minutes, you are looking at 82.15 cents. And of course this does not include the iTunes fees. For any ring tone enthusiasts, the statutory mechanical royalty rate for ringtones is 24 cents per copy.

While the prices may seem too high, too low, or simply arbitrary, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of these costs. The costs are not meant to be prohibitive; with high costs amateur artists would be unable to produce any covers at all. However, the original artist should be compensated for his or her work, especially in the case of a cover making significant profit off of this individual's labor. Some individuals make their living off of music, and the average professional musician may not be making as much money as you think.


The Artist's Perspective: Wonderwall

Everyone has heard Oasis's Wonderwall. It seems to be played almost every time a high school or college band aims for a slow song. It's almost always acoustic, and almost always overplayed. Some remote tribes deep in the jungle probably interrupt their ceremonial song and dance to sit around a campfire and hear one of their buddies try an acoustic version of the tune.

But have you ever wondered what the band thinks of all the covers?
SPIN Magazine did an interview in 2008 with Oasis's Noel Gallagher. While Noel, who wrote the lyrics of Wonderwall, did not comment on the covers as a whole, he did mention one cover specifically in a very positive light:

...We've never got it right. It's too slow or too fast. I think Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got that song right. I'd love to do the Ryan Adams version, but in front of 60,000 Oasis fans that wouldn't be possible.

So what is this song about? 
Many assume Wonderwall was written about a girl, and media had stated that the song was about Noel Gallagher's (now ex) wife. However, 7 years after its release and after he was no longer with his wife, Noel admitted that the song had a different meaning:

"The meaning of that song was taken away from me by the media who jumped on it," said Gallagher. "And how do you tell your Mrs it's not about her once she's read it is? It's a song about an imaginary friend who's gonna come and save you from yourself."
However, part of the beauty of music is the way an individual interprets the work. This is also why covers can be so interesting and distinct from the original. And perhaps this is why the Ryan Adams version has gained so much popularity.

The Ryan Adams Version

The poppy, high school evocative Oasis version takes on a much more mature tone in this rendition of Wonderwall. Ryan Adams seems to just feel the song more. He has more emotion and passion in his voice when he sings it, which maybe just makes the song feel more real. The reverb on the vocals but relative lack there of on the guitar also adds an interesting, and perhaps more personal touch. Perhaps if Oasis's frontman was more passionate about the song it would have a comparable emotive vibe, but unfortunately:
"I can't f***ing stand that f***ing song! Everytime I have to sing it I want to gag. Problem is, it was a big, big tune for us."
-Liam Gallagher, Oasis frontman