Podcasts, Mashups, and their Antecedents

…as curious tourists should we not be able to take our own snapshots through the crowd (“tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal”) rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes? – John Oswald, 1985 [1]

I recently discovered the brilliant Whoboys, via a recommendation on the always engaging This is Radio Clash, which I discovered by randomly clicking around through people’s blogrolls a few months ago. Whoboys are a very on it group of mashup selectors (and they’re great mashers in their own right, too). There’s some highly listenable stuff in their show that they’ve turned me on to, including one artist (rx) who makes George Bush sing unlikely things by meticulously cutting and pasting words together from various speeches he’s made. Not that there’s anything novel about that idea (I’ve heard similar cutups of El Presidente since 2000), but certainly this is the most intricate, and most artful attempt to remix a political leader that I’ve heard.

Yang a dang dang indeed.

In the olden days* there was no such thing as a podcast, nor a blog. But there were artful audio pirates, who usually relied on low power radio stations for dissemination of their works. Forbidden works (such as those by John Oswald and Negativland), the two most well-known artists/groups who pioneered of this kind of work) could be more-or-less freely broadcast on college, community, and pirate radio stations. This freedom was assisted by the fact that most stations were sufficiently low power, localized, and limited in audience share to reside well below the radar of federal communications regulators in North America.

The hyper-bricolage works of Oswald and Negativland are now generally referred to as ‘plunderphonics’ (though Oswald was the one who coined the phrase, while Negativland tended to use the more activist-tinged “jammer” moniker, as prominently evinced in their “Jamcon” events, which involved flooding HAM radio networks with numerous eccentric signals as a gleeful demonstration of the concept of free unregulated speech). More information about these artists is synthesized here, including the precedent-setting copyright lawsuits both artists were involved in (as early as 1985, in Oswald’s case, long predating 2 Live Crew‘s infamous battle with Nashville-based publisher Acuff-Rose).

Uncontroversially, the technologies that enable podcasting (MP3, digital audio software, XML and the web) have opened the floodgates for thousands of selectors and remixers to ply their cottage mashups well below the radar of the FCC and the RIAA (and their Canadian counterparts, the CRTC and the CMRRA). But as was the case with the antecedents of mashups, publicity (and commercial viability) can attract litigation, and it is a commercial logic (the quest for deep pockets) that overwhelmingly drives decisions to sue or not to sue artists who copy the works of other artists, whether or not fair use provisions apply.

The question that emerges for me is whether or not the current technological assemblage will (1) sustain itself in a condition of a relatively large (and growing) number of small time podcasters who mash, but whose audiences are too small to be noticeable, and whose revenues are negligible (if not negative), or (2) evolve into a more intensely regulated space (see the current controversy over ISP-driven initiatives to carve up the Internet into a multi-tiered medium) where dissent and forbidden creativity could be marginalized or edged out more effectively. Or could there also be a (3), wherein audiences for remixed culture grow so large yet so broadly niched that litigation becomes a useless remedy in the protection of copyright?

Perhaps I’m prematurely guessing the consequences of a regulated Internet on the practice of mashups and podcasting, but my main point is that we (at least in the 30 odd years of my lifetime) have not always been this free to make our voices heard to such wide audiences, and that the freedom we’re experiencing now is not guaranteed to last. I’d be surprised to see mashups thrive as they do now in a medium in which spectrum (or bandwidth) is carefully distributed and accounted for – nay, auctioned.

*hey – at the time of this writing there’s no wikipedia entry for “olden days“…

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