The urge to make the work our own is elemental to the act of encountering art, and we try to satisfy it in many ways. We look at a painting or listen to a piece of music and take it in, hoping that it will prove to be not only an expression of human feeling but also a stimulus to it; we expect art to move us in a personal way. Or we buy the artwork or a copy of it, making our ownership literal (if not always legal, in case of downloading bootleg digital files). Or we wear our esteem for the work like a fashion label, for the social or professional status it confers. Or we draw inspiration from the work and apply it to things we make ourselves, using whatever of it serves our needs. In one way or another, to experience art of any kind is to appropriate it, and to be a devotee of any art or artist is to be a claimant.
In the music world, recording technology has greatly complicated the issues of ownership, authorship, and proprietary rights by simplifying the acquisition of creative property. Since the rise of sampling and downloading, digital technology has transferred many of the privileges of authorship from what was once an elite of professional musicians to the iPod-ed masses. Anyone with a laptop and home mixing software such as GarageBand (a substitute for both the garage and the band) or Pro Tools (an electronic kit to help amateurs sound as if they are not) can put together technically impressive multi-track recordings. To generate the music for those tracks, home producers have for some time now been able to extract snippets from any recordings in the digital domain, doctor them electronically, edit them, and perhaps even use traditional instruments and vocal tracks. The exponential growth in the popularity of such home recording over the past several years has helped fill the pages of MySpace with fragmentary sound-alike songs, while providing countless musical neophytes with gratifying quasi-creative experiences and inflated conceptions of their musical talent. As the record industry burns to ash, record-making is thriving in the same sense that moviemaking, of a sort, is booming on YouTube—that is, in the diminished form of derivative, perfunctory goofing around, the products of which may have momentary entertainment value, especially to their creators.
Some rock acts that made their reputations as sonic experimenters a long decade ago, such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, seem humbled in the presence of the shape-shifting creature that popular music has become in the digital age. Both those bands recently made high-profile attempts at Web innovation that are essentially acts of capitulation, if not desperation. Radiohead made lots of news when the band released its first album since 2003, In Rainbows, through its website in a plan that allowed downloaders to pay whatever price they chose—a great publicity stunt in the form of a vast, universal tip jar. After too many listeners decided to drop in too few coins, the band released another version of the album, priced conventionally. More recently, Trent Reznor made the new Nine Inch Nails album The Slip available through the band’s website, for free. In an announcement of the release on his site, Reznor wrote, “thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years—this one’s on me.” A CD release of The Slip, at a price to be determined, will follow in July, at which time Reznor and the latest incarnation of his band will have begun a national tour, for which seats will likely cost at least four or five times the price of a CD.
There is nothing wrong with—or new about—giving away samples to entice customers to pay for other, profitable goods. The technique has long been common in the narcotics trade and in the marketing of supermarket cheeses. More interesting than the fact that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have provided albums to listeners for free or for cheap are the efforts that both bands have recently made to come to terms with the phenomenon of home record-making. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have each now ventured into “open-source remixing, “ a growing sphere of digital play in which enthusiasts are granted access to the stems of a song—the individual parts of a multi-track recording, each of which might have, say, the drums or the bass line or a guitar part—in order to manipulate them or add to them at home. In differing ways and to differing degrees, both bands are opening up their processes, making public the component parts of their music to give fans the feeling of collaborating with their idols—shadow-dancing with the rock stars. Through open-source remixing, music fans who might have been just listeners are assuming a kind of ownership which is, on its face, revolutionary, but which is, ultimately, illusory.
Radiohead, in April, made available for purchase through iTunes the five stems, one for each of the five band members’ instruments, that make up “Nude,” a single from In Rainbows. (Side note: in the group’s native Britain, more than half of all singles are still released as seven-inch vinyl records, as well as on CD and as downloads; it seems to me that the survival of 45s there has to do with both an English reverence for the tradition that vinyl represents and a frugal English reluctance to throw away perfectly good record players.) With each of the stems going for iTunes’s usual per-song price of 99 cents, “Nude” costs five times as much to buy in parts as it costs as a song. This is to be expected. To break anything sellable into bits is to grant each of those bits a value that justifies a price.
“Nude,” like several of the songs on In Rainbows, is one that fans of the band have long known in multiple earlier incarnations. At concerts in 1998, the tune was a soul ballad framed around the sound of a Hammond organ. By 2005, Thom Yorke was doing the song in solo performances, strumming it gently on the acoustic guitar and murmuring it like an emo navel-gazer. On In Rainbows, it opens with a swirling cloud of synth effects and settles into a shuffling bass- driven groove. (The terse lyrics center on the phrase “Don’t get any big ideas/ They’re not gonna to happen,” a blunt plea to resist the sexual imagination.) A wisp of a piece unaligned to a fixed arrangement, it is suited to remixing; indeed, Radiohead has itself been toying with the song for ten years.
To encourage remixes of “Nude” (and purchases of its stems), Radiohead sponsored a competition and started posting submissions on the band’s site. By mid-May, more than 2,200 remixes of the song had been posted and voted on by fans (and, presumably, also automatic-voted on by the digital ringers that hackers can conjure and viral-marketing services can provide for pay). I started listening to the posted remixes (and casting votes, nay and yea, for some of them) shortly after the first went up in April, and over a month’s time I got to hear about two hundred versions of “Nude.” I did the listening in spurts, taking in a post or two when I felt in the mood, to prevent the repetition of the tune from having the effect of torture.
A great many of the “Nude” remixes I have heard are attempts to change the overall mood of the song by doctoring the tonal colors and redistributing the weights of the musical elements. In a high number of cases, the bass line that dominates the In Rainbows version recedes, and new beats of all sorts take over: intricate and realistic-sounding drum patterns are among the easiest things to generate with software such as GarageBand. The gently pulsing waltz pattern of the official release gives way to heavy beats, often in the propulsive 4/4 basic to rock and hip-hop. Since GarageBand can change the time signature, the tempo, or the key of a song with a few mouse clicks, all those features of the composition get transformed in various “Nude” remixes, with results that can only with a snicker be called mixed. Much of the alteration and ornamentation in the “Nude” remixes seem arbitrary, stunty, or inappropriate. In nearly a dozen of the hundred remixes ranked highest on the Radiohead site, fans added keyboard tracks that oversimplified the already simple chords of the tune or simply got the chords wrong. Re-harmonization is not at all uncommon in the realm of interpretive music; but its point is generally to reconsider, rather than to reduce or to misrepresent, the original music.
The way GarageBand works, the process of personalizing music is highly regimented—that is, depersonalized. For each creative decision involved in customizing a track, the software provides a handy drop-down menu of options. What kind of guitar sound would you like, “Arena Rock” or “Glam” or “Clean Jazz”? What sort of vocals, “Female Basic” or “Epic Diva”? The system transforms music-making into shopping, and it provides the same illusion of individual expression that we find in the mall. Now we can make our sound in the same way we create our own look—by mixing and matching a handful of items from the racks of the same stores that everyone else in America is choosing from. After all, what does “Clean Jazz” mean, other than “Banana Republic”?
Trent Reznor, in a grand gesture of magnanimity, has made the stems of the last several Nine Inch Nails albums (including White Teeth from 2005 and Year Zero from last year) available for remixing, at no cost, through the NIN site. A longtime hero among rock techheads for the loving noisy artifice of his one- man-band recordings, Reznor is so eager to be aligned with the home-remixing phenomenon that he has sponsored a compilation album of fan remixes of songs from White Teeth and Year Zero. Called The Limitless Potential, the album of twenty-one selections is free for downloading, although the individual stems of the tracks that the fans contributed are not accessible for further remixing through the Nine Inch Nails site. (Evidently the “open” in open-sourcing has its limits.) Most of the Nine Inch Nails remixes posted, like the “Nude” remixes, are efforts to move the songs from one mode—industrial rock, the style Reznor practically invented in the 1980s—to some other style: house music, or psychedelia, or an approximation of funk. The remixes tend to take lateral steps, hopping across category lines from stylistic box to box. They do not, as a rule, try to differ from the originals in point of view or depth or aesthetic value; they seek to differ primarily in kind.
Despite its obvious debts to the Web era, home remixing in one sense suggests a return to the musical culture of the days before sound recording on wax cylinders, around the turn of the last century. In their capacity as remixers, members of the musical public are again assuming participatory roles, interpreting compositions at home, much as late Victorians played sheet music in parlor musicales. There is also a social component to both spheres of participation, as remixers post their efforts, listen to one another’s, and vote on them. I spent a good part of a weekend making my own remix of “Nude.” (For the record, I added some wan obbligato lines on guitar and concocted a vocal counter-melody, which I sang with the essential assistance of a pitch- correction plug-in.) Dissatisfied with the results, I decided not to post them, and I feel as if my remix, as one unposted, is not real in the same way that the worst remixes on the Radiohead website are. In the ballooning community of remixers, as in the rest of the Web universe, to post is to be.
I was further deterred from submitting my remix to the “Nude” competition by the “terms and conditions” of submission. Despite the fact that remixers can not only amend the elements of the Radiohead recording but also add tracks of their own devising—new beats, different chords, additional melodies (such as the admittedly weak guitar and vocal lines I made up), even whole new sets of lyrics (or spoken language)—Radiohead claims full ownership of every part of the remixes sent its way. Every part: not just the original stems, but every bit of music anyone might add to a submitted track. The fine print specifies, “All rights in and to any remixed versions (‘Remixes’) of the song ‘Nude’ (‘the Song’) created by the Entrant shall be owned by Warner/ Chappell Music Ltd (‘WCM’) and to the extent necessary the Entrant hereby assigns all rights in the Remixes of the Song to WCM throughout the World for the full life of copyright and any and all extensions and renewals thereof.... Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway will be registered and credited as the sole writers and WCM the publishers of the Remixes of the Song created by the Entrant.”
If this is legal, it is also extortionate and an act of terrible hypocrisy—a revocation of the promise of creative ownership that is drawing people to remixing, the promise that Radiohead has been eager to exploit, in large print, to sell its stems. The very idea of remixing implies remaking, and that carries with it a legitimate claim of ownership—aesthetic, ethical, and legal. If most of the remixes on both the “Nude” site and Nine Inch Nails’s The Limitless Potential* album speak unpersuasively for remixing’s potential, they are not definitive proof of remixing’s limits. For the moment, Yorke and his band have a message for fans loaded with GarageBand and an urge to own a part of Radiohead: Don’t get any big ideas. They’re not going to happen.
But more troubling even than the hypocrisy of a few rock stars is the narcissism at the heart of the phenomenon of home remixing—the notion that to take a work of creative expression and make it “ours” is to improve it. It is a colossal mistake to coerce an expression of others into an expression of ourselves. The premise of open-source remixing is that finally we can admire nobody so much as ourselves. But in music, as in all art and love and politics, there is usually more to gain in trying to understand what belongs, uniquely and idiosyncratically and serendipitously, to somebody else.
David Hajdu is the chief music critic for The New Republic.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of NIN’s album “The Limitless Potential.”