Amazingly enough, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis has been met with virtual silence thus far by the major record companies, despite the relative ubiquity of 2006’s Night Ripper on Illegal Art Records. He released his fourth album this week, Feed the Animals, under the newly fashionable pay-what-you-will model used by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Armed with an illegal mashaholic summer jamfest, a high profile scheme, and a potentially far-reaching audience, Gillis teeters himself closer to the orange alert attention of the music industry’s legal industrial complex.
Gillis is in many ways the music industry’s worst nightmare: a well revered artist on a populist and decidedly anti-capitalist bent. His music broadcasts the message of music as a universal language, both interpersonal and catholic, quotidian and intimate. In this space, a record exists amongst its peer albums as a dialogue, not a competitor. Gillis has avoided the polite avenues for fair use, gleaned through music’s top-selling brands for his own gains, and, to boot, he’s ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing the latest digital sales technology. Girl Talk’s pay-what-you will method is certainly at least five years away from any credible media giant touching it with a ten foot pole. After all, how do you convince the shareholders that the way to save your dying company is to let consumers set their own price? A free market economy is designed upon the Hobbesian principle that the proles, given the freedom to set their own boundaries, will always choose none. The uninducted masses, so the theory goes, would hypothetically act without restraint, without caution, and with only their own self-interest in mind. It’s easy to see why they would think so. That’s pretty much been the model the multinationals have followed for the past 20 years or so.
Sure, Girl Talk is not a household name yet, but certainly the big five have to know about them. It’s not like their name or their source material are any secret. Unlike many sampledelic artists, Girl Talk do not mask their sonic bibliography under the plaster and latex of endless tweakings. In fact, they are rather cavalier about the orgy of pop radio sounds cross-pollinating throughout their records. The liner notes for Night Ripper give shout-outs to each artist whose work was used as the album’s mortar. And within hours of Feed The Animals‘s release, fans were already compiling a comprehensive list of all the album’s recognizable primary sounds on Wikipedia. The information is widely accessible. Yet unlike Jon Oswald’s Plunderphonics, which was voluntarily decimated 19 years ago under threats of legal action, Girl Talk have been asked to neither nor desist. Could it be that the music industry actually has, gasp, better things to worry about these days?
Rather than inviting trouble though, the pay-what-you-will model may actually present a legal loophole for artists like Girl Talk. The problem with selling material with uncleared samples seems to be an issue over ownership of the sounds themselves. Would the same rules apply if said sampling artist were to only accept “donations” for their art? Consumers are not being asked to give money out for the purchase of Feed the Animals. They’re being ask to donate to a musician and his label for having made Feed the Animals, which they will gladly give you for free. In this context, Feed the Animals is about as illegal as any mashup some kid in his living room designed for his blog.
Appropriately, the button under the field where you fill in your personal price for Girl Talk’s new album says “Feed the Animals”. The music industry long ago stopped caring about whether it could feed its artists. Maybe they’ll finally stop treating them like animals when the artists begin to realize they can feed themselves. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are well-fed post-industry cash cows. Gillis is another story. If proven a success, Girl Talk’s newest experiment may pose more of a threat than all the Napsters the music industry once refused to shake a ten foot pole at.