[9 June 2005]
In recent years, industry consolidation, combined with the unbridled advance of the internet, has created a disturbing disconnect in our relationship.
—Michael Green, President/CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc., at the 2002 Grammy Awards
No Business is like that guy.
You know the one I’m talking about. This is the guy who’s been out of college for four, five years, and can still be spotted in the frat house doing keg stands. The guy who will just as soon recite a dissertation on the symbolism in a porn flick as amuse himself for hours remembering how to do armpit farts. The guy that once, a long time ago, rearranged the letters on a gas station display to read “ASS ALE” instead of “GAS SALE”, and still carries the ‘G’ around to prove it. Then, four beers into some random night on the town, he begs and pleads to be taken at face value while he offers his takes on politics, religion, and the meaning of life. At that point, it’s impossible to take him completely seriously, no matter how valid his points may be.
In turn, there’s Negativland.
Part of No Business is a completely straight-faced (though often dripping with disdain for modern capitalist thought) essay entitled “Two Relationships to a Common Cultural Domain”. And part of No Business is a whoopee cushion with the circled ‘c’ for copyright emblazoned upon it. Therein lies the dichotomy of Negativland’s approach, and therein is all the explanation one should need as to why it’s difficult to take even the most serious of their thoughts at face value. Negativland, at heart, is a collection of pranksters, who happen to have something serious to say. Whether anyone cares about what they’re saying behind their sometimes barely amusing, sometimes pretty hilarious bits of parody and snark is another story.
Of primary interest to most anyone who is giving No Business more than just a cursory glance for its loud packaging and odd shape (pointed out in loud type on the cover: “An oddly-shaped barrel of laffs!”) is the CD that comes as part of the package. Negativland makes it abundantly clear what the mission statement was for the album portion of No Business with a disclaimer, found on the CD sleeve: “No elements original to Negativland were used to make these recordings”. That’s right, the members of Negativland don’t play a single note on the album, content to make the entire record out of pieces of found sound sources. And, by current laws, most of it is probably very much illegal, though Negativland is quick to point out in the afterword of the essay that the big corporations “probably have bigger things to worry about than a bunch of audio collagists chopping up and reusing their intellectual property”.
As “art”, the album is fine. It’s quirky, it’s humorous, it makes its point. Negativland is not afraid of using so-called sacred cows as sources, and The Beatles’ “Because” is the source for two tracks here: “Old is New” and “New is Old”, both of which are rather unenjoyable bits of splicing that don’t go far past their titles for deeper thoughts. Ethel Merman is a victim of Negativland’s pranks as well, as a “traditional” version of “There’s No Business like Show Business” is spliced with a disco version to hilarious effect. The lyrics are meticulously shifted as well, as the original is cut and pasted into words like “There’s no business like stealing” and “There’s no music like butcher music”. Get it yet? “Downloading” splices ominous music and ironic soundbites on top of Michael Green’s anti-downloading Grammy speech, “Favorite Things” lends Julie Andrews an unhealthy obsession with nose cream, and “Keep Rollin’” turns a Trailblazer commercial into a paean to the joys of reefer.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to keep an album of this nature from falling into the trap of novelty. Which it does. The “music” of No Business is the kind of music you listen to once, get a laugh or two out of, and then allow to collect dust until it becomes a collector’s item and sells on EBay for exorbitant prices. The same goes for the spliced-together, pseudo-animated video on the CD, called “Gimme the Mermaid”—putting a menacing, male voice on The Little Mermaid (apparently appropriated from a telephone message threatening the band for their use of copyrighted material) is good fun and all, but it doesn’t really make for many lasting impressions.
What the media on the CD is good for, however, is illustrating the points of the accompanying essay. “Two Relationships to a Common Cultural Domain” is broken up into three parts, which basically outline the tensions that advances in technology have introduced between consumers and corporations, Negativland’s place in those tensions, and Negativland’s suggestions toward alleviating the situation. The strength of the essay lies in its narrow focus—it provides a good outline for all of the different views in the current copyright fight, including what starts as a relatively levelheaded explanation of the corporate side of the argument. Unfortunately, the essay suffers for narrowing the focus even further, to where Negativland are suddenly arguing on behalf of Negativland and artists like Negativland—that is, artists that compose music using found sound.
The crux of Negativland’s argument is that art, and particularly music, has always quoted other art, whether it be folk songs passed by word of mouth or classical composers quoting their contemporaries as tribute. To put a price tag on the use of art to create new art is to stifle our society’s artistic development. As such, the concept of “fair use” in an artistic medium should be expanded, such that as long as the sampled medium is being used to create a new, unique piece, any fees to use the sampled medium should be waived. The album portion of No Business shows such an aesthetic in action, as no one who hears, say, “Old is New” will mistake it for a Beatles song, even though it’s composed entirely out of a Beatles song, because it’s been manipulated in such a way as to create something completely new. Such an expansion of the “fair use” clause (which currently covers reproduction for things like news broadcasts, parodies, and personal copies) would benefit Negativland and those artists like Negativland, whose artistic endeavors depend entirely on the existence of material to be manipulated. Comparisons to the visual collagist movement abound, and Negativland would appear to have a pretty solid argument on their hands.
Except for one thing: the ambiguous matter of scope.
What constitutes “new” art? If I add a note, as Vanilla Ice notoriously did to the bassline of Queen’s “Under Pressure” for his hit “Ice Ice Baby”, is it “new” art? One certainly can’t make the reverse case, that Vanilla’s song is the same as Freddy and David’s. Shouldn’t the original artists be credited and compensated for such a use? An expansion of “fair use” to the degree that Negativland is proposing would leave the definition of new, worthwhile art in the hands of the courts, a far more dicey proposition than the cut-and-dried system that exists right now, flawed (and stunting) as it may be. It’s no different than the outlawing of pornography, in that leaving the definition of “pornographic” in the hands of the courts means that the definition is malleable, and constantly changing—never a good thing in matters of law.
Even if I don’t necessarily think that Negativland has a solution on their hands, however, their problem statement is well-put and interesting. The media that comes with it is solid, if not exactly suitable for repeated listens or views. And I don’t have to explain just how useful a whoopee cushion can be. Ultimately, No Business is primarily for those who agree wholeheartedly with Negativland’s views, preferably those who are already fans of the band and share their sense of humor. While free exchange for artistic purposes is a utopian outcome I’d like to see in my lifetime, I’ve seen no evidence thus far that has convinced me that it’s a realistic goal. I suppose I was hoping that No Business would change that.