Depending on one’s perspective, Danger Mouse’s (Brian Burton’s) Grey Album represents a highpoint or a nadir in the state of the recording arts in 2004. From the perspective of music fans and critics, Burton’s creation—a daring “mash-up” of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ eponymous 1969 work (popularly known as The White Album)—shows that, despite the continued corporatization of music, the DIY ethos of 1970s punk remains alive and well, manifesting in sampling and low-budget, “bedroom studio” production values. From the perspective of the recording industry, Danger Mouse’s album represents the illegal plundering of some of the most valuable property in the history of pop music (the Beatles’ sound recordings), the sacrilegious re-mixing of said recordings with a capella tracks of an African American rapper, and the electronic distribution of the entire album to hundreds of thousands of listeners who appear vexingly oblivious to current copyright law. That there would be a schism between the interests of consumers and the recording industry is hardly surprising; tension and antagonism characterize virtually all forms of exchange in capitalist economies. What is perhaps of note is that these tensions have escalated to the point of the abandonment of the exchange relationship itself. Music fans, fed up with the high prices (and outright price-fixing) of commercially available music, have opted to share music files via peer-to-peer file sharing networks, and record labels are attempting in response to coerce music fans back into the exchange relationship. The Grey Album and the mash-up form in general are symptomatic of an historical moment in which the forces of music production (production technology, artistic invention, and web-based networks of music distribution) have greatly exceeded the present relations of production expressed by artist/label contracts, music property rights, and traditional producer/consumer dichotomies.
The Forces of Production
Mash-up artists such as Danger Mouse have shown how the recording industry has been rendered superfluous by advances in music production technology. Artists once had to play the record companies’ games in order to gain access to precious time in a recording studio; today, a “bedroom producer” can create a professional sounding album with a personal computer alone. (Brian Burton is known to have used Sony’s Acid Pro.) Indeed, insofar as they want to survive, real studios have had to integrate “virtual” studios into their setup. Many commercial production houses incorporate software into their own environments so that their customers will be able to transfer their work between PC and studio, where it can be further processed. One is tempted to speculate that late capitalist society is on the cusp of the “composition” stage of musical development, as described in Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Attali argues that music’s social function has passed through three distinct stages: sacrifice (the assertion of control over violence), representation (the creation of socially meaningful works), and repetition (the reproduction and dissemination of music apart from social context). The fourth and final stage, “composition,” is essentially utopian: the production of music by and for its own consumers. The traditional opposition of the active producer and passive consumer disappears in the age of composition. Although music production software remains far from universally accessible (most of the planet’s population does not have easy access to a telephone, let alone a computer), the increasingly wide availability of powerful computers in advanced capitalist countries suggests a gradual democratization of technology that does foster utopian impulses.
This change in the material conditions of production has significant aesthetic consequences. Noodling about in a studio was not an option except for the wealthiest bands (such as the Beatles), and, as a result, most artists treated the recording environment more as a mimetic recording instrument, as a means of capturing a live musical performance or at least creating the semblance of a live musical performance, than as a musical instrument in its own right. Liberated from the traditional recording studio (and its institutional supports), the contemporary musician is free to experiment at his or her...