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07 Feb, 2009 – one comment

sam phillips and the remix

Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952. The artists he discovered there and that shuffled their feet in the tiny recording studio on the corner of Marshall and Union avenues in Memphis is the stuff of legend: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, James Cotton, Bobby Blue Bland and so many others. If you’ve ever visited, and you let the $5 tour of the two room studio leave you behind, it’s hard not to linger and envy the cracked linoleum floors for the genius that stood on them and the music that once reverberated there.

As the story goes, in 1955 Sam was forced to sell Elvis Presley’s recording contract to RCA for the princely sum of $35,000. Sam was forced to sell because he had to pay down the losses he suffered from a major copyright lawsuit where he was found guilty of plagiarism.

You see, Big Mama Thornton recorded the iconic song Hound Dog. Give it a listen.

At the time, Sam was working pretty heavy with Rufus Thomas. He and Rufus got together and recorded a hot little number called Bear Cat. Now, give it a listen. Sound familiar? It should. Bear Cat was conceived to be a humorous answer record for Big Mama’s Hound Dog. Answer records were hugely popular in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Artists used them to ride the coat tails of a popular hit, and deejays loved playing them after the hit song. (Of course, answer songs go much further back into aural tradition than rock ‘n roll.)

Answer records were the remix of their day. Both combine older elements with social currency and entirely new bits to create something unique. The difference between a remix we know and love and an answer song is simply technology. It’s hard to believe a market for this kind of remixing existed back then. Today, when an artist wants to sample a hit song (legally), there are teams of lawyers standing by to cut licensing deals. And artists on both sides of the coin are pretty happy with the product (but perhaps not the process). But in 1953? This was an emerging market meeting an emerging art form; so the answer then (and now) was to sick the lawyers on ‘em.

Is Bear Cat a recombination of Hound Dog? Yes. Is it plagiarism? I’d argue no. Rufus didn’t cover Big Mama or pass off her work as his own. In fact, Bear Cat is incredibly referential to Hound Dog. Nonetheless, Sam took quite a hit from the lawsuit and ultimately lost the most iconic performer in history to a competing label. Rufus never recorded as prolifically again.

When Sam first began recording Elvis, he deliberately added the slap back echo to Elvis’ vocals by running the tape through a second recorder head. When Elvis began recording for RCA they tried everything they could, and still failed, to reproduce that sound.

*the photo above was taken by me, on the move between austin and chicago those years ago.

23 Jan, 2009 – leave a comment

branding in the era of the remix

Mike, Faris and I were all contacted by Ben Alter, a grad student at the VCU Brandcenter to help answer one huge question:

Do you think there are any major ramifications for companies/brands knowing that the next generations connective tissue is this sharing, participating, and remixing of ideas?

Ben, my answer is yes. Thanks for the question. Now here’s a funny video.

I kid. I kid. Mike and Faris both took an eloquent stab at an answer, so I’ll do my best not to simply repeat them.

Recombinance is not a marketing strategy. Recombinance is a behavior. And it’s how culture advances. Technology has only further enabled remixing of content; but it’s less important how and more important why.

If you stand for nothing, no one will stand with you. Remixing is a form of personal expression in relation to something else. If you provide no stimuli, you can’t expect the behavior. From time to time, novelty can stand in for a lack of belief or values. But novelty is a diminishing resource by definition.

Brands have a myopic fascination with the effect, while they ignore the cause. Faris made the excellent point that remixes are sexy to brands because they’re a form of media that gets shared (and we like for the word to be spread). And brands are practiced at creating content that would never be spread by actual non-zombies: the dreaded press release, or a shallow micro-site, or banner ad, or interstitial video ad. Brands have perfected a model that is unremarkable. Instead of building a strategy around being remixed, brands should dedicate themselves to being remarkable.

Trying to control digital manipulation is the new tilting at windmills. You can’t influence culture without influencing culture. Certainly not all remixes are positive, so again, focus on your brand and what you stand for.

The rate of change will only increase. Having the ability to drag and drop pre-made elements to create something unique means that creation is more accessible and rapid. The pace also applies to building things like interactions: kids are out there building the next Facebook while brand managers review their :30 spots.

It’s time to create or capture more content, and distribute it more quickly. By spreading a wide net of content, your audience will stumble across it as they like and craft their own personal story of your brand.

Whew, that’s enough for now. Mike, Faris, your serve.


15 Jan, 2009 – 7 comments

the cultural literacy of the digital remix

Without an advanced literacy, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land seems incredibly esoteric. You can still enjoy how Eliot strings words together, but you will not catch on to his downright brilliant thievery without years of study.

Like Eliot, Girl Talk remixes the work of his predecessors to create something new. But he does so within the digital world; and this world operates on one crucial principle. Everything can be connected.

Culture has always been recombinant; but now we’ve created a medium in which that recombinance can be transparent. We can splay open a piece of art or idea and follow its relationship to what came before. This new adaptation is challenging our notions of originality: in thought, creation, and even translation. But it’s also allowing us to create incredibly complex things that are simultaneously more accessible to explore. We’re enabling cultural literacy.

This was just a quick thought I wanted to share.

07 Jul, 2008 – one comment

the remix versus the copycat


The Monkees — copycats — one part Beatles, one part Small Faces, one part the Mamas and the Papas, and all parts trying to capitalize on a popular meme.

I’ve been thinking a lot about copycats, cover songs, and club mixes. What’s the key difference and which is more culturally authentic? On one hand, people have been covering songs as long as someone has been writing them, but remixes seem like a different beast altogether. Copyright law itself establishes the possibility that a remix could be so entirely removed from the original to be considered a unique property. (covers not so much)

The copycat is a massively successful business model (wait for a hit, then rush to market with clones — one recent example in book publishing comes to mind), but is the remix emerging as a model too? Are the two differentiated enough to make such a case? I can think of plenty of copycat products, but what about remixes? Copycats seem to be more top-down driven, while remixing is very bottom-up (it requires less actual manufacturing and more hacking). With that said, is the remix just the 2.0 version of the copycat?

What’cha think?
I’ll provide a little entertainment while you mull it over…

The Monkees’ Porpoise Song, arguably their most derivative and yet their best.

Travis Barker puts a little elbow grease into Soulja Boy, where does his version begin and the original end?