Mittwoch, 6. Mai 2009

Creativity in the Digital Age

If you got 45 minutes of spare time (I know I'm asking a lot, but believe me it's worth it), I can only recommend watching this video. It is a talk held by Lawrence Lessig on the topic of creativity in the digital age, or more specific, on the way copyright laws threaten to prohibit creativity in the digital age. I feel that this is the single most relevant contribution to the debate about copyright that's been connected with the emergence of web 2.0.

If you're not convinced yet, let me post the tracklist of musical examples he is using in his talk:
Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
DJ Mystik - Edvard Grieg Techno remix
The Muppets - Mah Na Mah Na
Diana Ross and Lionel Richie - Endless Love
DJ Unk - 2 Step
Soulja Boy Tell 'Em - Crank Dat Soulja Boy
Girl Talk - Yes We Can
Kutiman-Thru-You - Mother of all Funk Chords

I hope that got you curious ...

Lessig's basic argument is that the 21st century witnesses an increase of creative output of such dimensions that you could speak of a cultural transformation (from a top-down model of creative consumption to a model of reciprocity and individual participation). This is largely due to a democratization of technology: As technology gets cheaper and cheaper, the means of creative production become widely available which enables individuals to reclaim creativity, to produce, interact and communicate. His global metaphor for this kind of new (amateur) individual creative production is "remix". For instance, think of cut&paste remixes of pop songs, mash-ups, youtube amateur music videos, etc.

However, there is a threat to this proliferating creativity, and this threat is of legal nature. The architecture of copyright laws (and this is a relict of the 20th century) has the unpleasant effect that their reach is drastically increasing in the digital age, and that most of today's amateur creative output is illegal by their definition. This is an unsettling fact that could potentially hinder, if not radically stifle cultural creativity.

Now what is the relevance for hip hop you might ask. Well, if you think of the beginnings of hip hop the parallels are quite obvious. Hip hop also meant a democratizing of the technological means of creative production. You might not be able to afford musical instruments - so what? You could create music by using other music, all you needed was "Two turntables and a mic (and I learned to rock like a dolomite"). At the very beginning, hip hop was nothing more than - in the words of the Sugarhill Gang - "rapping to the beat". And the beat of course were records of already existing music, so you were doing what Lessig would call "remixing".

By 1988 the sampler became the democratized technological mean of choice. This triggered an enormous explosion of creativity. Hip hop tunes became increasingly complex, turning into intricate patchworks, building layers upon layers of small pieces of recorded music. All this was threatened, however, when Biz Markie was taken to court in 1991 for unauthorized use of a sample. Subsequently producers and artists were refraining from using too many samples cause it would be too expensive to clear them all. The "golden age" of hip hop was literally brought to an end by legal matters.

In my mission of tracing some of hip hop's and electro's origins, I have mostly concentrated on internal aesthetic aspects - the way artists were influenced by other artists and songs refer to other songs. Truth is, there always are a lot more determinants at work, be it social, historical, political or - like in this case - legal. So my little aside has finally taken me back to the core of what I have been doing here all along.

P.S. Highly ironical fun fact: The video of Lessig's talk was taken down by youtube because Warner Music claimed a copyright violation of some short piece of music that Lessing used to illustrate his point about the omnipresence of copyright claims ...

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