Music for the Masses: The Aura and Participatory Culture

Music sampling took off in the 1980’s when sampling technology became affordable enough for musicians to be able to experiment with digital sampling techniques. Prior to that, sampling was “referential,” which means that musicians would borrow aspects of songs from other musicians. For example, rock music takes folk songs and classic symphonic melodies and borrows sections of them to recreate them in another format. This new technology has created a new way for the consumers to become the producers of media. Now, in 2017, any consumer can download music off the internet to make a custom mashup, then post that back online for a new group of consumers to listen to. Henry Jenkins calls this “participatory culture,” which is when the consumer-producer dichotomy changes and consumers become the producers. In regards to music mashups, what does this mean for the original producer? Well, according to Walter Benjamin, is interferes with the aura. The aura is a sense of uniqueness present in a piece of art. Benjamin referred to traditional forms of art in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and its transformation in mechanical reproduction through the means of photography. But I think that it can be applied to music as well. While music may lack the unique aura that a painting like “Wheat Field with Crows” may have, it has one nonetheless. The original studio recording of a track, never mind the method of release, has an aura. A live musical performance has one as well.

In 2004 DJ Danger Mouse released his mashup album The Grey Album. He took the vocals and lyrics from Jay-z’s newly released instant hit The Black Album and mixed it with music and background vocals from The Beatles classic White Album, which is where the title of The Grey Album comes from. EMI Records, the copyright holder for The Beatles music, issued a cease and desist order to Danger Mouse as well as the independent music stores that were selling his album. Danger Mouse initially stated that the record wasn’t intended for commercial use, rather as a promotional item for himself, and the artists featured in the mashup. He pressed 3,000 copies of it but it caught fire on the internet and went viral. Record stores sold copies of the album, which then ended up available for free download online, and Danger Mouse had no permission at all to sample the tracks for commercial or noncommercial use.

EMI eventually dropped the case. While all of this was happening, online copyright activist groups, with the main goal to keep the internet free, kept circulating the album on digital download sites. The entire controversy was picked up by major media outlets like Rolling Stone, MTV, and NPR. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Jay-Z actually said that he felt honored to be put on a track with The Beatles (then right after with no transition she asks him about selling crack) (Gross, 2010). In a BBC interview with Sir Paul McCartney, he said that he didn’t mind the “tribute” that Danger Mouse created, but the record company did.

The copyright ownership of The Beatles catalog has transferred hands several times throughout the years, in the 1980’s Michael Jackson obtained ownership the entire catalog and transferred 50% of it to Sony. Now, after his death, Sony owns 100% of The Beatles publishing rights, and Paul McCartney is trying to get them back. There is a copyright law saying that songs produced before the year 1978 can have their publishing rights transferred back to the original songwriter after two 28 year terms (so 56 years). The album Please Please Me will be available for Paul McCartney to purchase again in 2019, and by 2026 all of The Beatles catalog could be back in control of a Beatle. The question of who holds “intellectual property” rights to music comes to mind with the Paul McCartney/Sony controversy. You’d think it would be to the songwriter as they were the one to create the song.

Walter Benjamin describes the aura as a work of art’s unique existence. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction he says: “We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be… It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly… overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (Benjamin, 1936). What he means by this, is that in the age of mechanical reproduction (which is now), we desire to bring art into our own lives and experience it in ways that weren’t intended originally by the artist. For example, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” prints can be bought at Walmart or Target to be placed in bedrooms and living rooms as personal expressions, or using #starrynight on Instagram to post to the world that you’ve seen the painting in person leads to the decay of the aura. The aura adds value to the work of art, and reproductions diminish that value.

With music, the aura is a bit tricky. Music is made to be listened to and to be interpreted into each of our own unique worlds. So saying that something decays the aura, when there may not be one is complicated. I think, and I think Benjamin would agree, that music does have an aura. The original untouched studio album would have an aura, as well as a live music performance. When a musician makes a mashup of two classic records, or when someone records a live performance and posts it on Instagram, that leads to the decay of music’s aura. So when Danger Mouse took “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beatles and “What More Can I Say” by Jay-Z and put them together on The Grey Album, the auras of both songs were diminished, while at the same time the mashup album gained one of its own- an aura transferal of sorts.

But what about the ritual function of art that helps reinforce the aura? Benjamin has a very cynical view of the ritualistic function surrounding works of art, he says “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (1936). Here, Benjamin refers to things like photographic prints, which are designed to be reproduced, it would apply to music as well since it’s made to be distributed and reproduced. Not only is it reproducible, it’s able to be remade and interpreted differently for different people based on their own world view. A love song for someone can be a sad song for someone else. This can be seen with music mashups like Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. While, a large part of the idea for the album probably came from the clever joke of the white and black albums mixing to make grey, Danger Mouse mixed the songs in a very unique way and the songs took on a new meaning combined.

Benjamin mentions the “two polar types” of valuing art, which are cult value and exhibitory value. The cult value means that a work of art should remain hidden, which preserves the aura more so than exhibitory value, which is on display. He gives the example of statues of Gods only being available to certain clergy members, and some art works only being open to the public seasonally. This instills cult value into the objects because it isn’t available for just anyone to come and take a photo of for their Instagram feed, seeing one of these objects is an actual experience and its unique. Exhibitory value, Benjamin says, begins to take over cult value. He mentions this in reference to photography, as usual, but looking at the ritualistic history around music it applies to it as well. Music has evolved from a way to collectively communicate stories (folklore, mythology) to a solitary method of communication. Music is meant to be exhibited in some ways, live performances are a spectacle for consumers and music is available for them to listen to freely. Benjamin mentions that the photograph takes on both exhibitory and cult value when, for example, you look back at a loved one who has passed away. Looking at an old photograph would fill you with nostalgia and remind you of a loved one, much like hearing a song from your childhood reminds you of your parents and siblings. The Grey Album was made to be exhibitory, but then quickly took on cult value. Danger Mouse said himself it was a promotional experiment. He wanted people to view it and become fans of his mashups. But when EMI told everyone they couldn’t listen to it, everyone wanted to listen to it more (as is human nature). When EMI issues cease and desist orders to Danger Mouse and all of the independent stores that sold the album, that acted as a way to preserve the cult value. Granted, they probably did it because they would have made a lot of money had Danger Mouse licensed the songs for the mashup, but they also want to control how the songs are used. Much like how the amount of people who see certain pieces of art is controlled by clergy members.

Benjamin mentions Dadaism and the “relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production.” Music recordings are similar to this, and, by the same logic, music mashups are a Dadaist form of art and they destroy the aura just like the Dadaist collages. How does this destruct the aura, though? Taking a work of art (whether it be a painting or a song) and placing it somewhere it doesn’t necessarily belong – like mixing The Beatles with Jay-Z – diminishes the value of the original work.

Henry Jenkins’ participatory culture allows a fan base to have a say in what it is they consume. The consumer/producer dynamic is shifted and consumers are demanding more and more control over media. Our expectations as consumers have changed along with this as well. The internet has allowed for fans to create content based off of their interests, such as fan made trailers, in depth theory discussions about films, fan fiction, video game mods etc. Granted, it’s noncanonical most of the time. Henry Jenkins gives several examples of participatory culture in his book Convergence Culture, but he talks in depth about the Star Wars fandom and how participatory culture has in some ways revitalized it.

Jenkins uses the term “grassroots participation” a lot in regards to this. He references the punk music scene and how that brought out new ideas and sounds then that was all channeled into the mainstream, and that’s what he means by grassroots. Looking at Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, it can be considered grassroots participatory culture, as well. “Like the older folk culture of quilting bees and barn dances, this new vernacular culture encourages broad participation, grassroots creativity, and a bartering or gift economy” (Jenkins, 136). What he means is that the internet allows us to collaborate with producers (even if the producers don’t want their content to be tampered with), and this collaboration brings new ideas and ways of doing things. “Within convergence culture, everyone’s a participant – although participants may have different degrees of status and influence” (136).

Jenkins says that the new participatory culture has presented two responses from media industries: prohibitionist and collaborationist. An industry having a prohibitionist response means that they don’t want the fans to have control over the media content. They may be interactive and get consumer feedback, but the consumers aren’t able to contribute to their interests without violating a rule or a copyright law. The record industry is prohibitionist. Danger Mouse created a brand new album using different aspects of albums owned and controlled by a prohibitionist industry, so they wouldn’t allow that and they issued the cease and desist orders on him and the record stores that sold copies of his album. That was all in an effort to control how their property was being used, but in the age of the internet, controlling the content gets more and more difficult. The internet can sometimes be a dark place where rules are ignored, and in the case of music, it’s essentially free online now. This has caused a lot of problems in the music industry since less people are actually paying for music, so their position as prohibitionist is understandable.

The collaborationist are the companies who value their fan’s opinions and believe that their contributions are valuable in helping to improve or revitalize something. A great example of this is video game mods and the video game company Bethesda making mods available on console systems (when previously mods were only available through playing on PC). Should a fan want to modify their Fallout game, they can simply enable mods in the start menu and choose from a wide range of mods created by the “Garden of Eden Creation Kit” (or GECK), which Bethesda made available to players so they can make the mods. Gamers have wanted mods to be on console for years before Bethesda made them available for console players. Now the consumers of the game are apt to spend more time creating mods and revitalizing their gameplay with new fan made quests and items.

Danger Mouse’s tribute to The Beatles and Jay-Z is no different from this. Granted, he wasn’t legally allowed to distribute the album since the music industry is prohibitionist and had copyright law protecting the music. But he acted as a fan who saw a unique way to pay respects to two albums. Paul McCartney and Jay-Z also support the collaborationist efforts of Danger Mouse, and albums like his. That’s an interesting thing to point out since the actual artist of the song, the people with the intellectual property of what is being used are perfectly fine with the creative endeavors put forward by Danger Mouse, but the record companies aren’t. Not only is Danger Mouse acting on his own as a collaborationist, but his fans, who downloaded the music and distributed it even further online, act as collaborationists as well. There are online efforts to “keep the internet free” and dismantle the unfair copyright laws that currently exist. Creative Commons developed out of this idea, everything on the website is made and uploaded by users and it’s free to be used however someone sees fit, all that is required is giving credit.

Henry Jenkins mentions anthropologist Grant McCracken and his idea about why companies would benefit from releasing their copyrights. “Corporations will allow the public to participate in the construction and representation of its creations or they will, eventually, compromise the commercial value of their property.” By this McCracken means that if prohibitionist media industries continue to forbid the participation of fans, who are interested in the material enough to want to collaborate in the first place, they will lose the fan base. They’ll move onto something else that interests them and allows them to contribute to the fandom.

Danger Mouse wasn’t the only person to make the obvious joke and mashup The Black Album with White Album, but he was the first. Jay-Z himself said that he didn’t even think Danger Mouse’s album was the best, but it inspired others to use their skills and creativity to make something (Gross, 2010). With the rise in participatory culture, anyone can participate. You no longer have to me a film student at USC to make films that people will enjoy, you don’t need to have any professional training to make a music mashup. Mashup artist Girl Talk is one of the most famous remix artists and he studied biomedical engineering and made his mashups on the side until he became famous for it. These artists are untrained but are able to make good art nonetheless. Danger Mouse did have a lot of training, he was a record producer prior to The Grey Album’s release, and he was a member of Gnarls Barkley.

These musicians create music that eventually gets an audience once it’s on the internet. Henry Jenkins would call The Grey Album a cult media success. He says “A cult media success depends on courting fan constituencies and niche markets; a mainstream success is seen by the media producers as depending on distancing themselves from them” (142). Even though Danger Mouse didn’t anticipate the fan reaction he received, it has a sort of a cult following behind it and people are still talking about the album and the legality in 2017, when the album was released in 2004.

There are some comparisons to be made between Walter Benjamin and Henry Jenkins arguments. A prohibitionist media industry would be interested in protecting the aura or the cult value surrounding their content, as opposed to the collaborationist industries who value the help and ideas from consumers. Though Benjamin didn’t know about participatory culture, I think he would agree that it is necessary for media industries to continue to gain and maintain fan bases in order to thrive. The media industry is, in Benjamin’s terms, exhibitionist. The industry needs viewers and consumers in order to function. If fans move from one company to another because they aren’t able to contribute what they want to, then that company is failing in its goal. EMI, for example, needs the fans of The Beatles to want to participate and want to feel invested in their content so the brand stays strong.

Mashup artists like Danger Mouse and Girl Talk put their work out online, as producers, then their fans take the music and collaborate by making music videos and, in some cases, remixing them. The consumers becoming the producers twice over. When I was searching the track list for The Grey Album on YouTube, I found several fans made music videos for the songs but the audio was taken out because it violated copyright laws. EMI and Sony prohibit fans from being able to participate in something they care enough about to try to collaborate with in the first place. Consequently, fans are less likely to want to be involved with the brand, and in an industry so reliant on the fan base this is a negative effect.

Benjamin and Jenkins have two different views on how music mashups are perceived as art: Dadaist and grassroots/folk culture. Benjamin uses the example of Dadaist art to illustrate how a production is branded as a reproduction just through the production of the work of art. A music mashup is composed of songs that were not originally created by the mashup artist to begin with, but a new production is made by reproducing someone else’s work. Jenkins refers to grassroots participation as a way to collaborate and generate new ways of doing things. He talks about the folk culture and how aspects of that are brought into the mainstream through grassroots participation. It’s easy to say that using music mashups to take something old and bring it back into the mainstream is a good thing, like how rock bands sample old folk songs. But in Danger Mouse’s case, he did a mashup with Jay-Z and The Beatles. The Beatles are the most popular band to have ever existed (pretty much) so there is no need to bring them back into the mainstream.

One question that I’ve thought about a lot since beginning research on this is, are the media industries right to have their prohibitionist stance on the content they control? On one hand, yes. EMI has the publishing rights to The Beatles White Album, so Danger Mouse taking the songs without permission to use them violates that and EMI has the right to take The Grey Album down. They have the right to determine how something they own is used. On the other hand, allowing fans to consume a media text by purchasing a song or an album, then tell them they aren’t allowed to use their creativity and make another production of something, totally different from the original, seems unfair.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Convergence Culture are both written, I think, based off of a common ideal: a work of art should be viewed as a collective experience. The aura makes a piece of art unattainable for consumers, and the destruction of the ritualistic nature of art will allow consumers to experience the art on their own terms. Participatory culture allows people to contribute to the media they consume by using their creativity and brand attachment to make content and put it back out for others to consume.