During the past 10 years, a few small companies have built important tools that helped solve some of the music industry's biggest dilemmas. In that spirit, the new platforms of Thefuture.fm, Beatport and Legitmix may not offer complete solutions to current problems concerning DJs, remixes and mashups, but they're a good start.
Entertainment, academia and media leaders have all called for copyright law changes that would enable creativity while decriminalizing the creation of mashups, or tracks built from pieces of other songs. Legal experts including Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig spent much of the last decade calling for a "free culture" that allows creators to "rip, mix and burn" without penalty.
Creativity itself was never the problem, especially when affordable digital editing tools and widespread online distribution services created a flood of illegal mixes. Few barriers stopped amateur DJs from creating cool mashups and then posting them on various websites. Yet rights owners have rarely received compensation when these music files were streamed, downloaded or, in rare cases, purchased. Albums by famed mashup artist Girl Talk, for example, can be bought at several mainstream download stores, though the original music samples used on the recordings haven't been cleared. (Only one Girl Talk album, "Unstoppable," is available at iTunes.)
For example, ad-supported platform Thefuture.fm offers a smorgasbord of long-form DJ content by Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, Kaskade and thousands of other artists. To pay legitimate rights holders, Thefuture.fm needed to be able to figure out which songs have been used within each DJ mix uploaded by its users. The solution: Mixscan, a proprietary technology that "fingerprints" each recording in a DJ mix and automatically generates royalty reports for rights owners and performing rights organizations.
What works for dance music can work for other genres. Mixscan also has obvious potential in the monetization of mashups, which use much shorter bits of songs than DJ mixes. Thefuture.fm founder/CEO David Stein says the technology can identify recordings as brief as three seconds, and that Mixscan has evolved into a solution that can live outside his own platform. "We know there are other opportunities to apply this technology," Stein says.
Other companies are working on their own solutions to place licensed recordings into creative works. Beatport, a 9-year-old electronic dance music download store, and the newer Legitmix have created platforms that help remedy some problems plaguing a genre known for quick adoption of new digital technologies.
Legitmix, which has been on the market since last year, lets DJs create mixes using any tracks purchased from iTunes, Amazon or its own service. Each mix is a unique file that incorporates source tracks chosen by the DJ, so that the consumer purchases both the Legitmix file and source files not already owned. Consequently, Legitmix re-creates the mix on the consumer's computer. Popular DJs like Philadelphia's Diplo and the United Kingdom's Rusko are early adopters.
Similarly, Beatport Mixes, a service launched last month in Denver, allows DJs to create mixes using a catalog of prelicensed tracks acquired from the Beatport download store or Legitmix. A mix cannot exceed 500 megabytes - tracks used are 320kbps MP3s - and each mix costs $5.29, regardless of its length and the number of tracks used.
Beatport also offers a means for non-pros to create legal mashups. Its free iPad app, Mashbox, allows users to build mashups using licensed stems of 100 well-known masters, with new ones added regularly. "It's not a professional tool," Beatport executive creative director Clark Warner says. "It's a way to get into the feeling of remixing."
The illegality of mashups was first raised in 2004, when artist/producer Danger Mouse rose to prominence with The Grey Album, built from the Beatles' "White Album" and Jay-Z's The Black Album. The Beatles' label, EMI, reacted with legal action that spurred an online protest called Grey Tuesday, in which nearly 200 sites hosted the album for free downloading. The widespread media coverage - much of it appearing in the mainstream press - resulted in a heightened feeling that copyright law granted labels and publishers too much power to restrict creativity and punish creators.
In the heated atmosphere that surrounded The Grey Album and other controversies, licensed mixes and mashups seemed all but impossible. Less than a decade later, however, businesses are showing that Congress need not get involved whenever new technologies upend the old ways of doing things. The market will eventually figure things out.