Steve Aoki Throws Tantrum (Not Cake) Over EDM Parody Site Wunderground
On Sept. 30, an unusual post appeared on EDM parody site Wunderground, coincidentally the same day Steve Aoki's new album Neon Future was released. "Please note," read the disclaimer, "all of the written articles on Wunderground are satirical and fictitious, as all you lovely readers know only too well by now. However we have tagged this one as FACT as this is 100% real." Steve Aoki, who has beefed with the editorial platform before, had gone a step further this time: on Aug. 5, the cake-throwing DJ had sent a letter for T-shirts with his likeness that Wunderground founder included in an experimental, equally joke-filled Indiegogo campaign.
"We've done some articles on Steve in the past and he hasn't responded too well to them," editor Mikey Maguire tells Billboard over the phone from his home in Ireland. "The last thing I expected was for him to give us this. I thought he would leave it alone, and not add fuel to the fire."
The letter, which you can read in full here, is about as humorless as Aoki can seem sometimes. "We know you are familiar with Mr. Aoki because you have repeatedly published fictitious articles about him that are damaging to his reputation on your internet publication," writes Aoki's representation, Leslie E. Frank. The letter asks that Wunderground not only refrain from selling the copyright-infringing T-shirt, which you can see below, but also destroy the "Infringing Tees and Ads," provide evidence that they have been destroyed, account for all crowd-funding receipts and sales, and take "any and all appropriate steps" to prevent further infringement.
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"He's not even on the outside of the T-shirt," says Maguire. "He's on the inside." He also points out that only 11 people ordered the Aoki T-shirt, which, if anything, adds further insult to injury. "That's like a football team," he adds. "This is a guy that charges a quarter of a million for a gig, is number seven on the Djmag chart, and he's worried about 11 little T-shirts?"
Though Wunderground has poked fun at Aoki before -- most notably on "Steve Aoki Shocks EDM Community By Admitting He Is Not An Actual DJ," which inspired a clarification response on his website -- Maguire says he and his team write about everyone, and everything, from Maya Jane Coles to ketamine to Afrojack. "Most people take it on the chin," says Maguire (other expressions he uses include comparing Ireland's slow internet to "a mouse riding a wheel attached to a laptop"). "We have some fairly high-profile DJs laughing and sharing it with their fans. Funnily enough it's usually the really high-profile DJs, like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, that don't like it."
Maguire has complied with Aoki's letter and posted a message to the Indiegogo campaign's website that legally, he was not allowed to print the T-shirts for those 11 people (the rest went ahead into production). He maintains that using celebrities' likenesses on apparel, especially as a joke, is a "grey area" in Europe, but there are precedents for these sorts of cases. In 2013, Rihanna successfully sued Topshop for printing a her photograph on a T-shirt; the Spice Girls were not so successful in pressing charges against Italian publisher Panini for making a sticker book in 1997.
In the former's case, entertainment lawyer Mike Brookes told The Guardian that in order for an image to classify as "passing off" (misrepresentation of products or services as coming from another party), "the claimant needs to have established a reputation. The defendant needs to have misled the public. And third, there needs to have been damage."
In the case of Aoki vs. Wunderground, the first tenet is applicable, but neither the second nor third is: Wunderground has always been straightforward in its agenda, and the T-shirts that would have let the site benefit from using Aoki's copyrighted image were never made nor sold. When Billboard asked Maguire if he feared litigation had the T-shirts been printed, it's hard to tell if the whole Indiegogo debacle was legitimate or legitimately trolling. "There never was a T-shirt," he says. "We didn't put it into production. I could've been [sued], if I had've. But that's why it was an experiment. I was throwing it out there and seeing what happened."
Now, he's hoping fans take things into their hands. "We're seeing on the Wunderground page and Twitter people making groups and saying, 'If they can't make this T-shirt, let's go into our local T-shirt shop and make it,'" he says. "That's going to be a thing."
Looks like Aoki may not be able to have his cake and eat it after all.