In October 2011, New York rapper El-P released a track titled "Rush Over Bklyn" – a remix of his own song, "Drones Over Bklyn" – freshened up with a giant sample from Rush’s "Tom Sawyer," long a hip-hop DJ favorite – on a recently launched website called Legitmix. "Rush Over Bklyn" didn’t clear the Rush sample – but it was still legal.
The reason for this was software developed by Legitmix’s founder, Canadian Omid McDonald, which created the remix by using an algorithm that spliced in the sample from Rush’s original track. The catch was, you had to already have a copy of the "Tom Sawyer" MP3 on your computer – and if you didn’t, Legitmix pointed you to the iTunes purchasing site. In short, if you didn’t have the original track, you couldn’t get the remix.
Last week, Legitmix soft-launched Discovery, an attempt, as they put it, to become the "Google of remixes" – a one-stop search engine for sample-heavy tracks. Discovery accompanies an expanded retail site that features remixes by popular samplers such as the Hood Internet, DJ Smash, and Dave Nada. The "How It Works" page features a baldly stated mission statement: "REMIXERS AND SAMPLE-BASED ARTISTS: LET'S BUILD A REMIX ECONOMY. Sell and promote your work. Get the artists you sample credited and paid." Billboard.biz’s Michaelangelo Matos spoke with McDonald about Legitmix’s aims and goals.
Billboard.biz: When did you first come upon the legal loophole behind Legitmix – that transforming music you own for your own personal use is legal – as a way to build a business?
Omid McDonald: The way I got involved with this was through my childhood best friend, who went on to do film after university. He came to me with a problem he was having clearing music for a documentary he’d spent four years working on. In the end, he was never able to clear the music for his work. He was quite crushed by the whole experience. I thought, "That doesn’t seem right. There has to be a solution to this."
I’m from a tech background. I’m a software developer. When I looked at the problem, what struck me was that this creative work that remixers do, the problem with it is that it’s glued in with the copyrighted work they sample or remix. I said, "What if there was a way to effectively separate their intellectual property, so they can sell or give that to somebody who has the original tracks, so they could then recombine it and enjoy the derivative at home?" That’s where the Legitmix idea came from.
You didn’t come from an anti-copyright position, which seems like a fallback that people who like sample-based music are forced to take. It seems like you have to be lenient of copyright by default.
It’s interesting you say that. I’m a big believer in intellectual copyright. My career is based on intellectual property. I’ve created intellectual property businesses in the tech space. And the idea of building on top of someone else’s intellectual property is actually very common in the software space. You could write an application that uses APIs and features of an [existing] operating system, and that's natural. I thought of that in the context of music – remixes are essentially building on top of someone else’s work. There was no effective way for that separation to occur, and that’s what we set out to build.
That’s an intriguing angle to see it from. In the music biz, technology is often automatically seen as the enemy.
That struck me as well. When I went into this space, I learned a lot about it. Just looking at what’s happened with the relationship with technology, I felt that artists in many ways got the short end of the stick compared to the technologists. What we’re hoping to build with Legitmix is technology that’s building a bridge over a very sensitive social issue -- the re-use of music. I hope we’ve found a good balance that benefits both sides of the equation.
What were your prior start-ups?
Totally different field: My first one was in the medical space. I came up with the idea to digitize cardiac ultrasound video so doctors, rather than doing it on VHS tapes, could do it all on computers. After that, I went on to do SIM cards and mobile phones—to back up the phone book on the SIM card. This is a totally new space to me, but maybe the challenges of a company and a technology and bringing new ideas to a market are similar.
What is your own background as a music fan?
I’m really into dance music. I enjoy DJs performing and clubs. I was familiar with the space. But my real education and appreciation for it has happened in the last three years, since working on Legitmix. That’s a huge benefit for me.
I saw from the video that it took six months to write and perfect the algorithm. How long did it take to put the online shop together?
It’s interesting – we first spent a huge amount of effort on the algorithm, and deploying the algorithm – it required software to install it on the consumer’s computer, so we refined it for that. As we went out there, interacting with remixers, they were asking us, "This is a neat tool, but we also want you to help us bring new fans to [us]." I was leery of doing any kind of consumer offering or interface, but then we saw the natural links between the original artists and the remixer, and thought we could come up with an elegant way to present this data we’re collecting. With Legitmix, the remixer has to identify the sources they sample, so we essentially have the link between their work and the original work, and we try to expose that through what we call Discovery.
Were remixers leery at first?
No. There are some people who just don’t like to disclose their samples, but that’s not the feeling I got. Most remixers have huge respect for the artists they sample. It’s not that they want to rip them off. They want to make sure they benefit. The thing they like about Legitmix is that they can credit, in a tangible way, and also benefit the artists they sample. I’ve discovered in this space that respect is a very important thing. Legitmix tangibly allows them to show that respect.
This culture never had a way to monetize this work through sales. Their work has been mostly promotional. The idea was, "This will get people out to shows and buy merch." Our feeling is, to put it in context, that the sale of music is a small portion of an artist’s revenue. We don’t give anybody illusions that they’ll become millionaires off selling their work. Our goal is to allow remixers to enjoy the same percentage of revenue as a standard musician. I believe the Future of Music Coalition did a study – it’s five, six percent for the average musician. Of course, the more popular you get, the higher the percentages. That’s our ambition – to put them on equal footing with original artists.
Does iTunes have an active role?
Not an active role. We make use of their links for users to purchase original tracks. You can’t recreate the remix of sample-based work without owning the original tracks. We search the consumer’s computer to see if they have the track required. If not, we send them to iTunes to purchase it. iTunes is the most common place people buy music, and its geographic support is great. So it was a natural fit for us.
Will Legitmix be linking to other sites? Is that something you plan?
Yes, as demand goes. We’re just starting out. If a catalog of music is not on iTunes, we can make links to other sites. There’s no technical limitation; why not?
How tongue-in-cheek is the idea of being the Google of remixes?
To me, Google presents information in an efficient manner. That’s what we’re trying to do with Discovery. Let’s say you’re a working DJ and have to perform a set, and you’re looking for a good, specific remix of a song, your options are quite limited right now. Going through SoundCloud is a difficult experience, [trying] to hone in on given content. Our thinking was, by presenting this in an efficient way – "I’m looking for moombahton remixes of a given artist; here are the options" – it would make it more efficient to find and purchase this content. In the end, iTunes’ success was that it gave people a convenient way to choose between [legitimacy] and piracy. They went for convenience. We have to do the same. Right now everything is obtained in a way that doesn’t benefit the remixer or the original artist.
Someone less familiar with DJ culture might want to know: Why not just play the original? Why do you need a remix?
Everyone wants to be different. That’s what I find with the move toward things like Spotify – everyone has access to the same music. It’s lost its cachet in some ways. What DJs do is reinterpret, contextualize – given the region or event – music that they customize, to make you feel special again. I think that’s a pretty general feeling among people when they’re having a party or want to enjoy something they’ve heard on the radio many times before, in a slightly different way. That’s what remix culture allows you to do.
When did Legitmix move to Brooklyn? Did you start it there?
It began in Ottawa, Canada. I’m from Ottawa. A year or two into it we said, "We ought to go to New York and be with the culture and get feedback." That’s been very useful for us. It shaped our thinking, which led into what we did with Discovery, and interacted with as many people as we could bear. The development team is in Ottawa, and the interaction team is in New York. We have an effort to go to remixers with followings and large catalogs and encourage them to [join] us. We’re meeting people, explaining our mission, getting people on board. This is a new concept. It takes understanding and bringing a lot of people on board; that you have to do face-to-face.