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DJ Spooky and Roger McGuinn interviews

Open Culture

Photo © Iñaki Vinaixa

Dj Spooky (aka Paul Miller) is a multimedia DJ and Creative Commons advocate who remixes not only music but also film/cinema and fine art. Spooky’s film Rebirth of a Nation intersperses modern images with cuts from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (now in the public domain) to create a new work interpreting the original.

Creative Commons: In your mind, what was the social and cultural significance of the first Birth of a Nation?

Dj Spooky: The basic idea here is a choreography of ideas: think dance, think image, think sequence, think nonlinear soul for your third earhole. I like to roll with the notion of the remix as a kind of question. There’s no answer, just more questions. It’s a kind of post-everything process of totally reducing America’s pathological obsession with race to a kind of absurd comedy. The film has so many repercussions that it really seems to echo to this very day. That’s why I think of my “version” as a dub excursion. Think Emerson meets Grand Master Flash, and they do some kind of weird post-intellectual property tango — something like that — while the cameras roll, and there’s only the film set of an abandoned Southern small town Norman Rockwell drawing of empty dreams drifting down Main Street with Klan robes…. Press play to avoid delay. I guess that rhymes, eh?

CC: How did you physically change the movie?

DS: The sequence of the film is different, the characters respond to architecture schematics taken from prisons and museums. I can’t tell you which ones. I’d get sued. Just think of them as archetypes of museums and prisons. Everyone is trying to get in, and space is very limited. In fact, all the rooms are already sold out for the next several years. Very physical, very ironic. And also the boring three hours or so of original cinema has been reduced to 1 hour. Very time-conscious. Warhol’s fifteen minutes gets expanded, and annotated, into contemporary reality TV.

CC: What do you consider to be the social and cultural significance of your changes?

DS: It’s a remix!

CC: Why did you decide to embark on this project?

DS: Because we Americans have so much amnesia that we forget that the past is still present with us. Because we think that we have somehow progressed. Because nothing has changed. Because it was funny.

CC: What do you think about public domain, and how has it helped you access history in a new way?

DS: I think everything is public domain, and all the normal corporate tricks are basically illusions. The basic fabric of 21st century life will be public domain culture, whether corporations like it or not. They will have to evolve their formula — and that would be a smart thing for them to do. Public domain is much bigger than anything they’re thinking about. Small, private stuff is so…very…20th Century. Not enough redundancy.

CC: How has technology helped you access history? In other words, if it was 1970, could you have done this?

DS: Technology is my archive. I play with history the way George Orwell played with nationalism. It’s my palette, and for better or worse, all of my samples come from it. That’s zeitgeist — that’s Spooky. And basically, it’s my way of thinking. It’s all Spooky at this point, so we should all play.

End Transmission! Reboot your system! (That rhymes!). After all, it’s an art project!

Interview by Glenn Otis Brown and Neeru Paharia
April 2004

Legendary musician Roger McGuinn of the Byrds spoke with Creative Commons about the Folk Den, a project he conceived in 1995 for using the web to carry on the American folk music tradition. McGuinn publishes his own performances of traditional songs, and makes every recording available for download under a Creative Commons Music Sharing License.

Creative Commons: I understand that Paul Jones of iBiblio was the first person to tell you about Creative Commons. What was your first impression of the organization?

Roger McGuinn: Well, I looked at the general premise and thought it was a good thing. I’d been putting these folk songs up on iBiblio for some time without any thought to protect them, although I’d put a little copyright line — McGuinn Music — at the bottom. But I didn’t really know if that protected them or not.

Anyway, I was glad to see that there was an organization — Creative Commons — that would work for me in case there was somebody in, say, Germany who wanted to download all my songs and sell them as CDs.

Camilla McGuinn: Which they’re probably doing now.

RM (laughing): Which they’re probably doing now. My main attraction to Creative Commons was the fact that it provides a level of sharing, which is exactly what I want to do with the songs in the Folk Den. My whole purpose for putting them up there is to keep them going. It occurred to me back in 1995 when I started the Folk Den that the traditional side of folk music was getting neglected because of the singer-songwriter phenomenon. New singer-songwriters are not doing traditional music anymore.

So I ran it by Camilla, and she said, “Put your songs up on the Internet for free download.” So I posted the songs, the chords, the lyrics, and a little story about each, and I’m very happy that they’re being shared. People download them and make CDs and give them to their friends — and that’s cool.

CC: I’d like to ask you more about your point about singer-songwriters. You’ve had a lot of your songs covered by other bands, and both you as a solo artist and the Byrds have covered a bunch of other people’s songs. In fact, you helped some songs become more famous than their songwriters did. What is the role of playing other people’s songs in pop, folk, and rock-and-roll?

RM: Well, there’s always been a quest for the best material. I remember our first manager, Jim Dixon, said that it’s always better to record somebody else’s wonderful song than your own not-so-great song. So we were looking for the best stuff. [Bob] Dylan is a good example. He was an excellent writer when the Byrds started, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was really kind of hip and off-the-wall. Nobody had done anything in pop music like that, nothing that could compare to that. Dylan was still underground. He wasn’t a pop artist at that point; he was a folk singer. So it was really a good avenue for us.

CC: When you decided to cover “Mr. Tambourine Man,” did you get in touch with Dylan or his manager?

RM: Our manager got in touch with Dylan’s publishing company, and they sent a copy of it, and we learned it and recorded it. And then Dylan’s manager found out about it, and he tried to stop it because he didn’t approve.

But Dylan had given us his approval casually. He was at the rehearsal studio when he heard us do it. And he liked it — actually, he liked it a lot. In fact, he didn’t recognize it at first. He said, “What was that?” And we said, “That’s one of your songs.” And he said, “Wow, you can dance to it.”

His manager tried to stop us, but it had already climbed up to number one on the Billboard charts by then. There was no stopping it.

CC: There are a handful of artists now who do traditional songs, and they’re mostly in folk and country. Natalie Merchant put out a CD not long ago with a bunch of public domain songs on it, as did Dave Alvin. And Jack White did a public domain song or two on the Cold Mountain soundtrack. But they’re the exceptions. Why do you figure more people don’t record traditional songs?

RM: Maybe it’s just a trend, a social trend. Folk was a big trend in the late ’50s and early ’60s, then dance music became more prevalent. I always like to say that people like to think for a while, then they get tired of thinking and they like to dance for a while. And then they get tired of dancing, and they’ll go and think some more.

CC: Where do you see the future of the music industry given the Internet and how things are changing?

RM: I see it as a decaying, ancient business model. It’s obsolete, and it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles and artists take over independently. I think it’s a great time for artists, with the advent of computer recording, and such. I use a $300 [software] program, in place of 128-track recording technology that would have cost a few hundred thousand dollars only ten years ago.

CC: Back in the age of Napster, summer of 2000, you testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and Metallica testified opposite you. How was that experience?

RM: [Metallica drummer] Lars [Ullrich] obviously didn’t get it, that it was in his best interest to have songs out there promoting the band. I always thought the artists benefited from having exposure — like the radio playing your song — and I wasn’t buying the RIAA’s approach that it was hurting the artist. I knew from experience that of the money the record companies collect from the sale of CDs, artists get a meager advance and a promise of royalties that never comes to fruition.

CC: So what’s the secret to putting your stuff out there and sharing it, while at the same time trying to make money?

RM: What I do is share the folk songs, the compositions of which are public domain and which I have an interest in spreading and preserving. When I record a solo CD of new material, I keep that in the traditional copyright.

CC: We’ve been trying to spread the idea of taking one or two tracks and putting them under a Creative Commons license and selling the rest like you guys are doing, but it’s been a hard conversation to have because as soon as you mention the Internet and downloading, people tend to freak out. I wonder if you have any advice on how we should talk to artists about Creative Commons.

RM: You’d be better off working at Seven-Eleven than being a recording artist as far as the amount of money you can make. Lay it out in dollars and cents for people because they just don’t get it; they’ve been brainwashed by the recording industry to think that they’re being protected by it and that it’s in their best interest to go along with the program — but it isn’t.

CC: What about all the marketing the record companies do for the artists?

RM: That’s the only thing they have going for them. They can get you on Jay Leno or Letterman because they have other artists that Letterman might like to have — they have that leverage. That’s the only advantage though. I saw a guy from the EFF who said he published his book through you–

CC: Cory Doctorow.

RM: He was saying that he was selling plenty of copies, that it hasn’t inhibited sales at all. It’s available on the Internet for free download and he’s also selling the product.

CC: It’s like the radio.

RM: That’s my theory. I said that to the Senate — and you know, I really got scowled at by Patrick Leahy — but basically, what I said was it’s just like radio. Record companies pay radio to play their songs, and people can record them off the air and they sound just as good as an mp3, so what’s the big deal?

CC: What did Leahy say?

RM: Like “you’re a communist.” Orrin Hatch, though, was cool; he was on before the site closed.

I like Cory Doctorow, he’s really cool. He was talking about the copyright industry being broken and that copyright always kicks and screams, like when sheet music came out, and then piano rolls, radio, the VHS, and in every case they’ve ended up making more money out of these things once they’ve assimilated them. The same thing will be true for mp3 and file sharing; they’ve just got to figure out how to tap it.

Posted 01 October 2005