When you play the first YouTube video that comes up in a search for the Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage,” the opening syllables of Win Butler’s reverbed vocals are accompanied only by blackness. A moment later the drums and organ kick in and the screen lights up with a desert scene—the climactic shoot-out from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson staring each other down across a dusty courtyard.
If I were making a video for a Canadian indie-rock band, I’m not sure it would occur to me to use nothing but classic spaghetti-western footage, but the combo works—the energy crackling between the two gunmen amplifies the song’s tension, and the sun-bleached setting contrasts with the music’s nocturnal vibe. It’s one of those bits of almost magical audiovisual synergy that argue most persuasively for the music video’s status as an art form, and almost immediately after it was released it was reposted across the indie blogosphere, accompanied by breathless commentary in praise of its genius. The band and its label could hardly have hoped for a better reception for a video.
The funny thing is, neither the band nor its label had anything to do with it.
People have been taking their favorite songs into their own hands for ages, and the especially devoted go so far as to remix them or make videos for them. But until the rise of the Internet, these labors of love couldn’t reach more than a niche audience of dedicated music geeks, in large part due to the dim view artists and rights holders have historically taken of unlicensed releases. Of course, sometimes artists gave their blessing, tacitly or explicitly—the Grateful Dead fostered a huge community of tape traders, for instance, and in the 80s many hip-hop and club acts started pressing singles with remix-ready instrumental or vocal tracks on the B sides. But even sanctioned tapes and remixes still got distributed mostly hand to hand, copy by copy, if they were distributed at all—what little of the material was salable had such a small and scattered market that paying to manufacture and ship a whole run would’ve been insane.
Now that the Internet has removed those physical barriers, though, unofficial works can go aboveground. “Bodycage,” as Chicago designer J. Tyler Helms calls his Arcade Fire video, has racked up more than 680,000 views on YouTube since he posted it there in February 2007—an awful lot of exposure that Merge Records didn’t have to spend a penny for. The majors still routinely make the mistake of squelching fan-generated videos and remixes, but many other rights holders—especially indies like Merge—have seen the light. Fans who are so into a song that their urge to be creatively involved with it takes them past, say, learning to pick it out on acoustic guitar or videotaping themselves dancing to it are a precious resource, and no label with a lick of sense should treat them like pirates.
In the past labels have tended to assume they’re playing a zero-sum game—that for every white-label Missy Elliott drum ‘n’ bass remix somebody bought, an official Missy Elliott single would sit on the shelves. But more and more it seems that rights holders understand that unoffical reworkings promote the originals rather than replace them. When Jay-Z released a cappellas for every track on The Black Album, the remixed versions he was encouraging helped propel the record to a truly insane level of notoriety—even if he lost a few sales to those remixes, the net result was a huge gain. The decision to make the a cappellas available, and the quality of some of the remixes they inspired—like Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which combined Jay’s vocals with Beatles samples—turned The Black Album from a mediocre retirement record to one of the most talked-about releases of 2003.
Other artists have done Jay-Z one better, giving fans access not just to the vocal tracks but to each instrumental track, making it possible for anyone to fuck around with any element of the song. And it’s not just dance and hip-hop acts either—late last year the metal band Lamb of God released a “producer edition” of 2006’s Sacrament that includes a second disc with every song’s component tracks, ready to be imported into audio-production software. Trent Reznor did the same with Year Zero, first through nin.com and then with a double-disc CD-DVD release, inspiring the formation of a whole online community devoted to remixing his music—one of the only things I’ve ever seen him sound genuinely happy about. But Universal (which still owned Year Zero, even though Reznor was by then a free agent) refused to host a site for the project—the label decided that condoning fan remixes would undercut its copyright lawsuits against YouTube and MySpace. Reznor is now hosting the community himself at remix.nin.com, and the $75 deluxe edition of his new Ghosts I-IV, self-released under a Creative Commons license, comes with a data DVD containing every file on the album.
It’s simple, really. Artists and labels benefit from crowdsourcing remix or video work because the more people there are messing with your song, the more likely it is that someone’s going to come up with a killer take on it—which, besides simply being a good thing in its own right, is great publicity for the original. Some small or midsize dance imprints (and the occasional bigger player) are even crowdsourcing tracks on official releases, often by holding remix contests and giving the winners slots on a future single from the artist they’re remixing. Buzzed-about UK art-pop band Foals, on Sub Pop in the States, are running such a contest right now.
Even though they’re rarely directly compensated for their work, home remixers and video makers also stand to benefit from their efforts. Helms may not be hoping for anything more than the warm glow he felt when the Arcade Fire asked to host his video on their Virb.com page, but when I asked local producer Radius what his goal was in making an album’s worth of hip-hop Radiohead remixes (available at radiushead.bravehost.com), he told me, “Getting heard!” People are more likely to download an unknown producer’s work if it’s a remix of a known band. And if they like the remix, they might just remember who did it. “I have a lot of music I’m dying to get out there,” Radius says, “so this gives me a stronger opportunity.”
Most of the discussion about the evolution of music into purely digital formats has focused on just one aspect of the transition—the way it makes sharing songs for free so easy. But file sharing isn’t the only thing that’s easier now that music has been set free from physical media. It’s also easier for fans to release their own versions of their favorite music back into the wild. Artists who are prepared to see unofficial remixers and video makers as collaborators rather than parasites have the opportunity not only to build online communities but also to nourish their own work with fresh ideas from dedicated people—and more of them, in fact, than ever before.v
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.