Mashup Controversy: Cross Promotion or Copyright Infringement?

Mashups have always been looked at as a grey area in music, but more recently, their legitimacy as an art form has been called into question. At the heart of the issue, there is a debate between mashups acting as a platform for cross promotion, and mashups acting as copyright infringement to the original producers. One side says mashups are simply a new way to listen to the same songs, or rather, they give songs “a new coat of paint,” and are a way to expose tracks, particularly in electronic dance, “for the love of music.” The other side would argue that mashups, in essence, are a crime, stealing sounds from other artists and combining them to form “new” tracks that are in turn used to promote the masher and not the original artist.

So who’s right? I’m going to try to answer that, but first we should examine some important cases that help make both sides of the debate more clear.

By now you’ve probably seen the Twitter drama that ensued the other day between the copyright claimers Sebastian Ingrosso and Axwell (of Swedish House Mafia), and mashup (in this case “bootleg”) culprit Hardwell. The controversy was over a massive bootleg pack that Hardwell had given away for free in celebration of reaching 300,000 Facebook fans. In order to download, you simply had to “like” Hardwell’s page and you were good to go, a common practice used by musicians giving away music nowadays. Ingrosso and Axwell said not so fast, you’re giving bootlegs that contain our originally produced music to thousands of fans for free, in order to increase your Facebook presence? That’s a low blow! Brett over at WompLife hit it on the head when he said:

Is Hardwell an up and comer, making a name for himself with a free bootleg? Absolutely not. Someone as esteemed as Hardwell, reverting to the practice of giving out simple reworks of others’ music to garner Facebook likes, does seem somewhat inappropriate. Of course, fans, blogs, and most artists did not complain. This is the industry – a free music exchange. However, we do not think Axwell and Ingrosso are in the wrong for expressing their disapproval. Were their methods aggressive and insulting? Clearly. We think the Swedes could have easily ignored this conflict. – Taken from “Axwell & Ingrosso vs Hardwell, Who Is In The Wrong?

The always wise Kaskade didn’t waste any time on weighing in on the subject with his lengthy Twitter response that I’ve transcribed below.

Just seeing this conversation between @HARDWELL @SebIngrosso @ericprydz @Axwell about giving away mash ups and boots. interesting stuff. I have a lot of respect for all these guys and play the crap out of their records…so here is my take on it. (prepare yourself for a multi tweet (put your hand over that must button)) sorry, mute button. I suck at typing this is obvious. Sorry Mr Panich (my 6th grade typing teacher) typically when I make a mash up I use one of my songs vocals and lay it over another song. Sounding more like a new mix than a mash up. it is the essence of dj’ing (in my mind) taking 2 things, putting them together to make a NEW thing. example: stars troll. this tune works, it just does. if it had not come out commercially you would not have been able to hear it except to go see my show. and if that is the only place you could have heard this, that would have been a shame. Sooooooo. After many of my mash ups have been rinsed out by me in my shows and the track that the vocal is laid on top has done it’s thing, then I feel fine to post it and give it out for free. BUT I never ask for “likes” or any of this business I just want this “new thing” …. to be heard by people other than the handful that checked it out live. other dj’s want to play it. And it can’t be made or purchased so…I put it up on sound cloud and let people have it. I don’t feel that this disrespects the original of either song as typically they are old. this gives these songs new life – a new mix – a new coat of paint if you will. so that is pretty much it. now i am sure that this will be confused and I will be misunderstood and maybe even hated but this is how I feel but I can tell you this for sure, people do not like this. when I post one of my mash ups soundcloud spanks me and takes it down quickly usually at the request of the artist that I am mashing stuff up with. which is cool, you don’t want it up. I take it down. all good by me. your loss. cause if I had the nuts to put it up, it must slap. – Kaskade

Darude, Laidback Luke, and Spencer & Hill were all quick to give their two cents on Kaskade’s reasoning.

Darude brings up a very valuable point with his response. What all these guys (Hardwell, Kaskade, Laidback Luke, etc.) have in common, is the fact that they are all established producers in their own respects. Their careers are built off their own music, their own productions, and their own original sounds. They don’t need the potential gain from mashing up two lesser artists, nor do they use mashups as their primary releases. When they put out free downloads of bootlegs they’ve been playing out at shows, they aren’t doing it to purposely promote themselves, or in any way claim the music as their own. It’s just something fun, a different take on an older track, or a thank you to the fans who’ve been supporting them out on tour, and as Kaskade and Hardwell both showed, they are incredibly quick to comply to anyone who would ask the mashups in question be taken down.

So what about all those guys who have made a career based on mashups or bootlegs? There are plenty of prime examples: The White Panda, Girl Talk, 3LAU, Kap Slap, Milkman, Super Mash Bros….the list is fairly long. The problem here is that these mashup artists don’t make their own original sounds in the sense that Kaskade, Hardwell, or any other producer of that caliber might. In Darude’s opinion, they are basically ripping off other creator’s work and using it for their own personal gains, and therefore becoming “morally questionable.” While that sounds a little harsh, what he’s getting at is a very real point. A mashup artists’ entire success or failure as an artist depends on how well they can combine other artists instrumentals and vocals, and when they do that successfully, they generally reap the benefits of an increased fan base in place of the original artists. Even if they go on to produce original material, they never would have been in that position of popularity without their mashups (constructed by tracks from producers who may also be struggling to make a music career) to give them a headstart. Is that fair?

Let’s look at this example of 3LAU’s Dance Floor Filth 2 album, which could act as a mirror for what what got Hardwell in trouble with Axwell and Ingrosso. DFF2 was a compilation album of free bootlegs, released for free, that one could obtain through a Facebook app that required you to like the page before downloading.

This widely used strategy resulted in the largest period of Facebook growth 3LAU had ever experienced. The week of July 15th, the same week as the DFF2 release, is his most popular week according to Facebook, and largely in part to this unlock strategy picture above, 3LAU’s page has gone from 50K likes to 86K in a matter of weeks. So where is the reward for the artists who 3LAU mashed up in his album? The tracklists are included below the SoundCloud players, but that’s about it. In most cases, not just with this particular album, people come away from a mashup saying, “oh I really liked that song by mashup artist A,” not, “oh I really liked that mashup of artist B’s track with artist C’s track.” As a result, the listener is going to be much more likely to go see the mashup artist live or give his page a facebook like compared to artists B or C.

Imagine you are a painter. You decide you’re going to take a few paintings from Leonardo da Vinci, a few from Michelangelo a few from van Gogh, and a face from one of Picasso’s, cut them up, and paste them together as one different looking painting. People who may not be used to those famous painters individually love the new spin you give to their art. You gain thousands of followers seemingly overnight, and within a year you are touring the country, selling your artwork to the most prestigious exhibits and museums, and getting sponsored by all sorts of high end art suppliers. Most of your fans however, don’t even realize that you didn’t actually paint anything yourself, and they either don’t know about or don’t care to pay for the original paintings by da Vinci, Michelangelo, van Gogh, or Picasso. Don’t you think those painters have the right to and would be pissed that you just got famous off bootlegging their original work?

In Kap Slap‘s case, they did get pissed. Pissed enough to take down his entire SoundCloud account due to copyright infringement.

But wait a minute. There’s something incredibly important I haven’t touched on yet. In many cases these mashups sounded great, amazing in some cases, providing versions of songs that were widely preferred to the bare original mixes. Even though I’ve been quick to express my concerns about the oversaturation of mashups recently, I can’t deny that there are plenty of incredible mashups still out there. Furthermore, there is a level of talent required to be able to create the perfect mashup, even at the simplest 1 v 1 level. You either have to have the knowledge to make the transitions between songs seamless and unique, or have the ear to know what will work well together. But, is that enough to validate names like The White Panda, Girl Talk, and Kap Slap as musicians? Is there a difference between sub-genres within mashups, or if one mashup is more complex than another?

This all goes back to that grey area surrounding the mashup. Where does one draw the line and say this is an original song and this is copyright infringement? Do you have to consider mashups in their different forms? Is there an acceptable trade off between cross promotion and legality? I don’t know if anyone can definitely answer those questions, but it’s clear that people like Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso, Darude, and the people behind Kap Slap’s SoundCloud compaints are concerned over the issue.

Personally, I am torn between the two sides. While I enjoy a great mashup, and agree that if music sounds good it’s meant to be shared and enjoyed, I do think it should be something used as a secondary outlet. In my opinion it’s slightly unfair for guys who only make mashups to gain such massive success (see picture below) when they’ve essentially gotten famous by using artists who in actuality are making the sounds for them. It’s like taking the best part of two essays from two different students and combining them to form a better essay and receiving a higher grade. You didn’t really come up with the original ideas and end up taking some of the credit the other guys ultimately deserve. It’s one thing to do that for fun, as a treat for fans who’ve supported your other work, and a completely different thing to make that your calling card.

What do you think? Are mashups cross promotion or copyright infringement? Are you torn between the two like me? Should there be a more strict permission system in place in order to create a mashup? Does this debate even need to be answered? All valid questions that will sure have a wide variety of answers coming from different perspectives on what is a very grey issue in music right now. Feel free to agree, disagree, persuade, or suggest in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Update: Kaskade ended up writing a bit more detailed response on his Tumblr titled “Politicking of a Mash Up.” Read HERE.