Monday, February 09, 2009

news making my point for me.

So in the past couples of days entertainment news has kicked up two burning examples of one of the points I’m trying to make from my research.

Dave Kelly, producer of a riddim called the “Showtime” Riddim (also owner of madhouse records), is currently suing the (Jamaican) producer of the “Unfinished Business” riddim, which is a re-lick of the Showtime riddim.


Vybz Kartel yesterday received an e-mail from EMI Music Publishing stating that the song “Rampin Shopinfringes on the copyright license of Ne-Yo’s Miss Independent. The current version of Vybz Kartel and Spice’s Rampin Shop has been ordered to be destroyed and pulled from all radio stations, television stations and the Internet by EMI Music Publishing.

destroying music in order to save it, indeed. Let me assert, also that Rampin Shop is one of the biggest tunes in Jamaica. I also happen to think it is an amazing tune. Wherever it comes from, it’s one of my favorites as well.

*a quick break for definitions:

Riddim - the instrumental of a track:i.e. everything but the vocals. in Jamaica (as well as other places including sometimes US hip-hop) many people will “voice” i.e. put vocals over the same riddim.
Re-lick - I’m never entirely sure the difference between a re-lick, a refix, a remix, and a remake, but it means taking some aspects of a popular riddim and adding some other parts to it, often called “updating” it - a term which also has interesting implications about the value of music as it relates to its relevance or currency (rather than its status as a treasured object, holy relic or dare i say fetishized commodity)
Producer - a person who claims credit for, and sometimes owns copyright of, the instrumental version of a track, sometimes by synthesizing or using samples, sometimes by ‘causing the recording to happen’ including wrangling musicians or recordings of them into his vision (occasionally her?) vision.

Anyway, as dancehall-related news website points out, “In Jamaican dancehall culture, “re-licking” a riddim has undoubtedly been a way of life. Almost monthly there seems to be a remake of a dancehall, reggae or rocksteady riddim that originated anywhere from just a few years ago to decades ago, often with no thought, care or compensation being made to its original composer or creator.”

Probably ending up in my dissertation, that one. Re-licking is a common practice and that it deserves to be taken seriously as a creative practices, and not tutted over as an example of lawless Jamaican savages (which is nearly the way that some higher-level gov’t and NGO people discuss the dancehall scene). As I was saying earlier in this blog, when people don’t obey a law that you know about that doesn’t mean they have no rules at all. And whatever the law is, it came from somewhere, just like the rules people ARE following came from somewhere.

Setting aside the question of whether “respect for law” is good in itself (which can be questioned on so many fronts - starting with a certain letter and moving on from there (more links to follow when my internet speeds up), why not examine where those different sets of rules come from? As it happens, copyright law is not universal, is not ahistorical, and is not without culture. Historians and cultural studies scholars and anthropologists (and indeed many others) would not be so silly as to assume that, but international legal and trade organizations seem to have problems with this concept. Since copyright laws have cultures embedded in them, it would be wise to examine what this means when they are enforced or ported onto different places (cultures, institutional settings, industries, practices etc) than those they came from.

Wayne sums up many of the problems and inconsistencies here. For not only is copyright law culturally bounded, even the people using copryight law on their behalf in this instance have broken it when it suited them. One thing is clear - when there is no money to be made (i.e. when the song is not a hit), people don’t sue. Obvious, maybe, but also a sign that the law is not understood by these players to be about rights per se, but about money. Or at least that people insist on some rights in one context, and on other rights in another..

Wayne’s discussion of these inconsistencies is illuminating, but don’t neglect the comments, where many thoughtful people weigh in. The only point I would add, as I did there, is that copyright law appears to work very well as a tool of the powerful against the weak. Property law, and indeed all law, has this characteristic. So calling for more law, even on the side you want to protect, can backfire. One of the things I am exploring is how to shift the actual power dynamic - can law actually help with this or must that shift be started elsewhere?


  1. Destroying music in order to save it has its equivalence in political theory, under the 'state of exception' as proposed by right-wing/fascist political theorist Carl Schmidt, and as analysed by Agamben. Schmidt argues for the state of exception as the necessary authoritarian moment wherein the state dissolves itself in order to save itself through violence against those opposed to its (authoritarian) order. I find the parallels with the music industry... interesting.

  2. Thought Wayne's examples were clearly dissimilar enough, unlike the famous chord sequence in Harrison's "My Sweet Lord". This is a complicated area. True, the law in all its majesty does not come into play unless there is money involved but how do we adequately compensate the creators of content?

  3. The question of compensation is important, but should be separated a little from copyright. compensation can and has been received in various ways.

    another thing to unpack is the issue if identifying a "creator" - for example a lot of copyright law has actually been shaped to support not the creator but the publisher/promoter/investor/underwriter. Copyright law tends to function quite well in the service of these entities, who are not usually understood as creators. How to take seriously their contribution? Let alone the contributions of fans, and of previously existing music.

    and even beyond that, what is the basis for compensation? is it because the work would not get done otherwise? because some kinds of creativity are in themselves good and thus deserving of reward? Or depending on the value (however you measure that) of the creations?

    this is why more people need to examine how music and music-making works in specific contexts. Because answering those questions cannot come from abstract legal principle or from cultural assumptions about the nature of creativity.