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Musician Makes Tunes By Borrowing Others –

July 2, 2008


Musician Makes Tunes By Borrowing Others –

So what exactly is the difference between Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) and Negativland ?

About 16 years, a chastened record industry and an army of lawyers I reckon.


Musician Makes Tunes
By Borrowing Others

June 27, 2008; Page B7

Under the stage name Girl Talk, musician Gregg Gillis dissects hit songs by other artists and stitches the bits together to make his own propulsive dance music. While it is common in the music industry to sample a couple of older records to create a new track, Mr. Gillis samples up to a dozen for each of his songs. And he does so without permission from the owners of his source material.

Last week Mr. Gillis released his fourth album, “Feed the Animals,” which consists almost entirely of samples from some 300 songs. The release highlights his unusual place in a particularly litigious music industry: So far Mr. Gillis and his record label haven’t been sued, they claim. That is partly because sales of his previous albums have been relatively small so far. “Night Ripper,” the 2006 album that helped him break through with fans and critics, has sold only about 20,000 copies. But his rise also shows how attitudes are shifting in the industry. As traditional music sales plummet, a growing number of bands will put up with unauthorized use of their music if it will expose them to new fans.

“Is it worth spending the money suing people for what will amount to nothing? Or is it better to embrace it and say, our music is being used in something pretty cool,” says Charlie Brusco, who manages the 1970s rock band Styx. Mr. Gillis used the group’s hit song “Renegade” prominently on his new album. So far, Styx hasn’t taken action.

On another Girl Talk song, the music from Faith No More’s 1990s hit “Epic” gets woven with hardcore rap lyrics. Mike Patton, the band’s former frontman, says, “It is an honor to collaborate with Busta Rhymes.”

Sampling, the technique of using part of another artist’s recording as a building block for a new song, has been one of the most contentious issues in popular music, going back to the rise of sample-heavy hip-hop music in the 1980s. The practice abated after sampled artists successfully fought back. Now, at a time when artists routinely pay to license samples for mainstream releases, Mr. Gillis is unique.

“The sheer number of samples he uses, and the fact that he is not a chart-topper with oodles of cash, makes it basically impossible for him to secure licenses for everything. Fair use is his only recourse,” says Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond School of Law.

The growing popularity of the Girl Talk sound, which finds pieces of the Carpenters, Metallica, Beastie Boys and more grafted into a single song, has helped Mr. Gillis make a rapid ascent. Last year, he quit his day job as a biomedical engineer. Now, concerts sell out and this summer he is booked at Lollapalooza and other music fests. On his new album, Mr. Gillis makes himself a bigger target by presenting samples in a way that invites listeners to name that tune.

“It’s all purposely Top 40,” he says. “It’s more of a challenge to take something so familiar and twist it into a new entity.”

That “twist” is the crux of Mr. Gillis’s defense. Despite its provocative name, Illegal Art, Mr. Gillis’s record label claims that the music it sells falls under the protective umbrella of “fair use.” In other words, Mr. Gillis isn’t violating the copyright of the popular songs he uses, the label says, because he is transforming their identity by dicing them up and putting them into a new context.

Many acts haven’t let up in the copyright fight. Representatives of the classic rock band the Guess Who say they actively search for copyright infringement of songs like “American Woman,” sometimes by following tips from fans. But in the Internet age that quest seems like a game of Whac-a-Mole, says Lorne Saifer, who manages songwriter Burton Cummings, who owns the rights to the Guess Who catalog, including “These Eyes,” which Mr. Gillis co-opted.

“We’ll chase it down. What more can you do?” she says.

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