I was in college in the early '90s when a friend turned me onto an experimental band from the Bay Area known as Negativland. They'd just been sued by U2 and Island Records for releasing a kazoo instrumental cover of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" mixed with a hilarious audio collage of a secretly taped Casey Kasem going on a profane rant ("These guys are from England and who gives a shit?").
The suit was settled out of court, and the legendary collective has continued releasing acclaimed cutup works of sound, video, pictures and live performance for the past 27 years, all while maintaining its idealistic stance toward the free reuse of creative work. Many consider Negativland the first band that got people thinking about modern intellectual property law, copyright, and fair use -- issues that have exploded in an age of computer downloading, sample usage, remixed YouTube videos and mash-ups.
The group stays busy running its own label and management, but hasn't toured since 2000. Negativland will be bringing a recreation of its weekly KPFA Berkeley radio show, "Over the Edge," to the Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville Aug. 7.
Style spoke with Mark Hosler, 45, via phone from North Carolina, where he was working on one of his million side projects.
Style: What can people expect at the upcoming Charlottesville gig?
Hosler: This particular show is taking our radio show and doing it live on stage. We pass out these colorful, children's party pi¤ata blindfolds for the audience to wear, which look really funny from the stage. The show is very much a post-9/11 Negativland show. It's looking at different themes than stuff we're known for dealing with in the past, [such as] copyright infringement, anti-corporate activist stuff, and advertising media literacy.
When we play live, we don't play songs from our records. We try to create shows for the stage that are unique for that space. When we were pulling together this show, we looked at how the country has changed since our last tour. Today we're seeing a return of fundamentalism in both the east and the west that's kind of shocking. We have a president who believes God is telling him what to do, and he's fighting terrorists who believe God is telling them what to do. So, we thought: You can't really get any bigger than God as a subject.
Of course, we still have our own peculiar, oblique, weird Negativland take on it, but we're really trying to do a show that's thought-provoking. We're asking questions like: What is faith? Why do we believe what we believe and how does the brain work? Why do we believe in one God, and is that a good idea when it seems to cause so much misery?
It seems like much of your work boils down to favoring the artist's rights over corporations?
What we favor is what's for the greater good. I don't actually care about the individual artist. If your work is sampled in something and you don't like it, I don't care. I think there's a greater good to be served by having a free exchange of ideas and information and creativity, and it doesn't help anyone or serve anybody to shut it down, or intimidate and scare people with all these laws.
I have a friend who wears a shirt with your song "Christianity is Stupid" on the front and he's had a few confrontations with Bible folk.
Oh yeah. I think it was my idea to make that shirt. But that doesn't mean I'd want to wear it. No, one of the rules of this show is there's no easy pot-shots at Christian fundamentalism; we're trying to do something that's smarter than that. There are many different stripes of Christianity. There's Christians who realize that intolerance is not a good thing, that it's very destructive. Right now, I find there's an interesting cognitive dissonance in this whole country over going to war. If you take a poll, we're a Christian nation, most people believe in God, believe in angels. But I don't understand what part of "thou shall not kill" people don't get. It's not "thou shall not kill except when there's oil."
I don't understand how you can be completely against abortion and yet for the death penalty and for a war where most of the people dying are children, the elderly and innocents. We've killed close to a million people over there, more than under Saddam Hussein. As terrible as he was, you can make a pretty good argument that it's worse living in complete civil war chaos because of our war.
What do you think about the whole YouTube phenomenon?
Well, it's a hall of mirrors more than ever. You have things on YouTube that are posing as being homemade, crude videos, but in fact they're fake, and really an ad for Burger King or a beer or something. Fake amateur video.
All of the networks and studios have people employed full time that spend their days trolling YouTube and Google video and sending out notices to take things down. This is going on all the time. But at this point, the sites are so big and numerous, as soon as stuff gets taken down, it's been posted somewhere else.
From a standpoint of empowering the individual, the more people are encouraged to produce their own media, news, information, culture -- I think that's great. I think we want a bottom-up, grassroots culture and less of the top-down, corporately produced stuff. As for whether or not people [on YouTube] are making something that's any good, that's a whole other question. What you have now, if you're trying to do work and get anyone to notice what you're doing, the noise level is so high, so deafening, it's become that much more difficult to get anyone to notice what you're doing.
I've been paying attention to collage, cutting up and remixing, since I was a teenager, which soon turned into Negativland the band -- we've been doing collage with sound, pictures, video, film, performances and radio all these years and have found it an endlessly interesting approach. In an odd way, I feel you can make work that's more honest by using things that are made by other people.
But it's interesting to see how it's progressed as a style, technique or approach. I should say most collage I see [online] I don't care for, or don't think is very interesting. But I remember Don [Joyce of Negativland] predicting in the '90s, collage is going to become one of the art styles that everyone will be doing in the next millennium. You could see it coming with computers, everything going faster and faster, making it easier and easier. And now with YouTube, there's an explosion of average people doing things that only a few years ago you would have considered fringe, experimental, avant-garde art practices. Now that's becoming normal, which means, because I'm in a group that has always tried to do things that are innovative and different and unusual, we can't [laughs].
There's nothing that strange about Negativland anymore. But still in the end, we're interested in working with good ideas. Not just collage for the sake of collage, but in the service of bigger ideas. Our current live show has nothing to do with intellectual property issues, but yet we're dealing with this subject of faith and spirituality by doing a collage onstage.
Can you talk about your work with the nonprofit Creative Commons. And how do mash-ups fit into your opinions on reusing media?
Creative Commons is just offering creators the ability to attach alternative copyright licenses to their work. We wrote the sampling license working with their lawyers. We can use that license for our work and what we are saying is, you're free to take any work of Negativland, any piece of it, and reuse it in your own work in some other way, and you can also sell it too.
However, the reason why the license doesn't work well in a practical sense with our particular work is we are making work with bits and pieces of other people's work who don't have Creative Commons license and never gave us permission. What the license doesn't acknowledge is: You're taking things we don't have any right to in the first place. However, it works if you're creating completely original work.
The Creative Commons aspect doesn't apply for mash-ups, because nobody is using those licenses. Of all the mash-ups I've heard, I really like the Nirvana one with Missy Elliott, or is it Beyoncé? [It's Beyoncé.] That could be a hit, and it changes the feel and groove of the song. I would definitely say that is a "transformative re-use." In this case not a fragment, but they've reused the entire song. By Negativland's definition, that's perfectly all right, that's OK.
How many artists have used your license so far?
I've been told that it's millions -- that it's been used on millions of Web pages, that's what I was told by the director there, that's it become one of the most popular licenses downloaded. That was very gratifying to hear because we were trying to write a license that really works for how people create stuff. Some of the other licenses they have didn't really work for us.
I would just rather live in a society where we're more open and free to do this kind of work. And maybe things get made that are stupid or a bit of a rip-off. But I'd rather have some of that than what we have now, which is everyone afraid. It's amazing, I'll talk to a student in an art school and they're worried about putting up collage art on a wall in a gallery inside a university because they're afraid of getting in trouble. I'll say, "What do you think, there are some art police floating out there in the ether that will be zooming in to grab you?" Nobody cares. For you, it's a moral, ethical, aesthetic question about whether you feel OK about doing this work. But on a practical level, as Casey Kasem once said, "Who gives a shit?" It's only when you're making money, or being really visible, that it becomes an issue.
For us, ever since we were sued in the early '90s, we've continued doing work that's in a very legally grey area, some would argue that it's all illegal. And we've continued to do it and we've had no problems. We've been sued twice, threatened maybe four other times but those were all dropped once they realized we were going to make a big stink about it. The thing is, we don't make enough money for ourselves to live off. There's nothing to get out of us.
And you've got plenty of lawyers lined up who want to do pro bono work for you because of your notoriety. But how does the average Joe feel safe putting their sample-filled work out there for sale?
That's true. I don't know. In our case, all we can do is try to set an example. We get e-mails every couple months from people saying, "Hey, I'm trying to manufacture my CD and the CD pressing plant is telling me they won't press it because they heard we use samples and I can't prove that I cleared them, because I didn't."
Negativland uses a CD plant that doesn't seem to pay attention to this, or if they do, they don't care. So I give people our pressing plant info where they'll be safe. You know, in this case, they're not being stopped by the copyright holders suing them; they can't even get the thing manufactured because the plant says no. In the legal world, that can be called prior restraint, where you're not even being allowed to publish and then have your day in court if someone wanted to sue you.
We don't all agree on this in Negativland, but I think the practical reality is there is so much work going on with cutting up and collaging, there is no way, they do not have enough hours in the day to track down one-tenth of a percent of it. So what they're doing, all their energy is put into going after whole works, and entire things. When it comes to collage and cut up, I think less people are scared because you're seeing it so much nowadays.
Going back to religion: Why are people so afraid to use the term fascism to describe these right-wing religious movements? They're clearly nationalistic, against open society, and for some kind of apocalyptic showdown. They seem like the kind of soft fascism you saw in Italy and Germany of the '20s and '30s.
It's an interesting question. I ask myself the same thing. What we're seeing is soft fascism. It's a horrible word to use, but that's what it is. Part of the definition has been a nexus of power between the government and corporations. But the word itself is so connected with Nazism and Hitler that you can't really go there because Bush isn't Hitler. Things aren't that extreme, but [laughs] if we were to make a graph, we're a long ways in that direction. Even friends of mine on the far left have a hard time using that word. But then you look at a term like "neocon" which is used all the time in the media. If you look at what they are, these people are a total contradiction to what a true conservative is -- they're an entirely different kind of beast, and something to be very concerned about.
Do you think that downloading is the real reason that record sales are down? There have been studies that indicate that may not be the case.
Everyone's sales are down and there are a lot of reasons for it. One reason is because there is so much music coming out. It's so much easier to make music now and release it and so we're all sort of competing more in a way. We might put out a CD where we used to sell 5,000 and now we sell 3,000.
I was actually in Tucson lately staying at a hotel, and Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck [of R.E.M fame] were staying there because they were recording a new album. Peter Buck likes Negativland's work and he has the U2 single. I met him and we were talking and I happened to ask him, "You know, I've noticed I don't think any REM songs have ever turned up in any commercials -- did you guys ever go that route?" And he said: "No, we've never done it. We've always turned it down. In fact, we turned down $8 million from Microsoft in the mid-'90s." They wanted to use "End of the World as We Know It."
But he said something interesting that I never thought of before. He said, "The reason we say no, the reason we don't want to see our music trivialized and turned into a car ad, is because it's become so easy to get so much music these days, kids are growing up and they're not as attached to it."
For example, when I was a kid, around 14 or 15, I would save up my paper route money, go out from the 'burbs in California to Berkeley to this one weird record store that had everything from all over the world. I could only go out every few months. It was a big deal. There was a lot of energy and intention and emotion to discovering the music. I remember when I discovered the first Pere Ubu album. I listened to that thing every single day for three months in a row. I had never heard anything like it.
Nowadays you can go download every single Pere Ubu album in five minutes. You can find it all, but you end up with so much you can't form an attachment to it. Therefore -- and this was Buck's point -- if that song by that band you really like so much ends up in a car commercial, you really don't care as much, because you were never really attached to it in the first place.
You've spoken all over the world about these subjects. Who do you refer people to read about these intellectual property issues?
Well I think an incredibly good overview is called "Copyrights and Copywrongs" by Siva Vaidhyanathan. He was a professor at NYU until recently and he just relocated with his wife to teach at UVa., so he should be at our show. He's brilliant. He'll tell you things most people don't know -- like when copyright first existed, it only lasted 14 years, then it was over. It's amazing to think in the earliest days of conceptualizing copyright, nobody thought it should last 150 years, which is what it is now. It's the life of the creator plus 74 years. That of course, has been changed because corporations pushed for it, because corporations are immortal and they want to be able to profit forever. Which makes sense.
When Mark Twain was alive, he couldn't stand it. He kept running around trying to change it, or extend it, because all his books kept coming out of the public domain. I can see that. But on the other hand, it probably encouraged him to write more books. I use the example of J.D. Salinger today. If the copyright of "Catcher and the Rye" had expired after 14 years, it would've kicked him in the ass and he would've given the world more great literature. There's a good argument to be made that extending copyright does the opposite of what we intend to do -- it can actually discourage creativity.
You guys have always argued that most of what you do falls under the existing laws for Fair Use?
Sure. It's just that we haven't been able to test it out in a court of law. The one time we had the chance to do it, when we were sued over the U2 single, we didn't know enough about what we were in. It was complex. And we ended up settling out of court because we and the record label were both being sued -- from a moral and ethical standpoint we didn't feel we could do whatever we want because it endangered them too. But that's why we started our own label.
Is there one misconception that jumps out when you talk to people about intellectual property issues?
There's a common myth that people think there's some allowable amount you can use to sample. I don't know where that comes from.
What are you working on?
We have a DVD called "Our Favorite Things," featuring all our short films over the last ten years, coming out in October along with a bonus CD that is one of the strangest things I've ever heard. It's a black gospel, doo-wop soul/R&B group from Detroit doing a capella cover versions of Negativland cut-up collage pieces. It's absolutely insane. We're also reissuing "Big 10-8 Place" [with a bonus DVD] which is sort of our tape-splicing extravaganza, back when we used to cut tape. It's a favorite of a lot of people who like our work.
What do you think the legacy of the band will be?
That's for other people to decide. We're trying to make work that sticks with people, that has a lot of depth. You can take it on the surface or you can dig deeper and other meanings emerge. In a way, it is one big 27-year-long conceptual art project with reoccurring themes, characters, ideas, concepts, even words we've made up.
It's amazing to me. I have like 30 or 40 books we've ended up in, people have written master theses about our work. I've met lawyers who got into being intellectual property lawyers because they were inspired by what we did. It's great to know that in our own tiny way, we maybe had little tiny impact on the public discourse on these issues. The political aspect, the activist aspect of our work, we're very aware of it, but we do think we're creative and artistic folks first.
When I hear feedback about our work, and I do get a sense it had an impact, you can't put a price tag on that. There's no money amount you can attach to it. For my life having meaning, to feel like while I was here I did something with my time, that's what counts. And I'll keep telling myself that, while I go eat my Top Ramen noodles.
Negativland's "It Is All in Your Head FM" live stage show at Charlotteville's Satellite Ballroom is Tuesday, Aug. 7. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12-$14, available at Plan 9 or at the door. Call (434) 293-7005 or visit www.satelliteballroom.com.