The Unappreciated Art Of The Mash-up

Plagiarism is the worst crime that any artist can be accused of (in an artistic sense, of course). In the music world, however, the lines of ownership are blurred and the middle ground remains a chalky grey. In all genres now, sampling is as rife as it is a natural part of the creative process, and updating past classics in new ways is as common if not more so than actual original creativity.

Mash-ups are, I suppose, the ultimate extreme borne from the rise of sampling as an artform – in that mash-ups are, technically, samples and nothing else. By rights, I should hate them, as many music purists do. After all, they are kind of patronising to the original producers in the sense that someone is trying to improve on their work. They’re kind of patronising to DJs as they’re dictating the tunes that should be mixed together instead of allowing the DJ to choose themselves. They allow people with no production influence to take credit for the work of other people. And worst of all, the copyright law regarding mash-ups is vague at best.

In my early days, suspicious of the oncoming digital revolution, I was of the opinion that pre-made mash-ups were “cheating” on the basis that they were doing the DJ’s job for them. After all, I can remember the days that DJs would play Coco – I Need A Miracle alongside their copy of Fragma – Toca Me and get the Toca’s Miracle effect using two vinyl decks and a mixer, surely using a pre-made CD of it just takes the biscuit?

Originally though, in the late 90’s, mash-ups were few and far between and often done quite well. Chicane – Offshore ’97 (the vocal version) was another example borne from vinyl play that became an official release. But since these early days, the producers and the sound engineers have moved from their shadowy realms in the background to take front and centre stage. With the onset of CDJs and Ableton, Final Scratch etc, you no longer need the dextrous fingers, the virtual split down the centre of your brain and the ability to listen with one ear or the other instinctively, or your inbuilt bpm counter. Nowadays you need your technical skills to do all the hard work for you, and with a small bit of practice, anyone can beatmatch and produce a club-worthy set without nearly the same complications you had 10 years ago.

To say that the DJ market has been saturated over the past decade is a massive understatement. As a rough estimate and in the trance genre alone I would guess that the supply of DJs actively seeking gigs has increased something between 12 and 15-fold. Compare this with the number of club-nights which has dropped dramatically since the turn of the century, and considering that club-night longevity has also plummeted, you’re left with a really bad case of “Too many cooks”.

This change in the inertia of the scene has had many wide-reaching consequences regarding the overall culture. No one factor is responsible for the changes but all factors have had their part in it. Ten years ago in a nightclub of 1000 people you’d have maybe 30 people who could DJ and 970 people who loved the music. Nowadays the split would be something like 350 DJs and 650 people who love the music.

My go on the decks next!

My go on the decks next!

Don’t get me wrong, not all the changes over the past 10 years have been bad – there are many benefits to the digital revolution. Cost, convenience, efficiency, ease, creativity – because of the massive supply of DJs fighting for position, one thing that’s certainly become a far more important factor now is studio prowess. It would be unheard of now for any DJ to make a breakthrough without first having production success, as Eddie Halliwell did. These days, club line-ups are often a three-pronged attack of 1) Big Name, 2) Resident and 3) Latest Star Producer (who can hopefully mix).

It’s certainly still a promoter’s market out there – only recently I learned of the widespread use of the tactic for promoters to sell tickets that owes a lot to the writing world’s “vanity press” scheme. “Vanity press” involves those adverts you sometimes see in newspapers asking for writing submissions for poetry/short story collections by private publishers. What happens is, upcoming writers submit their poems/stories to the publisher, who then publishes a collection of them – only a small run, mind, you don’t get to see them in Waterstones or anything. But the publisher does then write back to everyone who submitted a story/poem, offering the book for sale. Upcoming writers want to see their names in print and get their families and friends to buy copies as well – and hence will order several copies each. Publisher covers costs, writers get published. No royalties, no fame, no multi-million dollar movie deals, just a self-sufficient industry based on mutual benefits.

There are now some, possibly many, club promoters (not all, I must stress) who offer gigs to DJs on the basis of them selling so many tickets for the night, rather than any technical DJing ability. Only in a market so saturated would this even be possible, and I suppose you can’t really knock the promoters for it, as they’re just reacting to the slow clubbing market, covering their costs.

But I still believe it shifts the moral compass of the whole process. I’ve always believed that being booked for any gig is a privilege on the same level as someone inviting you into their home as an honoured guest. Whilst I’ve only ever been paid for one of my gigs I do them nonetheless because I love the music and I love playing it to people. Often I turn up at clubs for gigs on my own as my own personal entourage have grown tired of clubbing or simply grown up, as I’m often told I will do one day! But DJs should respect clubbers for being invited, just as promoters should respect clubbers for demanding the night in the first place. As such, I’ve always believed DJs should only attend one gig on a night and attend the night as they would if they were a clubber themselves.

However, I digress from my original point. The point is that DJing is no longer simply a case of learning the skill and then transferring the skill into a club and learning to read a crowd. The technical skill of DJing was only ever about 10% of the process (IMHO) – crowd-reading is something that only comes through practice (which is the other 90% of the process). But being the best crowd-reading, technically skilled DJ on the planet is now irrelevant without the means to promote yourself. Originally you did this bit by bit, through reputation, word-of-mouth, regular and consistent gigs, building a following, taking a chance here and there, defining your sound, always leaving them wanting more.

Nowadays, you just need to make a tune. Or two, or three, or a few, and get them play-listed by some top DJs. If you can do this, you’re more likely now to get gigs than anyone else – and here’s the true irony – whether you can actually DJ or not.

So, what’s our average ordinary everyday aspiring DJ to do to raise themselves above the parapet? Well, hours upon hours of slaving away over Cubase, Logic, Reason, Ableton – along with the purchase of studio equipment and VST’s. Alternately, you can pay for someone else to engineer your tune for you (costs around £250 a day). Both these choice are hard work and/or expensive, which leads us nicely onto magical option number 3…

Mash-ups! You could call it production on the cheap. You could call it extreme sampling. You could call it sacrilege (and people do). BUT!!! If you do it right and manage to make one that’s excellent, you might just have a shortcut for yourself into the playlists of DJs everywhere. It’s easier than making an original tune because there’s none of the midi engineering or the hours spent hunting through sound samples, and similarly, the tunes you use are more likely to be known by your audience already.

Technically, there’s not a lot different from making a mash-up to making an actual tune – it’s still very fiddly, very time consuming, and you still need to EQ properly, time-stretch the samples and so on – there’s still an entire creative process involved. And you’re still arranging sound samples where you want them to be, blending them as you would when producing an original tune, and so on. Technically you’re still placing original samples onto a “blank canvas” in order to create something greater than the combined sum of its’ parts.

No, they don’t always work, and yes, when they’re done wrongly they actually sound painful. But it wasn’t until I realised that the ratio of mash-ups that I found didn’t work was probably the same as the ratio of original tunes that I don’t like, which I happen upon during my shopping expeditions. On average, I’ll like about 1 in every 10 tunes I listen to when shopping, and I might buy 1 in 15 or so – following which maybe half of these will wind up in one of my shows, and fewer than a quarter of those will wind up in my demo mixes. Likewise, with mash-ups, I might listen to 50 of them over a month or two and a couple of them might wind up in a demo.

What I like about them is the approach to the tune from an entirely new angle, which other DJs and clubbers/listeners might not have had before. Whether it’s something as simple as putting vocals from one tune over another original, or whether it’s a complex web of interlinking chords and sub-melodies between the two, the ultimate aim of a mash-up is to produce something that is better than both original tunes on their own. Or at least as worthy.

Mainly I think I like them because so many DJs are still adverse to playing them. I confess I have a soft spot for any tune ignored by the rest of the world, just as I’m less likely to get obsessive regarding a tune that everyone has played and gotten bored of within a fortnight. But sometimes I just don’t understand why mash-ups aren’t more popular than they are.

One of my favourites so far from this year is Oceania vs First State – Always Falling (Gomez92 bootshup), which is essentially the vocals from Falling over the Stoneface & Terminal remix of Always. Originally I found both tunes very unsatisfying – the original of Falling combines glorious soaring vocals with a total anti-climax of a breakdown and none of the remixes came remotely close to fulfilling its’ potential. Similarly, since Oceania’s first tune Never Forget was my favourite of 2008, their follow up was always going to be a let-down for me. Stoneface & Terminal’s mix is good, functional, but lacks a certain emotional punch during the breakdown. However, when the two tunes are combined in Gomez92’s bootshup, suddenly both originals find and surpass a potential I knew was there already. However, to date, I think I’m still the only person to support the bootshup, whereas the originals of Falling and Always both are still widely supported in their disappointing forms.

Could the same effect as the bootshup still be made by using the two originals and mixing them live, in the old-school method? Probably, yes, if you had the technical skill. The truth is, I’ve never tried, and therein lies the underlying truth behind the digital revolution.

Humanity seeks efficiency and ease in order to secure the maximum return for the least amount of effort. It’s how we invented capitalism and how we managed to not get killed by predators on the African savannah thousands of years ago. It’s why I write this blog using a big chunk of plastic and microchips instead of a printing press the size of a car. And it’s why, when faced with a saturated DJing market in which the high standards are always being raised, that DJ’s will turn to the likes of Ableton to perfect their sounds rather than our hands, ears, and constraints of real time.

I fully accept that in 20 years no-one will DJ in the traditional sense at all any more. This makes me kind of sad but equally kind of lucky to have been around at a time when I could do it. I’ll always love the fact that I learned to DJ with vinyl and then moved onto CDJs, rather than just learning on CDJs. In 20 years though, I still expect that people will be making mash-ups, and I still suspect my ratio to be about the same as it is now!

People sneer at mash-ups normally, I think, because most of them are rubbish, or badly made, or badly conceived. But it wasn’t until I realised that the same was also true for original tunes that I looked at mash-ups differently, and began to appreciate that they are a valid art-form in themselves. I only hope that in time, others can learn to see them the same way, and perhaps the unappreciated genius of the likes of XiJaro, Victoria, Rob G, JACS, Gomez92, Vexilium, Le Grand Renard, MDB, Luke Blanc, and all the regular masher’s I love to support, might find some of the success they deserve!

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