Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Battleground

Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Battleground

Article excerpt

Imagine, if you will, the goody-two-shoes strains of Cliff Richard's 'Summer Holiday' spliced with an old blues murder ballad. The rhythm and the backing are seamlessly matched so that Cliff appears to be dueting with a killer. Or clips of David Attenborough's Kalahari-dwelling meerkats projected on to a nightclub wall. The scene jump-cuts into Tomorrow's World footage from the 1970s, uniting meerkats and an unsuspecting Judith Hann, who are 'remixed' together and set to a dance beat.

The first of these unlikely-sounding scenarios is the kind of thing that makes Sir Cliff sweat at night -- and leads him to lobby for protectionist extensions to copyright (though, in truth, even his profile as a butt of juvenile pranksterism is in decline).

And the second may be coming soon to a nightclub near you. In a bid to encourage people to sample the riches of its online Creative Archive, the BBC recently ran a VJ (video jockey) competition to find the best video mix that uses this freely available material; there were 400 entries.

More and more of our media are being provided digitally, giving us an evergreater scope to tailor what we receive, manipulate it and re-present it to suit our own taste. Personal video recorders can be used to create personalised programming (and skip the boring bits and the ads), while the latest computers enable us to remix music, video and text resources to make secondary artworks. The question is, though, is this 'remix, repackage' culture a democratising, user-friendly trend, or is it just a licence for derivative plagiarism and the undermining of strong, coherent voices in the media and arts?

Our laws were not conceived with digital media in mind: strictly speaking, you break the law in the UK if you simply copy tracks from your CD collection to your iPod. But public service broadcasters and media organisations are among those staking out areas of legitimate copying and reuse that do not turn us all into criminals. They are obliged by their remit to be more open and less protective about their 'content' and what the audience does with it, and, in cases such as the BBC, its scale enables it to experiment in ways that private corporations would find difficult to justify to shareholders. Through the internet we digital citizens can share the content we obtain and manipulate. Turning this potential to public good leads the BBC, for example, to commit to 'support social innovation by encouraging users' efforts to build sites and projects that meet their needs and those of their communities'.

The BBC's initial contribution to the pilot of the Creative Archive -- an initiative in which the British Film Institute, Channel 4 and others are also involved -- is 100 hours of TV material which anyone in the UK can download, view, remix and redistribute. The only constraints are that remixes should not be commercial, defamatory or 'soapboxing' (i. e. , distorting Auntie's words to undermine her claim to impartiality).

The agenda behind these initiatives isn't simply to develop the nation's cultural wealth. 'The Archive will also help develop "media literacy", ' says Lord Puttnam. 'The ability for schools and young people especially to use video and audio "clips" from creative work of all kinds can only be an enormous spur to innovation as well as to the development and training of new creative talent, by nurturing skills such as editing and sound production.' Music is the digital battleground on which most blood has been spilt, though again there are tame and legitimate cases of digital manipulation. …

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