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Gregg GillisToday I’m doing a profile on musician Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, looking at the music, the model, the potential mitigation, and of course, the marketing.

Yes, you can read this blog post, but because I intersperse music throughout the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the podcast:

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Yes, that is “Whoomp! There It Is,” by 1993 one hit wonder Tag Team, mixed with 1983 #1 hit “In a Big Country,” by Scottish band Big Country. Who is responsible for this? It’s Girl Talk, the stage name for musician Gregg Gillis.

In Episode 15 of The Hopkinson Report, I tackled marketing in the Art world, knowing full well the subjectivity of the topic, but addressing it from a marketing angle.

And so it goes with music. You may like Tupac or Kelly Clarkson, Ludacris or Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana or Earth, Wind and Fire. I won’t make everyone happy.

So I’m going to take a broader look at the man, the music, the model, and the mitigation. And you might be surprised at how all the groups mentioned above come together.

THE MAN

Gregg Gillis is a 27-year-old musician and his instrument is his laptop. He’s already known in the Wired community, as he took home a 2007 Rave Award (See story | video interview). His day job was as a Biomedical Engineer, working in the experimental division of a company he refused to name. Was this bit of Wired Science an asset to helping him win the award? It couldn’t hurt.

The reason he was shy about naming what company he worked for in a 2006 interview with Pitchfork Media? That’s easy… his co-workers didn’t know that he was ‘nerding out’ by day, then jumping on a plane to Brussels or doing a show in London with Beck over the weekend before rolling back into his cubicle Monday morning. How was your weekend Gregg? Oh, it was ok.

Gregg Gillis

The other reason was his tendency to get so passionate about bringing up the energy at his shows, that he’d often end up stripping down to his boxers and crowdsurfing. Might be a tough one to explain if your boss comes across that one on YouTube. His live show takes such a toll on his laptops that he went through three reinforced Panasonic Toughbooks last year.

When he first started trying to mix Fleetwood Mac with Tone Loc, I’m sure he got a lot of doubters giving him proverbial line ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ The good news? In May of last year Gregg got to the point where his music was successful enough that the answer to that was “I’m outta here,” and he left the 9 to 5 behind.

I decided to take a closer look at Girl Talk at the urging of a Wired co-worker, whose husband was a popular New York DJ. I was not disappointed.

THE MUSIC

Ah, how to describe the music. Wired called him a laptop mixologist, and the reason is simple. His mashups take a frantic dance beat and create his sound through the overlay of hundreds of samples. In his third album Night Ripper, he used more than 250 samples from 167 artists.

For example, check out this Wired Magazine visual breakdown of 35 different musicians in just a 4 minute clip.

As a Generation X’er well past the wrong side of 30, the idea of immersing myself in a sea of gyrating bodies moshing to blow-your-ear-drums house music at a packed dance club no longer holds much appeal.

For sure, his beats are absolutely aimed at the ADD, give-it-to-me-now, show-me-something-new, internet generation. He hardly holds a beat for 30 seconds before moving on to the next.

Girl Talk

But I do live in the city that never sleeps, for a fun media company like Wired, so that’s not to say I don’t find myself in the occasional club, with friends that are ready to dance. At that point, the third ingredient is the music. And I have to say, hearing something that you’re familiar with makes a difference.

And for Gregg to take the song Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield and make it hip? My hat is off to him.

THE REVENUE MODEL

I hope Chris Anderson is taking notes because he has another example for his model of the free economy.

For his fourth album, entitled Feed the Animals, Gregg has decided to release it on the internet using a pay-what-you-want format similar to Radiohead’s “In Rainbows.” With over 300 different samples, he estimated that each minute of the album took about a day to create.

Why potentially give away all your hard work?

Follow the FREE model:

1) It builds buzz. Thousands of albums are released every month. But how many of them are released for free?
2) Wider distribution. If you asked an artist if they’d rather have 100,000 people listen to their music and not make a dime, or make money catering to a very small audience, I believe most would say that the more important thing was getting your work out there.
3) Make your money somewhere else. Let’s see… he’s got a 38-stop tour from Aspen to Austin now through November… I bet he’s making some money from that.
4) Tiered options. Sure you can download the MP3s for free, but for $5 you can get FLAC files (free lossless audio codec) plus a single seamless mix of the entire album. $10 gets you a packaged CD when it becomes available.
5) Trust your audience. Yes you’re offering it to them for free. But that doesn’t mean all of them are going avoid paying you some cash. I think if most people feel they’re getting a quality product, they’re willing to compensate you for it.

Does that theory hold true? Let’s look at the Radiohead example.

In quoting from the January issue of Wired Magazine, given that Radiohead was one of the world’s most successful groups, both with critics and fans, and hadn’t put out a new album in more than four years, why would they take the chance of a pay what you want model?

‘Well, it turns out the gambit was a savvy business move. In the first month, about a million fans downloaded In Rainbows. Roughly 40 percent of them paid for it, according to comScore, at an average of $6 each, netting the band nearly $3 million.

Plus, since it owns the master recording (a first for the band), Radiohead was also able to license the album for a record label to distribute the old-fashioned way – on CD.’

THE MITIGATION

Mitigation can be defined as ‘to act in such a way as to cause an offense to seem less serious.’

Let’s look at what the New York Times had to say about Girl Talk recently. I’m taking from Robert Levine’s column:

“In legal terms a musician who uses parts of other compositions creates what copyright law calls a derivative work, so the permission of the original song’s writer or current copyright holder is needed. Artists who sample a recording also need permission from the owner, in most cases the record label. Hip-hop artists who don’t get that permission have been sued, often successfully.

Mr. Gillis says his samples fall under fair use, which provides an exemption to copyright law under certain circumstances. Fair use allows book reviewers to quote from novels or online music reviewers to use short clips of songs.

Because his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from that it is unlikely to affect their sales, Mr. Gillis contends he should be covered under fair use.”

So is he hiding behind mitigating circumstances? Is he saying… C’mon, it’s just a tiny 5 second clip. We’re not hurting anyone. But what if you’re Big Country or Earth Wind and Fire and you hear your music being sampled? Are you OK since a new generation is exposed to your music? Or are you perturbed that one person is getting successful because of a song you once wrote?

For now, Girl Talk has not yet been sued. Why? The Times says it may not be in the interests of labels or artists because such a move would risk a precedent-setting judgment in his favor, not to mention incur bad publicity.

How do I feel? Well, as a former musician, I understand the desire to protect your property. But as a podcaster, I really wish that I could lay down some mainstream music without worrying about rights.

My stance right now?

GirlTalk is giving away his music under something called the Creative Commons Attribution-Non commercial license, and he’s safe so far. Because of that, I’m dropping in some of his songs and hoping that I’m safe.

The website explains, for me to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, he requires credit and a link to the creative commons license. Thus, I certainly give any and all credit to Gregg Gillis aka GirlTalk:

Feed the Animals by Girl Talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license. The CC license does not interfere with the rights you have under the fair use doctrine, which gives you permission to make certain uses of the work even for commercial purposes. Also, the CC license does not grant rights to non-transformative use of the source material Girl Talk used to make the album.

So, will you be able to hear more of Gregg Gillis in the future? Will his work open up opportunities for others to sample licensed music of other artists? There are lots of questions to be answered.

In his legal fight, he already has the support of Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle, who recently spoke on his behalf.

Perhaps more importantly, he has the support of fans nationwide.

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