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Conversation with a Tape-beatle

by Deuce of Clubs

(Published in X Magazine, may1995 and Planet Magazine, 18jul1995)

 

Deuce of Clubs: Before I get to specific questions, perhaps you'd like to recap your life/lives up to the current day. Well, okay, not so much as that. Just whatever you'd prefer to have mentioned in the introduction (a list of projects—CDs, Retrofuturism, whatever—that you have done or participated in . . . that sort of thing.) For example, Mark Simple mentioned that you are now down to three Tape-beatles, so a personnel list would be helpful. Then we'll get to the sexy stuff.

Lloyd Dunn: I helped found the Tape-beatles in 1986. Our (transient) membership includes: John Heck, Ralph Johnson, Paul Neff and Linda Brown. John now lives in Prague, Czech Republic and Ralph is studying composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Paul has quit the group and therefore only Linda and I remain in Iowa City.

The 60s original plagiarized by the Tape-beatles

I have been active in the "zine community" since 1983, when I started publishing PhotoStatic Magazine, devoted chiefly to xerox art. Retrofuturism, the "hypermedia magazine of the Tape- beatles" was founded in 1987. I have also published YAWN (a newsletter devoted to the Art Strike 1990-1993) and The Bulletin of the Copyright Violation Squad [CVS Bulletin] which reports on copyright issues as they affect cultural workers. [There have been 40 issues of PhotoStatic, 17 of Retrofuturism, 38 of YAWN, and 1 of the CVS Bulletin.]

The Tape-beatles have released three major works since 1988, which include:

A Subtle Buoyancy of Pulse cassette only, self released, 1988 Music with Sound cassette self released, CD on DOVentertainment, Toronto, 1991 and The Grand Delusion cassette self released, CD on Staalplaat, Amsterdam, 1993. The cassette differs substantially from the CD so they are really to be considered separate works. We also have a cinematic presentation using some of this audio in conjunction with three 16mm movies shown simultaneously which we use as our "performance."

I should note that I will be answering all the questions myself from my perspective; perhaps the other Tape-beatles would have somewhat differing takes on these discussions.

How would you encapsulate the central purpose behind the efforts of the Tape-beatles?

We got together in 1986 to pursue what we thought of as a new form of audio production: using the principle that anything that could be put on tape had potential musical usefulness. We felt that audio tape was a medium that had not been thoroughly explored artistically, and we wanted to do that in a sort of pop music context. We were, for the most part visual artists dabbling in what was for us a new medium. We wanted a fresh, lively sound and we wanted real content that everyone could relate to.

Over the years since 1986 we have taken on the related project of liberating sounds and images from copyright strictures, believing them to be inherently fluid and transitory in nature, and thus, in some deep sense, un-ownable.

Our purpose is to make, first of all, good "music" that is fun and interesting to listen to, and second of all, to put that labor at the service of ideas that we believe in. It should be clear from our work what we believe in.

Describe the perfect world, from the Tape-beatles' point of view. For example, would plagiarism be widespread? Would there be copyright laws at all?

I think we already live in the "perfect" world, by definition, as this is the one we've received, "ready made" at the moment of our coming into it. The word "perfect" means little more than "finished," really, particularly if you examine the words derivation from the Latin "per-" an affix that refers to through, or thoroughness, or completeness; and "-fect" a variant on the past participial form of "facere," to make or to do; therefore something that is "perfect" has been "made thoroughly" and nothing more can be done to improve it.

This is not to say that the world cannot be improved, but begs the question, who is in the best position from which to improve it? Clearly, the answer is not "artists," but at the same time, artists do have a certain kind of power over messages, the ability to present them well and convincingly, putting their aesthetic sensibilities and training at the service of getting messages across. The simple answer to the question "Why am I an artist?" is that I believe I am well suited by predisposition and sensibility to be an artist. If I were better suited to be an accountant, no doubt that's what I'd be. It makes me happy if I feel my inborn talents are being put to good use.

Back to the idea of improving the world; well that's a scary project, isn't it? How do I know my ideas are actually going to fix things, or make them worse? I don't. But paralysis is much more wasteful than trying and failing. So we do try. In part it's vanity, because we feel like our ideas hold the key that everyone is looking for; in part it's self-interest, because we want to live in the better world we are trying to bring about; but it adds up to a project that at least strives for something good, as opposed to being destructive.

As for "wanting" plagiarism to be widespread, I don't really think that plagiarism is the real issue. The issue is whether or not we have some dibs on the environment we live in, whether or not the airwaves and our culture are in some way "ours, too" and therefore resources to be utilized, not shackles for the mind and spirit. I want people to feel this way about their culture; whether or not they plagiarize is beside the point.

Compare and contrast: (1) the meaning of sampling as it is practiced by the Tape-beatles and (2) the meaning of sampling as it is practiced by rap artists.

I can't speak to how rap artists use "sampling"; although sometimes I enjoy and admire their work, I just don't know enough about it.

For the Tape-beatles, we don't "sample," we steal. The difference is probably very subtle. We're not just trying to make new sounds out of old ones (although that is part of what happens in our work) we are trying to say that these sounds are just as much ours as they are anyone else's. It's a refusal, you see. It's us refusing to become mere recipients of culture; we want to be cultural producers as well. In short, we want to participate in culture and not just sit on the sidelines and watch it go by.

What I meant by my previous and (I now see) imprecisely- framed question, was, roughly, this: you are opposed to the existence of the private ownership of sounds; if your ideas about intellectual property were to win out, to gain wide currency and acceptance, what would the world—or, more specifically, the world of recorded and published works—be like? For example, how would artists be compensated for their work? Or would they?

What I'm getting at is whether what you do is really as radical as it might sound to some ears (when you say, for example, "we are trying to say that these sounds are just as much ours as they are anyone else's") or whether it is merely another form of a long-established and accepted practice—namely, the idea of "fair use" as it applies in literary matters. Words from a published work may lawfully be cited in their original form in the work of another author. For example, Author Smith, in his nonfiction work, may legally cite passages from a short story written by Author Jones. Smith might be using the passages from Jones's work to help support a position contrary to the one held by Jones—or even merely to ridicule Jones—but Jones can't do anything about it. That's "fair use." On the other hand, if Smith simply reprinted Jones's short story and signed his own name to it, that would be plagiarism.

In the musical realm, it's the difference between sampling and bootlegging. It seems to me that the Tape-beatles perform the aural equivalent of literary citation. You make use of media artifacts, but you don't really plagiarize them. It would be plagiarism if you merely copied, say, Vanna White's tape and distributed it as your own. Instead, sampling from her tape is, in effect, the same as "citing" it, by way of making a comment on it. When someone takes sounds from the work of other artists and incorporates those sounds into another—a different—work, I think of that as the equivalent of a literary citation. You haven't disputed the ownership of the artifact, you're just reserving the right to comment upon it.

If you'll be good enough to comment on all that, we can just pretend it was a question. . . .

Good enough. My previous answer was a bit of a knee-jerk confrontational one at that. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify.

Well, yes, "fair use" is well established in the literary world and some of its aspects clearly apply. We do in fact "reserve the right" to comment on the sounds of the world, including those that are "owned". But we like to think that we are taking this one step further, which is to say that we "reserve the right" to make works that are entirely constituted of such "quotations." This is practically unheard of in the literary world (or am I mistaken?). (John Oswald has referred to this practice as "electroquoting.")

To put a finer point on it, we do, in fact, dispute that "ownership" as such of the sounds in our cultural environment (however much we might not be able to dispute its "origin".) You see, we believe that when works are put before the public, then the public comes to "own" them in some deep sense. This sort of "ownership" goes far deeper than the kind of ownership that says that you have the "right" to this work and what is done with it. The main confusion that we want to clear up is the confusion that exists in many minds between the object the "culture" resides on and the culture itself. Can you imagine ASCAP or BMI suing you because they caught you humming that catchy little tune you heard on the radio? Well, they attempt to sue bars and restaurants all the time for playing their records on "public" jukeboxes, or even radios in these public establishments. (I read about it in Rolling Stone.) Once it's in your head (the song, the beautifully worded phrase from that novel you're reading, that memorable scene from a movie you once saw) it's yours, it's a part of your life.

Copyright law says that when you buy a book or a record, it's yours except the information is not yours. You can burn the book or use the record for a wall hanging; the object is yours to do with as you wish. But copyright law says that the very reason you bought the item —the information— is not yours. You can't do with it as you wish. Use it for another purpose. Make something new out of it. This is what Negativland calls "an uncomfortable wrenching of common sense."

We say that there are honest ways to make use of this cultural information that copyright simply disallows. They've used a sledgehammer when a scalpel was required. Copyright exists to protect—not works of culture—but rather markets. Copyright protected works are supposed to be protected from theft, the wilful dilution of a creator's rightful market. But "plagiarism" of the kind we do dilutes no one's market. No one would confuse a Tape-beatle record for a Igor Stravinsky record. No one would buy ours instead of his, thinking of it as a substitute. Understanding that they are separate, unique works, they might, in fact, buy both records.

If we use a Madonna fragment on one of our records, Madonna is not harmed in any way, nor is she deprived of any rightful income. Nor is her reputation damaged by our re-use of "her" sound (unless we lampoon or satirize her, which is constitutionally protected free speech (ask Justice Souter)).

There are lots of arguments on both sides. The other side is missing the point, I think, when they talk of creator's rights. The other end of the trajectory has rights, too. In fact, we believe they have the duty to look critically at what's piped into their homes and create a constructive experience out of it. We believe we're being constructive in our uses of others' works.

Our work probably isn't all that radical; after all, "there is nothing quite so radical as common sense."

I want to return to the themes we've been discussing, but first, a strange interlude of softball questions:

One of the voices on Music with Sound's "Whole New Animal" sounds like the same guy on one of the tracks on Byrne-Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—is it?

I guess it's possible; we got the voice from a tv commercial, some tire company was awful proud of its new tread design. Although I've heard "Bush of Ghosts," I'm not familiar enough with it to pinpoint the track you describe.

"Animal" started out as a sketch from the very earliest days of the Tape-beatles, in 1987. Ralph later added the newscaster voices (Dan Rather, et al.) and beefed up the complexity of the sound by laying the music on top of itself out of register (to play with the phase).

Have the Tape-beatles ever sampled Negativland, or vice versa?

We haven't and they haven't, to our knowledge. No particular reason for that I suppose, other than the fact that their work is pretty completely processed and mixed to begin with. We tend to isolate relatively simple sound elements from records and combine them, elementally. If a source has too many things going on in it at the outset, it's often hard to add anything to it and have it sound like anything. Any complexity or density you hear in the sounds of our works usually come from us, and not from our sources, because we've layered the sounds from different recordings or different parts of the same recording.

What's your favorite record that you bought at a thrift store or garage sale?

It's one that we've never sampled from, a Vol. II from Dioris Valladares y su conjunto typico. It is a meringues record, energetic and brassy, sort of sweet dance-rhythm love songs. The grooves on it were absolutely gouged but I love it. The tracks are too good to improve upon, so we've left it alone. We have an Esquivel record in "Stereo Action." The liner notes describe a recording technique of setting up two orchestras, one for each channel, in different studios at opposite ends of the building (to eliminate cross-talk). The record was done in some sort of live mix and some of the instruments are in crazy motion all the time across the stereo field. A very un-natural sounding use of stereo. We've sampled quite a bit from that. Most thrift store records are ultimately disappointing, though. You see this outrageous cover art or bizarre liner notes, get it home, and find that there's really not much you can do with the sound. But it's worth the search.

Name some representative Tape-beatles day jobs.

Lloyd works in a copy center at the University of Iowa. Linda, also employed by the University, works in the Hospital graphics department. John is now living in Prague, but waited tables while he lived here. Ralph is studying composition at Mills College, but was a secretary while here. Paul worked in a sheet music store; currently he studies Library Science and works in the Government Documents section of the University Library.

Earlier you said, "we feel like our ideas hold the key that everyone is looking for." What key do you mean?

I said that? It sounds pretty self-aggrandizing, in a way. I don't recall what the context was, but I'll strike at that pitch in a few ways.

I think probably that most of us have felt a mild resentment at seeing copyright notices on everything and saying to ourselves, "Well, I bought it didn't I, I'll be damned if this is gonna stop me from copying this CD for my friend," or whatever. The Tbs are not the only ones saying that copy-right laws are completely unrealistic; they've been thoroughly outstripped by technology; that the people who made the laws don't really seem to understand how technology works and what it's really good for. So the Tbs are the embodiment of an attitude about copyright and an example of how copyright laws ring hollow in the light of our works, which are plainly plagiarized, and yet original, as well. Would a lawyer maintain that we as Tbs are not allowed to express ourselves in this way? It might be that there are first amendment issues here, too, but I'm not sure how willing I am to push that concept.

Another idea that figures strongly in our work is the do-it-yourself notion that was an outgrowth of punk. We have made most of our stuff on analog home stereo equipment that most young Americans have access to anyway. So we want to take the means by which corporations pipeline culture into our homes and turn those means into devices of production of our own culture. This is a key concept for us, too. It's a kind of electronic "folk art" if you will. We rejected the notion that cultural production is purely the domain of "professionals" and decided that we have something to say, too. Along the way, we've acquired only those skills we've needed to produce our work, striving diligently not to get lost in the technique, which has a great deal of seductive potential of its own.

Aside from intellectual property, what are your thoughts on property in general?

I'd be the first to admit that property is not going to go away. I for one like the comfort of the space I've created for myself, and the objects I've placed within it. I need that stability in order to be creative. I don't think it's necessarily bad to own things. But I do think it's somewhat dangerous the way in which our culture glorifies ownership as its own reward, and the way in which we are encouraged to apply status to individuals who simply own a lot of things and do little with them. Freeing people from the requirement that they need to grow their own food and scratch out their own existence is one of the gifts that civilization brings. It's a good form of progress, one from which we have the capability to benefit. It allows me the time to do what I do, which is to attempt to make people more aware of their cultural environment. Living simply and "primitively" no doubt has its rewards, too, so don't think that I'm knocking it.

James Brown has asked rappers not to sample his work in songs that glorify drugs and gangs. If an artist you had sampled heard about it and (for whatever reason) asked you not to, would you honor that request?

It depends on the nature of the request. It seems that James Brown is making some attempt to be socially responsible, and the way you've phrased it, it sounds like he's giving rappers the freedom to sample his work if they choose. We like to think that we sample from a position of respect, and so if the request were respectful and reasonable, we would probably honor it.

I was in Tower Records a couple years or so back when I actually heard the Tape-beatles playing. I asked the surly record store clerk type about it and his response was on the order of "Uh, wuh? Tape who? This is The Orb, dood." I'm interested to know how you felt being sampled, and whether The Orb asked permission?

I had heard that the Orb had sampled us on one (or more) of their cds, but haven't actually heard the work. We were a bit taken aback that they had apparently (we were told) used our work with little or no modification (depending on how true what we were told is). But we're not upset about it; in fact we are somewhat flattered. We would have been happier if they'd turned it into something that obviously was taken from us, but was nonetheless The Orb's work. But we might be able to get some notoriety out of it anyway, somehow, especially if people like you make a big deal out of it in print.

No, the Orb did not ask us permission, nor did they inform us of what they had done (in spite of the fact that our phone number and address appears on all of our releases).

[From the Tape-beatles' liner notes accompanying 1991's Death of Vinyl compilation CD: "The LP and the CD are all but irrelevant to those with the will to make their own music and share it with the world."] I was a little confused by this; given your group's name it isn't surprising that you would favor tape, but given the nature of what the Tape-beatles do, don't you need LPs and CDs—as well as television and radio (to "plunder," I mean)?

The text from the Death of Vinyl comp was intended to lionize the cassette as the most pervasive audio medium of recording in the world. I was just making a point—within the narrower confines of my earlier passion, networking—that the cassette is the medium of choice for the small independent producer that can make music but can't scrape together the bucks to do a mass release. Clearly the LP and the CD are not irrelevant at all, but it often seems like they are to some of the small producers that I've run into. (Most of which are not media plunderers.)

Are you still publishing?

No, I stopped publishing over a year and a half ago. It was time for me to turn my attention to other issues (I had published PhotoStatic Magazine, Retrofuturism, YAWN, and the CVS Bulletin over a ten-year period starting in August, 1983.) A lot of back issues are still available.

Lloyd, thanks for your time and for your thoughtful answers. Best of luck.

Thanks for the interview; you wrote good questions.

© Deuce of Clubs


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