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Scanning The Legitimacy of Illegal Art

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Friday, 22 February 2008

There haven’t been many times in human history that new ideas haven’t been met with resistance. Any philosophy student in any university in the world can (and will) tell you that Socrates was asked to drink hemlock by the governing bodies of the day because he had corrupted the young. A few centuries later, a bunch of mildly longhaired free thinkers took Bo Diddley’s heartbeat rhythm, built the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll on top of it and were the center of public upheaval as they too apparently corrupted the youth of a different generation. In both cases, the charges were eventually dropped; Socrates was posthumously declared the father of modern thought and rock ‘n’ roll in all its forms continues on, spawning new devotees on a daily basis. It’s getting progressively more difficult to find new ways to shock anybody at all short of slugging a photographer in the realm of pop and rock, but Philo T. Farnsworth has found one.

While it isn’t the general public that has raised a cry, a significant portion of the music industry has taken notice of Farnsworth’s Illegal Art label and the practices of those artists on its roster. “Farnsworth” is a pseudonym (though it was the name of the man responsible for inventing the first completely electronic television -ed) used to cover the president’s identity because his label’s artists regularly sample the music of other artists without legal clearance to do so. Each of those artists has several lawyers to defend their interests (most often citing Fair Use) as does Illegal Art’s president—however, the label has also discovered that they’ve been able to turn the negative possibility of Illegal Art experiencing financial ruin from just one lengthy lawsuit into a positive; Illegal Art has made the music seem dangerous to the record buying public and that outlaw position is very attractive. Like artful dodgers, the label’s roster gleefully “borrows” material from others, flaunts it, and makes something new and interesting from those sources while simultaneously aggravating the powers that be in the process. Even so, Farnsworth is hesitant to come forward completely; no photos of Illegal Art’s president have been released to the press and he most commonly only agrees to do email interviews.

It must be true that there is honor among thieves because Farnsworth agreed to have a conversation with me on the phone. When I accepted the opportunity to do a phone interview, curiosity compelled me to ask him why. In his email response, he said simply that, if he trusted the writer and/or the publication, he wasn’t against the idea. That kind of trust can be nerve-wracking—I hope I’ve done it justice.

BA: So what's doing? How's your day going?

PF: It's been pretty good.

BA: That's cool—okay, you asked me what time zone I'm in, what time zone are you in?

PF: Central. I live in the state of Illinois.

BA: Excellent. So what's new? You've got a couple of new releases that came out just recently right?

PF: Yeah, we released Realistic's third album, Perpetual Memory Loss, last October, and then the Oh Astro record.

BA: …And how has the reception been for both?

PF: It's been generally positive. There's always the occasional negative thing, but I'd say it's been over 90-percent positive response.

BA: Has it been a little more easygoing now following the fair-use congressional hearings in the states that Girl Talk was part of?

PF: Um, easy in what way—in the legal sense?

BA: Yeah, in the legal sense.

PF: Nothing's really changed legally really. We're still in the same boat; we've always claimed Fair Use.

BA: But does that carry a little more weight now given that the hearings basically said the same thing, that you don't necessarily run the very real risk of a team of lawyers banging down your door every hour and a half.

PF: Well, the congressional hearings really had more to do with satellite radio and it was just a side note that Girl Talk got mentioned. It got a lot of media exposure, but didn't really change anything. It would've taken a lot to actually be a bill and a change in the law. More to our advantage is just the fact that nobody went after Girl Talk and so it changes the perception out in the industry that perhaps it's okay for a lot of this stuff to exist, it's not really doing any harm to the market, and in fact, it's probably helping the market.

BA: See that's funny because that's exactly what Gregg [Gillis, aka Girl Talk] said to me when I interviewed him a while back. The way he put it to me, most of the artists that he has worked with tend to be thrilled because it's a little extra promotion for them.

PF: Yeah, I think that this might be a turning point and in ten years people will worry that they're not being sampled. It's really just extra promotion because, particularly in Gregg's case, he's reaching an audience that isn't necessarily going out and buying a lot of the music that he's sampling and it kind of opens up their perception of all the other things that are going on. I think it also fosters this sort of eclectic taste in music, which could only be good for the music industry; he's cultivating an audience that isn't so genre-loyal and I could see that having a lot of impact on the market.

BA: I think you're absolutely right and, at the same time as Gregg starts to really get that push, there's the Illegal Art emblem; you guys are helping to disseminate that information, so it probably isn't bad for you either.

PF: No, [laughing] we're trying to turn it into a business model for ourselves as well. We're trying to exist in the market and one of the things that we've been very adamant about—even in the beginning when the potential sales weren't that large—we were very determined for the products we were offering to be sold rather than given away. We want to put the music that we're releasing on an equal plain with everything else.

BA: Sure. And if you're charging for it, that makes it more valid somehow.

PF: Exactly. There has always been the question—especially in the early days when the stuff that we were releasing was much more experimental—regarding the purpose in mass replicating all of these CDs. That question loomed even larger as the Internet kept thriving, but then it feels like the music has become free because we couldn't legitimately charge for it. That said, we're trying to remain very conservative in that we're trying to follow the traditional music business model in order to present the idea that this music is just as valid as anything else out there.

BA: By the same token though, you're branching outside of that model as well. I mean, one look at your website and it's apparent that Illegal Art has an image all its own and aesthetic all its own. For example, correct me if I'm wrong but all of those photos in that one article are supposed to be you, but probably aren't actually you…

PF: [chuckling] Yeah, you're looking at that interview that I did a few years ago, right?

BA: I think so, one of the photos is a baseball card, and there's another of a guy in very short track shorts…

PF: Yeah, each one is a different person…

BA: That in place, there feels like there's this very Shadowy Men From A Shadowy Planet aesthetic to the label. It continues with a lot of the acts too; other than Realistic, it's not easy to find a decent photo of anybody's face. It's almost like a pirated thing.

PF: That's true; we're kind of contradictory in a way because we claim that what we're doing should be legitimate, but at the same time we're playing the 'outlaw' card as much as possible as a marketing strategy.

BA: ‘The Bad Boys of Electronic Music.’

PF: Exactly [laughing].

BA: Do you find that has worked to your advantage thus far?

PF: I don't know, that's a good question. It certainly creates an identity, which is important when you're running a record label.

BA: I don't doubt that, but by the same token, it's an identity of anonymity. I'm fairly certain, for example, that your name isn't Philo Farnsworth and I'm fairly certain that all of those photos weren't actually you but the identity of anonymity is certainly a provocative one. I know when I first heard about it, it interested me.

PF: Yeah, and some of our artists embrace that pseudononemous thing as well—some don't. It sort of runs the range in that regard. There's one artist that we have on our roster that's based in Australia, Buttress O'Kneel, that I've never communicated personally with; it's always through another person. I've always questioned if the artist ever existed.

BA: Now that you've got your business model going, where are you headed? Aiming for total acceptance? Hoping that you get to keep the image you've already got?

PF: You mean, would we be in favor of the law actually changing and our image changing with it? Ultimately, our primary interest is in the music, not in breaking the law. When it comes down to it, I'm a pretty law-abiding person; I'm not extreme or outrageous. If the system changed, I think we'd be thrilled to put out the stuff we do and continue to do what we do but not have that political edge. That would be fine. I don't see it changing. I think they're shifting, but I haven't seen any sort of legal trend either in the court system or in laws that have been passed. Every recent court case or recent law dealing with intellectual property is going in the opposite direction where things are becoming more rigid. In Girl Talk's case we got away with it—it seems like there may be further acceptance, and I think it could reach a point where the industry just lets it fly by.

BA: Eeks through? They still don't agree with it, but they're not going to chase artists around for it?

PF: Yeah. I just read an article in the current issue of Wired about Manga and the article talks about the underground Manga scene in Japan. There's this whole underground scene in Japan right now and it's completely illegal because most of the works that are kind of like re-mixes of popular Manga that exist legitimately and no one is cracking down on it in spite of the fact that it's common knowledge AND totally illegal. In the article, they said that you can even go into book stores in Japan and they'll have the official stuff on one shelf and the bootleg stuff a couple of shelves over. You can find record stores like that here, but they tend to be pretty obscure and independent places. This would be on par with going into a Circuit City and on one shelf they've got the new Metallica and the Metallica mash-up in the store, just in a different aisle. We haven't reached that point yet, but Gregg's music is a good example because he has broken through to the point that he should be selling ten times the number of CDs that he is currently but it's because his CDs are being limited to smaller-scale distribution. As soon as he broke through, we had to switch over to a smaller distributor because the larger one wouldn't support it anymore.

BA: That blows. As soon as you had one success, you had to shift.

PF: It's very strange because our titles with smaller sales are with the larger distributor still. It's like, if we sell more than 5,000 copies of an album, they freak out and pull the title. It's a really weird business situation. Both manufacturers and distributors are very nervous about this stuff.

BA: I don't doubt that. Strictly from a manufacturing standpoint, because a lot of the acts on Illegal Art have borrowed material central to what they're doing, quality control becomes very difficult. I mean, I've gotten titles that don't have the right music on them. Like, what the disc is supposed to be and what's actually on it are two different things. It happened with Springsteen two albums ago; the copy I got for review was a CD/DVD set, the CD was fine, but the authoring on the DVD wasn't right and there was the greatest videos for Roxette on the second disc. The point of the matter is that, because the material you're releasing pulls from so many different sources, it'd be harrowing for a manufacturer because quality control—essentially to ensure that something like that didn't happen—would be really difficult.

PF: Yeah, I think with Night Ripper, we went through two different manufacturers in the U.S. and ended up just doing it overseas. We're still doing it overseas.

BA: Does that drive cost up?

PF: Oh yeah. It's practically double the cost because shipping overseas is pretty expensive.

BA: How did you come to find the acts currently on your roster? Do you actively seek out other acts to sign?

PF: We get demos all the time; it's actually increased a lot lately and I think part of the reason why is we now have an advertising campaign out now. It seems like when you advertise—more than Girl Talk's success or our exposure in the media—you're suddenly legit. Like at that point people say, ‘Okay, I'm going to add them to my list of people to pester.’ So anyway, we get a lot of demos, and we started out with an Internet community. When we started, the Deconstructing Beck CD, it was all people that we met online that contributed to that. We did a couple more compilations after that and, after those three releases, we were in touch with 30 or so artists who were doing plunder-phonics and that kind of thing so we had a rich pool to draw from. At this point, it's become more a matter of them finding us though.

BA: …And overall you don't really seek out other artists as well?

PF: Well, actually, I think we did it for the first time when we found Steinski last year. We're going to release a 2-disc retrospective of his music next year. That's a big release for us because it seems like almost everybody we've worked with before was a matter of starting at ground zero, but Steinski already has a rich history and reputation. He did some stuff for Tommy Boy back in the early 80s that was never released because of all the samples that were used, and then he's done a bunch of commissioned remixes that are legitimate, work-for-hire kind of stuff and his stuff outside of that has been bootlegged endlessly. This will be the first definitive Steinski release though.

BA: …And Gregg's talking about putting out another album right away as well, right?

PF: Yeah. After we finish up with these two releases that we have right now, then Girl Talk and Steinski will be the next two releases after that. Dates aren't confirmed yet—artists can be unpredictable and Steinski's a great example of that. His release was scheduled to hit this in August and we're still trying to squeeze liner notes out of him. It's finally coming together right now, but it got pushed back a couple of times until now. Gregg said that he was going to finish his next album by the end of the year and I think we'll know more about that towards the end of November because I think starting next Monday he's got a couple of weeks off where he's not doing any live shows so we'll see how far he gets. Because he's constantly tweaking new material and inserting new samples into his live set, the material's all there, he just needs to sit down and organize it. He's very meticulous so he could probably play through a live set that has none of the samples from Night Ripper, but it wouldn't be as tight as he wants on an official album. Hopefully he'll pull it together soon, and the plan is to release it as quickly as possible.

BA: That makes sense. You've already got the readymade publicity there for him.

PF: Yeah, his stuff will instantly sell. It promotes itself at this point. And Pitchfork—if he sneezes, they'll do up a news story on it. He's one of the artists that they adore and I think that's something that even a lot of established acts don't have.

BA: Indeed. Now, this is totally off base, but how did you get started in all of this? How'd it come together?

PF: I'm very interested in electronic music and I was actually a student when I started Illegal Art. I started it back in the golden age of the Internet where a mailing list actually meant something—before Napster, around 1997. I just sent out a call online for participation in this project called Deconstructing Beck and I got responses from a lot of different artists who were mucking with sound on computers. The basic requirement was that they construct a track using no other sources other than Beck's music. It was very much just a conceptual artwork in a way and I don't remember thinking about the possibility of a record label at the time—I gave it a catalogue number like a record label would have, but I don't think I was envisioning something long-term. If I remember right, it was just sort of a one-off thing and so we put it together and pressed up 1,000 copies of the CD because at the time that was the minimum that you could do and we figured that, if we sold 100 off this web page, we'd break even. That was the business model—it wasn't even really a business; we just wanted to recoup the cost. RTMark is this organization that was involved in some key projects in the 90s—they were involved in the Barbie Liberation Organization and another one called Simcopter—just all sorts of subversive commentary on pop culture. Their web page looked like an up-and-up business, but they were funding all of these activities. One of the artists that worked on Deconstructing Beck knew one of the guys who were associated with RTMark and he talked to them about sponsoring the CD. They were really good at getting media attention so they sent out a press release and within a few days we had legal notices from Beck's personal lawyer, record label, publisher and it was all over the media—we had the New York Times calling us up and a bunch of other outlets. In the end, I talked to some lawyers and they told me that we didn't have to give in to the legal threats without a court order so we called their bluff. And nothing happened. The media kept spinning, the Negativland guys got a hold of us and offered to co-release it, so we put it out through their distributor and sold about 8,000 copies. We were selling real cheap, we divided up the money between the artists, but we still had some left and put it toward funding more releases. There was this sense of obligation that we should keep supporting this type of material. I was pretty naive to all the issues with intellectual property.

BA: So I assume that, at this point it's no longer really a concern of how you're going to raise the money for the next release, it's fairly self-sufficient?

PF: Yeah it is. Girl Talk really pushed us into a larger market and it remains to be seen whether or not we can push other artists into that market or not. We have high hopes and we're getting a lot of positive attention right now, but there's almost like a magic threshold that you have to cross where instead of selling hundreds, you're selling thousands. We're pushing pretty hard to see if we're able to get the whole label up to that level. Right now we're in an experimental phase where we're seeing how far we can push it. We're always one lawsuit away from a serious legal battle, which could completely destroy us. Even if we won, we barely have enough time to keep up with the label now—put a legal battle on top of that, that's all we'd be doing.

BA: Is it a safe assumption then that this is not your only job?

PF: Yeah, I'm a professor.

BA: Is that common knowledge among the student body?

PF: It's not common knowledge, but some of the student body that have gotten close to me have found out. The people that hired me know—it's pretty much on my resume—and within my field it's not that radical but once you step outside the field of digital art and electronic music, people don't understand it, so I keep quiet about it. I wouldn't want the president of the university to know. It's tight down here right now—there have been professors fired for plagiarism. There was a Dean here—he wasn't dismissed for plagiarism—but a few similar charges were made and he elected to leave. The person that I report directly to knows everything and it was actually helpful to me getting hired—that I was doing this cool, politically challenging thing but, by the same token we're a university that's very conservative on things like file sharing; they're kind of the poster children for the RIAA in how they're dealing with it.

For information on Illegal Art, please visit: illegalart.net

Download "Hello Fuji Boy" by Oh Astro – [mp3]

Download "Snow Queen" by Oh Astro – [mp3]

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