Remix culture is as popular as ever. Digital-only labels have contributed to a dramatic shift in the number of remix opportunities for artists, massively increasing the overall number of remixes available online over the last decade. Presently, it is as simple as commissioning an artist for a remix and having that artist send over his or her remix file, which is then added to a release that is sold digitally on iTunes, Juno, Beatport and other digital retailers.
Additionally, when master tracks or stems of a “well known” track are leaked (either purposely or by accident) a huge number of aspiring young musicians are quick to jump on the files and upload their own remix to SoundCloud or YouTube, or email it to music blogs.
With this huge increase in the popularity of the idea and practice of the remix, it has led the digital music world into some philosophical debate — both in the world of unauthorized amateur remixes and ‘professional’ remixes paid for by labels — with regards to the true purpose of a remix, if there is indeed such a thing.
One of the most common arguments involving the artistic integrity of remixes, is whether the functionality of a remix supersedes judgment of the piece as its own creative work. Remixes can fulfill important aspects of a release irrespective of if a particular remix is a creatively powerful piece of music or not.
Promotion, for example, is often aided largely in part by having a particular name on a release as a remixer. Generally, the larger the name, the higher the cost of the remix to the label, as adding that particular name benefits the overall promotion and exposure of that release. Immediately, this frame of mind poses questions regarding the integrity of the selection of the remixer(s), as an artist who is hot or trendy at the moment can provide more overall benefit to a label/release than a more creative remix from an lesser known artist. However, one could argue that from an artistic perspective, it is the creative, lesser known artists who deserve to be included on the release instead, as he or she could largely benefit from the exposure.
Canadian electronic musician Jesse Somfay, who has created over seventy remixes for other musicians, sheds some light on the use of ‘big names’ as remixers on releases.
“Sometimes labels will bring in big names to do remixes to get more exposure for a lesser known artist and/or the label itself,” says Somfay, “this is not an uncommon promotion tactic. However, some labels will choose a big name because that individual has high merit artistically to the label. In that case they are asking the artist to do a remix because they genuinely respect and adore their work and would like to have them share in a project.”
So the question is, at what point does the name of a particular remixer carry more weight than the musical value of the remix itself? The answer is not black and white, and it’s likely that many labels would never admit to favouring a particular name over the musical quality of a remix itself. However, larger names generally entail larger revenues from digital or physical sales, and with many labels operating in small-scale, niche markets, these much-needed revenues can often aid the label to sustain itself or grow larger.
However, it is in fact possible — as Somfay notes — that a big name artist is sought after because of the quality of his or her work, and these cases are beneficial to both the quality of the music and the function of promotion for the release.
Blake Sutherland, owner of Canadian electronic label Wide Angle Recordings, shares his own views on the functionality of the ‘name’ of the remixer.
“For Wide Angle Recordings, the name is definitely second to the quality and sound of the remix itself,” notes Blake. “I think this is the only way you can really uphold the consistency and integrity of the label. Of course, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive…I have been a big fan of Max Cooper for a number of years, and his particular sound is in the same vein as most of the music we release on Wide Angle Recordings. Getting him on board means we get the name and the quality.”
When labels are able to secure a talented musician that also carries a big ‘name’ with his or her quality remix in addition to possessing a sound that fits the label — as is the case with Max Cooper for Wide Angle Recordings — it’s a win-win scenario.
“[Quality remixes from big names] will undoubtedly sell more, which will bring more money and potential fans to the label,” continues Blake. “The exposure that a big name can bring to a label and its artists is also quite beneficial. Generally if you find a popular name or a big remix on a particular label you will see what else that label has to offer.”
However, if a label seeks a big name artist who wouldn’t otherwise fit on the label musically, Blake believes that commissioning those types of artists can actually do more damage to the label in the long-term.
“If you have a popular, talented remixer on board but they are not in sync with the rest of your releases, it can actually be damaging to the label. The remix may sell and bring in some quick cash, but in the long run the inconsistency in sound will confuse fans.”
In addition to the functional perspective(s) of exposure and promotion, remixes are — more frequently than many would like to admit — a part of a release as “filler.”
Somfay believes this phenomenon might be tied to the ease of creating digital releases; a difference from packages that are released physically, as he explains further. “I have a hunch that labels who focus on releasing vinyl will ultimately be more aware of the quality they are keeping up due to the expense of producing records. The higher investment might dictate a stricter quality control.”
As a musician who has listened to a large number of remix packages in his career, Somfay also believes that “what makes a release strong is the meaningfulness of the content, rather than how much content there is with regards to the length of time in a given release.”‘
When asked if he thinks remixes often act as “filler,” Blake answers “unfortunately, yes, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing. There are a lot of unknown producers and remixers out there making some great music. Having a chance at a remix is a great opportunity for them, even if the label is simply picking random remixers from the ‘demos’ collection.”
However, Blake is quick to note that “filler” remixes also come with negative consequences. “The downside, of course, is that the market is completely over-saturated with irrelevant music; one-off tracks from remixers who may never be heard from again. Along those lines, I am finding more and more that labels’ artist rosters are expanding at a quicker pace than ever before, and as a result it’s becoming easier for the labels to lose track of their overall objective.”
A more creative philosophical perspective regarding the purpose of the remix, is the balance between reinterpreting an existing work and creating a new, fresh piece of music to be included alongside the original; the “meaningfulness of the content” to which Somfay refers.
In the world of electronic music, sometimes remixes are simply re-appropriated versions of the original track tailored to a particular function. For example, say a remixer is given the opportunity to rework a track that is too slow for their desired DJ sets or live mixing purposes. This remixer than may simply create a remix that is suitable for his or her mixing preferences, adding only subtle changes to the percussion and changing the tempo to create a new “edit” that is likely more suitable for the dance floor.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some remixers go too far, and retain almost nothing from the original track that he or she has been asked to remix. The end result is then an almost completely new song that wouldn’t be easily recognized as a remix.
For Blake and Jesse, it’s a delicate balance between these two extremes that creates the ideal remix.
“[An] ideal remix fits with the overall sound of the label, maintains some character or particular elements from the original track, and showcases the remixer’s unique style. I am most excited about a remix when those things align,” says Blake.
Somfay also seeks balance, explaining more from the perspective of both a listener and as a remixer himself.
“In my personal experience a good quality remix will keep the essence of the original in some form and bring a focus to it, whether it be a strong melody that one wants to bring out more, or a strong percussion line that one wants to amplify the intensity of, etc. [The remix will also] expand upon the core essence(s) of the original piece in a deep and personal way that is well balanced with the original piece’s feeling.”
So then, what is the true purpose of the remix?
As we have discussed, the remix helps to expose lesser known artists, strengthen a label’s sound and exposure, and creates a new version of an existing work by balancing elements of the original with new perspective(s). While remixes can be used as “filler,” or can seek ‘big names’ for short-term monetary gain, perhaps there is a larger underlying conceptual purpose to all remixes: collaboration.
Remixes unify the global network of artists, labels, and fans, encouraging ideas of interdependence and growth in a system that was poisoned by the ideas of getting ‘rich and famous’ from creating music. Music is the first major industry to be turned completely upside down, though many other industries appear to be destined for similar fates. Remix culture is helping to build music communities that are strong, supportive and centred around the idea of creating exciting new ideas by working together instead of constantly competing with one another, unlike the continually declining business of the ‘music industry’ that is sinking in a sea of greed and drowning itself faster and faster every day.
“Remixes allow different musical circles to patch in and interact with each other…it often allows for styles to meet each other that otherwise might not meet so easily. With the advent of the internet, these days it is not difficult for one musical sphere to interact with another and so you end up seeing a lot more remixes come into fruition — a lot more collaborations between groups — that you might not have seen so much of before the internet became the primary method of musical discovery,” notes Somfay, who also believes that the principles of remix culture exist in all aspects of existence.
“I believe all of life to be a form of remix culture. As creators, we are inspired by previously encountered ideas that we enjoy. From those ideas we synthesize new ones, and the synthesis continues ad infinitum as evolution continues…it is truly something embedded within nature, the principle of synthesis of the best of the old to form something new, which will eventually be used to inspire the synthesis of something else beyond it.”
In an industry where competition for increasingly finite financial resources becomes more and more intense, it is those who collaborate in hopes of creating something truly special that will be remembered, not those who try to exploit inauthentic collaboration to fit a particular agenda. Remix culture helps to unite the global community through a mutual respect for music that transcends linguistic, social, and political barriers. This genuine collaborative model — demonstrated by so many labels and musicians through remixes — is exemplary of an ideological framework that can serve as a potential model to solving many of the real-world issues we face in 21st century society.