Art is, by nature, a conversation, a series of propositions, counter-propositions, assertions and rejoinders, of iconoclasty and idolizing. It is a collaborative canvas that forms the basis of meta-culture. And unfortunately, illegal. Not that laws prevent artists from participating. Remixing is one way of participating in the meta-culture, the second-oldest form of art expression. Taking something and modifying it can elevate the original.
Take, for example, Tom’s Diner.
Suzanne Verga’s original version(s) were two separate tracks. One, a minimalist acapella rendition virtually untouched by the studio. The other, was a simple piano track. One remix - by DNA - took the original rendition, combined it with the bonus outro, and then built a dance track around it. Their remix had an almost jazzy feel.
And rather than go to court over it, Verga’s label simply purchased the remix. It became the definitive version, the one that made it onto charts. The DNA remix wasn’t the first remix, but it legitimized remix. Verga’s original went down in history as the first mp3 file during Fraunhofer’s development of the codec, achieving immortality in its own right.
Some folks include covers as a subset of a remix. It’s true that every performance is different, every artist putting their own touch. It isn’t strictly remix as in using parts of the original recording to make something new, but a different interpretation of the source it is. And each cover adds new meaning to the original rendition. Think Johnny Cash’s take on Riders In The Sky, which built on and offered a different vision of Burl Ives’ recording. Or more infamously, 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up: one of the early internet meme videos was a cover, which in turn spawned more covers.
It’s strange, then, that the law takes a dim view of remix, and yet makes provision for covers. Back during the Great American Copyfight Wars musicians lobbied congress to ban mechanical pianos. Instead, congress introduced compulsory licensing: once a track was recorded and published to the public, any old git could publish their own take on it provided they paid royalties (as set by the copyright judges) to the copyright holder. There are limits to this; covers under compulsory license must not change the fundamental nature of the work or the melody.
And so I pour some milk.
1 : Derivative work violating Copyright Holder's rights to monopolize
Larry Lessig has some great, free books on copyright. You can find Remix here (mirror): https://ia802306.us.archive.org/24/items/LawrenceLessigRemix/Remix-o.pdf
Adrian Johns wrote a wonderful history of Piracy and Copyright. His book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, can be purchased from Amazon here or previewed on Google Books here