May 6, 1998

Tweaking Beck With Piracy; RCA; Wu-Tang Clan

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  • Tweaking Beck With Piracy

    LOS ANGELES -- It's not what you do, it's who you do it to. That's what a group of musical mischief-makers on the Internet are discovering.

    In February an upstart label known as Illegal Art and an organization of cultural saboteurs known as Rtmark teamed up to release a compilation called "Deconstructing Beck," a CD of songs composed entirely of unauthorized samples of music by Beck and sold for $6 on the Internet.

    Though bands from the Turtles to U2 have used legal force after artists appropriated their music and image without permission, it seemed unlikely that Beck would respond to this flagrant violation of copyright law. After all, much of the music of Beck, a 27-year-old rock, rap and folk tinkerer, is composed of samples, and Beck himself has had to change his music because of run-ins with copyright lawyers.

    "Part of the motivation in choosing Beck was that we'd be sampling his sampling and in a way it would be a parody of what he's doing," said the founder of Illegal Art, who added that he was a Dartmouth student and used the pseudonym Philo T. Farnsworth to throw lawyers off his trail. "I really was unclear about what the repercussions might be. That's part of what we were aiming for. We were aiming for a gray area because we wanted to stretch the boundaries of fair use."

    So far, the consequences have been a letter from Beck's lawyer, Brian McPherson, and a cease-and-desist letter from Beck's song publisher, BMG. But the compilation, which ranges from headache-inducing noise to pastiches of as many as 14 Beck songs, is still being sold on the Internet. Depending on whether you believe Rtmark, Illegal Art or neither, the CD has sold 1,000 copies, 10,000 copies or none of the above.

    Dennis Dennehy, a spokesman for Beck's record label, Geffen, said that the company's concern was that the sampled material not mislead music fans into thinking it was a new Beck record. Since it doesn't, he said, any further action, such as a lawsuit, is unlikely. Beck was aware of the CD but not perturbed, Dennehy said.

    The success of this CD could inspire other acts to try to get away with breaking copyright law by picking artists who are vulnerable or don't care, some people in the record industry speculate. Cultural pirates might try to appropriate the music of sample-heavy dance acts like the Chemical Brothers or Armand Van Helden. Or an American Indian group might create a benefit CD from samples of Neil Young, an avid supporter of American Indian causes who probably wouldn't sue over a CD benefiting those interests.

    For the founder of Rtmark, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it all goes to show: "If you ask for trouble loudly enough, people are going to be very afraid to give it to you. It's not worth the bad publicity for them."

    Rca Is Looking Livelier

    It has long been a music-industry joke that the initials in RCA Records stood for the Recording Cemetery of America, the last choice for new acts looking for a label that would help catapult them to success. But Wednesday the recording cemetery may just come to life. When national figures for the week's album sales are released this morning by Soundscan, a company in Hartsdale, N.Y., that monitors music retailers, RCA is expected to have three albums in the Top 10. A label spokeswoman could not remember RCA ever having that many albums so high in the charts and wondered if the last time was when Elvis Presley was recording for the label.

    A shoo-in to finally, um, sink the soundtrack of "Titanic" after its phenomenal 16-week run at No. 1 is "Left of the Middle," by the Dave Matthews Band, a rock group that has amassed a large, devoted audience through its voracious touring schedule. A spokeswoman for RCA said the album had sold about 450,000 copies, which would make it the rock album with the highest debut on the charts in the last year.

    Also expected to appear in the Top 10 is the debut album by the rapper Big Punisher, "Capital Punishment." If the debut album by Natalie Imbruglia, the Australian television star gone pop, surges back up from its No. 12 spot last week, as some in the industry expect, RCA will have its third album in the Top 10.

    The company's president, Bob Jamieson, said that RCA was heading toward record annual revenue this fiscal year. Despite this success, however, other record executives don't expect the label to have much more than 2 percent of total record sales, the same as last year.

    "To some degree there's always a certain amount of luck when things come around at the same time, but we've been working on trying to get this company out of the hole it was in," said Jamieson, who has run the label for three years, with Jack Rovner as his general manager. "We release very few acts and don't have that large of a roster, and work really hard to market the artists we have. Our strategy is to try and find and keep the best A & R people -- the best creative people -- we can get and let them find acts, and then find the best people to market, promote and sell those acts. So far it's been working for us."

    Making Nice

    It may have been strange when the rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan announced last week that he had changed his name to Big Baby Jesus, but that is just one of the surprises the rap collective has in store this year. Expect to hear more from the band's female counterparts, known as Deadly Venom (the name, like the Wu-Tang Clan, comes from a kung-fu film). Featuring members known as N-Tice, J-Boo, Finesse and Champ MC, Deadly Venom has just signed with A&M Records and has been working with the Wu-Tang producer RZA on a debut album due by the end of the year. 

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