Early on in this horrendous year, Pitchfork published an alarming piece about a possible consequence of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit from last year, namely that remixers might have to formally disclose their ‘influences’ when submitting major label remixes. While this is an obviously preposterous solution to what the industry perceives as a threat to intellectual property infringement, it got me thinking: what does a remix actually get you in 2017?
The remix is about as old as disco. After a modest start in a New York office, the remix soon blossomed as modern clubbing was invented and perfected in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Once hip hop and house music joined the mix in the ‘80s, the remix became a standard format for pop star’s singles and basement heads alike. Once indie rock co-signed remixes, there wasn’t an area remixes couldn’t go because, ultimately, they’re good for business. A great remix will push a song to different genres and markets. They’re still a meaningful part of the musical ecosystem, and the concept of a remix has spilled out beyond the confines of music. Now remix culture is culture at large.
You could argue we’re several years removed from a golden era of remixes when music blogs dominated the discourse (roughly 2004-2010) as bloghouse and remix culture burned bright before streaming replaced mp3s.
The remix has helped kickstart the careers of many young producers and artists, but I’m curious if knocking out an amazing remix still carries as much weight as it did as recently as five or ten years ago. And, even more broadly, how the channels of remix distribution and curation are changing with players like Spotify.
I tracked down André Allen Anjos (RAC) and Felix Bloxsom (Plastic Plates), two talented producers whose remix work helped their solo producer careers take off. Here’s a condensation of each conversation.
André Allen Anjos, best known as RAC (Remix Artist Collective), is fresh off winning the Best Remix Grammy for his rework of Bob Moses’s “Tearing Me Up.” Originally from Portugal, he’s called Portland, Oregon home for over a decade and has since racked up over 100 official remixes to his name.
AA: Remixing has become super important [in my career]. Just to give you a little bit of context, in 2005 I was just doing remixes for fun, entering remix competitions at these terrible websites like Acidplanet.com where you could win free swag from Sony or something. I got involved in those. I actually won a couple of them. I got runners-up on the Chemcial Brothers one. That got me started into that world. I was like, “I don’t need a singer,” you know? In the meantime, I was in bands playing, but nothing was really working out. In 2007, when I started RAC, things just took off immediately. I wasn’t really prepared for that.
JC: Did you expect it to take off the way it did?
AA: It wasn’t like I set out with this big dream of remixing for a living. It was just this thing I fell into.
JC: What would you tell a young producer that is trying to get exposure? Would you tell them to try remixes?
AA: Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to get started. I hear a lot of people complain about how crowded it is, but I don’t necessarily see that as a negative thing. It really makes it difficult to get noticed at first. I don’t know that that path works anymore. For me, I was at the right place at the right time with blogs and stuff like Hype Machine. Hype Machine was really just an aggregator of blogs, and I had already done the legwork. I had been emailing every blogger personally, practically begging them to post my stuff. I had built up these relationships. So when Hype Machine came in and took off in 2009 and 2010, I was already in that world.
JC: What were the blogs that helped you get recognized?
AA: Stereogum was a big one. They were very big in getting things moving for me. I did this EP that Stereogum released of remixes. We did it for free, but that’s the sort of thing I was trying to do. I was trying to get involved with these new forms of talking about music. Now I don’t see things exist in the same way. Blogs were a big deal then. I don’t know if you remember Google Reader? So many people would get their music news from there. It was a pretty cool time for music discovery. There hadn’t really been a serious amount of money put into it. Blogs weren’t being bought out by AOL yet. This is very early on. It felt like a passionate thing. Derek Davies’s blog was another one.
AA: It’s really tricky [what I would do if I was starting today]. It’s not enough to just write good music anymore. You can’t just sit in your bedroom and hope somebody’s gonna discover you. Maybe there was a time when that was realistic. But you have to get out there. You have to do the major pop remixes sometimes to get noticed. Or you have to do something that may be a little more pop leaning to get some cachet and then do something more interesting. I really mean that I would have no idea what I would do today if I were trying to break in. I’m very happy the way that things have progressed the way they did and I don’t have to start over again. I just don’t know. With Spotify especially, you mentioned the walls that are around content.
Now it’s all about the playlist. Two years ago, people were windowing Spotify. “We’ll put it on Spotify two weeks after it’s released.” Now, you give your music to Spotify first and hope they put you on their playlist. That’s how it’s gotten, you know? I have mixed feelings about Spotify. I don’t know that it’s THE viable solution. But I think it’s a solution for right now. It’s kind of like when Napster came around and everything went upside-down. I feel like we’re still getting over that. The industry was not prepared to deal with that in any way. They didn’t see streaming coming. There were so many bad moves at every point. I’m not claiming to know the future, because obviously I don’t. It’s been kind of a rough ride for people, and this is the period I came up in.
JC: What about getting fans to support artists directly?
AA: There’s also the Patreon model, which I don’t do personally, but I know a lot of people have been doing that with some success. It’s a little more geared toward YouTubers and content creators like that, but that kind of comes down to what you were talking about earlier – with things being crowded – it’s not just musicians.
If you think you’re competing against just musicians, you’re a little bit misguided. You’re competing against everyone. You’re competing against news organizations, podcasts. Everything is competing because it’s all in the same world.
JC: Have you ever had remixes rejected? [Note: this is when a label will not accept a submitted remix, thus killing the track. In Flagranti, for example, has released a whole compilation of their rejected remixes.] It seems extremely common.
AA: Yeah, I’ve had a few early on. I don’t really wanna say who, but I think it was mostly because it was too weird and out there. As things have progressed over the years, labels know what to expect. They’re not surprised by an acoustic remix anymore, hah.
I don’t mean to say that everything I’ve done is perfect. I’m sure there were a couple instances where the work was bad, but I haven’t had a rejection in quite a while.
JC: So what do you make of the whole “Blurred Lines”/you might have to legally list your influences on a contract thing?
Well, it also happened with Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” but I think it was a little quieter. I thought they handled that a little bit better. They handled that amongst themselves. They gave them a percentage of the writing and the credit. I think that’s a classier way of doing it than suing people publicly and making it a big deal. But with “Blurred Lines,” they sued the family, right? That seems backwards.
JC: Yeah, I think Robin Thicke preemptively sued Marvin Gaye’s family or something. Have you ever been sued for infringement?
AA: I’ve never had any issues with that fortunately. With remixes, for the most part, it’s work for hire. So I’m getting a flat fee and the label owns it. That’s changing now. But for a long time, that was how it worked. So it becomes the label’s problem, any legal issues.
JC: Have you ever had a work for hire/remix get placed in a big Apple commercial or big movie?
AA: Oh yeah. That happens all the time. So I’ve switched to getting publishing on remixes. I mean, the labels HATE it. They hate giving anything up. Or I should say the person I’m remixing usually doesn’t want to do that, but I think it’s a fair thing to do because if I’m adding stuff and recreating, I’m entitled to some type of writer credit. It’s small, but that’s something I’m actively trying to change.
AA: That doesn’t cut me out of Apple or Super Bowl commercial, which I had one time. I’m not gonna name the artist, but I had a song in a Super Bowl commercial – and we had a 50/50 split – and they said, “we’re not going to pay you.” They cut me out of a lot of money and kept synching it in a bunch of movies. It happens a lot, you know?
I’m not complaining because I’ve gotten paid up front for a lot of those remixes. But it’s hard to look back at your career and think a lot of the music I made I don’t have control over. That’s something I’m going to try to change.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Felix Bloxsom was a session and live touring drummer for years before he branched out as a solo DJ and producer known as Plastic Plates. Two early remixes – one for Social Studies, the other an unofficial one for Adele – helped get him some attention early on. He’s spent the time since DJ and producing house-y and disco-y numbers for a number of labels. And he’s got a collaborative project with Amtrac called LUCES which has music seeing the light of day later in 2017.
FB: The reason I got into remixing in the first place was that it was a foil from working on other people’s music. I had been a drummer for hire, on the road playing drums in Sia’s band for years, working as a studio musician playing on records for people like Christina Aguilera. I’m on a J.Lo record too [laughs], random shit. I was involved in some cooler indie stuff too like the Presets, Empire of the Sun, Edward Sharpe to name a few.
I started doing remixes for my own enjoyment, without any intention of it turning into a career. Initially I asked my friends the Midnight Juggernauts, “can I do a remix?” A lot of the stuff I was doing in the beginning was for people I knew personally or one degree of separation.
My remix for Body Language was one of the early ones that got people’s attention. I think I remember testing it in your car! [laughs]
JC: So a couple early remixes got you a bunch of attention and then the labels started hounding you?
FB: Initially smaller labels and then I started getting requests from majors. The first big name was Katy Perry, the song was No. 1 on the pop charts, which I was reluctant to do but I enjoyed the challenge of making that sort of pop music into something I would like. Majors also make it worth your while financially, most of the time.
For smaller projects I might agree to do a remix swap [i.e. trading remixes] or swap for a vocal [I’ll remix you if you give me a vocal stem], or I might negotiate for points or publishing. It’s different each time. It depends on who’s asking and their budget.
JC: I think it’s still really powerful when there’s a great remix. Are there people that still inspire you or get you excited when they release a new remix?
FB: Todd Terje. I was just listening to his remix of “The Mechanical Fair” a few minutes ago.
Todd is amazing. He’s always an inspiration. Soulwax I still get excited by. I did a DJ gig five or so years ago in Ghent, Belgium at this place called Club 69. At the time the Dewaele brothers [aka Soulwax] brothers’ studio was upstairs. I was staying with Vito from Aeroplane in Brussels, and we drove to Ghent. We went up to say hello to the Soulwax guys before I played. I couldn’t believe they had done all this work with a club underneath them with music pumping through the floor. They were installing software on their computers so I guess they worked during the day. I think they’ve since moved.
JC: What do you think the purpose of a remix is?
FB: The function of a remix to me has always been to broaden the original song’s appeal. Most of the time it’s to put a song into a club setting and via osmosis people hear it and buy the record outside. The flip side is like Architecture in Helsinki’s amazing remix of Cut Copy’s “Need You Now,” a dancey track turned into a cowboy ballad. My favorites are the clever ones that you could happily take over the original. I guess the most famous example is Boris Dlugosch’s remix of “Sing It Back” by Moloko, most people think its the original. I still think there is value in the remix. But the volume of music these days, it’s just insane.
JC: Do you think regular people know how badly the record industry has handled everything this last century?
FB: I assume everybody knows about the mistakes of the record industry but I’m from the pre-internet generation; I forget some people have never paid for music in their life. “Musicians make a living from touring.” But no, people used to make money from the records (musicians, engineers, studios) AND from the touring, which labels used to supplement a lot more. The chances of having a viable career as an old school working musician are dwindling.
JC: Is your most played track online a remix?
FB: I think my highest played track on the internet is not a remix but an original. Actually, no. I just looked and it’s a remix. Thank you, internet.
JC: What’s your favorite remix you’ve ever had a hand in?
FB: I was in a state of disbelief when the Human League requested a remix.
JC: Have you ever had remixes rejected?
FB: Yes I have had a few rejects over the years for an assortment of reasons but I’ve always managed to salvage ideas and turn them into other things. I’ve also said no thank you to some requests. You can’t win ’em all!
There you have it – the weird and wooly world of remixes. They are still a very vital component of our modern musical ecosystem, even though I feel like they peaked with the burnout of mp3 blogs. However, it seems like labels or publishers offering points instead of cash upfront to a remixer might be a positive trend moving forward, where the remixer can profit participate like a regular artist.
Case closed? Not really, actually, as we haven’t even begun to open the legal and creative can of worms of sampling, the hip hop remix, bootlegs, edit culture, or settle such important questions as, “what’s the difference between a remix and a dub?” But those questions will have to wait until another time.
Until then, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite remixes of all time by the dark rockabilly prince, Mr. Andrew Weatherall.