How much is music worth? For more than a decade, that question has shaped much of the discussion surrounding a music industry whose sales continue to fall like an asteroid to end the age of the dinosaurs. Along the way, Shawn Fanning found a way to swap songs with his friends online, calling his project Napster. Labels and artists — with Metallica as their figurehead — led a crusade against file-sharing fans. Radiohead decided its followers could be trusted to decide the price of In Rainbows. Vinyl record sales grew. Digital track sales plateaued. And Creative Commons gave artists more flexibility in the intellectual property rights they chose to retain.
But we've still been unable to gain a steady footing on the path toward determining what exactly music is worth.
There's no easy answer, to be sure. There are those who would have you believe art is never a commodity (usually not working artists themselves), and those who would have you believe it most certainly, and unequivocally, is (often those whose livelihoods depend on it being so).
Gregg Gillis, best known for his pop-collage project Girl Talk, is old-school in his consumption habits. "I definitely enjoy consuming music in the traditional way of the past 50 years," he says. "I like to buy physical products, and I like to support artists and labels in that way."
That sentiment might be a bit surprising coming from Gillis, whose sample-driven musical output stands at the nexus of the art-versus-commodity argument. Under his Girl Talk moniker, Gillis has released five albums of cut-and-paste pop, built entirely on samples and the legal principle of fair-use, which, in an oversimplification, allows unauthorized reproduction of creative pieces in works that educate, satirize, parody, or transform the original and do not infringe on the work's monetary commercial value.
"With my work," Gillis says, "the ultimate goal is always for it to be transformative. I never want to be playing someone else's song. I've never really created any sort of competition with the artists I'm sampling. I don't think anyone's going to download my album instead of buying someone else's."
But on his latest release, November's All Day, Gillis samples more than 300 separate works by artists as diverse and renowned as Arcade Fire, Phoenix, Black Sabbath, Lady Gaga, Fugazi, Nicki Minaj, the Ramones, and Rihanna. The components are usually identifiable, and therein lies Girl Talk's charm (the ABBA/Notorious B.I.G. mash-up on 2006's Night Ripper remains a stroke of genius).
From jumbo-sized '70s rock hits to booty-shaking Southern rap to Top 40 pop to indie-rock anthems, Gillis packs something for everyone into dense, beat-driven dance jams.
"It's always kind of been about embracing pop music and putting it on the same level. I think people kind of draw these lines in their mind in between this genre and that genre, or this label, this underground band, and this mainstream band. I like to break those down," he says. To the listener, it's like when a DJ plays your favorite song, except it happens roughly every 15 seconds.
Little wonder why Gillis — a manic, energetic performer himself — has caught the attention of festival crowds and arena-sized hordes of frenzied, dancing, raving fans. Girl Talk is cool because Girl Talk has stolen the coolest parts of every cool song for the past 30 years.
Critics have both lauded and derided Gillis for tapping into the iPod-shuffle zeitgeist where trends are short-lived because attention spans are shorter-lived. Gillis doesn't entirely agree.
"I really like, and especially early on I was super obsessed with, stuff like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, where it jumps around so quickly, and it's tightly edited, but it still flows smoothly," he says. "That, in electronic music, is like showin' off your chops, like having a crazy guitar solo in rock 'n' roll or something ... It's intended to be listened to as a whole, so in some ways I think it's in opposition to that culture."
Five records in, he still has our attention. And Girl Talk still forces us to ask what music is worth in a capitalist system.
The first three Girl Talk albums were sold as records normally are, packaged as CDs and wrapped in plastic, or downloaded for a fee. For Gillis, this was important in legitimizing the project and distinguished his work from DJ mixes. More recently, though, "In the past few years, that (physical product) seems less important ... in no way do I feel like anyone takes [a digital album] less seriously."
So 2008's Feed the Animals was offered on the pay-what-you-want scale Radiohead made famous. There were some differences, though. With Girl Talk, for $5, listeners could download higher-quality digital files, and for $10, they could purchase a CD. All Day is available, at least for now, exclusively as a free download via Gillis' label, Illegal Art (illegal-art.net/allday). This fits Gillis' stated credo to "see how many people it can reach."
"There's no marketing team. There's no huge lead-in time with press and promotion. I just do it. I just make an album and put it out there," he says.
And he's not the only artist who has chosen to make work available for free — and reaped the benefits of a larger, more rabid fan base because of it. Before selling millions of copies of Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne was a loose faucet of free mixtapes, many of which helped the rap star garner critical acclaim and whet fans' anticipation for the proper album, which, of course, sold like gangbusters.
But even where it helps some artists, anyone who claims that illegal downloading hasn't contributed to falling music sales is either lying or a fool. Whether this is a bad thing, over all, remains to be seen. Maybe we as a society will eventually reach the conclusion that art is and should remain free to enjoy, to replicate, and to reimagine. But probably not.
As the thousands likely to shell out cash to see Girl Talk perform during his upcoming tour suggest, music has value. We're just living in a new consumption paradigm. Or, as Gillis suggests, "There is a really great opportunity right now to be a musician and to get out there and tour, and to have a fan base based on the power of the internet.
"It wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago," he adds. "I see that dip in CD sales, and you oftentimes hear that idea that the music industry is dying, and I think that perspective is more of a major-label perspective. Those people are selling a few less thousand records and making a few less million dollars. But for this other really large chunk of musicians and bands all of a sudden even though you can't sell CDs, you can still hit the road and sell out these venues that are three to four times larger than you would have 15 years ago."