Ever since music file sharing upended the record business, labels and artists have been doing everything they can to keep copyrighted tunes from ricocheting around the Internet for free. British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel recently went in totally the opposite direction, posting the musical ingredients of his 1982 classic Shock the Monkey and inviting fans to morph it into something new and original.
The resulting Shock the Monkey remix contest, viewable on www.realworldremixed.com, is one rock musician's solution to the problem faced by nearly everyone in the media business these days: how to stay relevant when consumers are generating so much of their own content on sites such as News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace and Google's (GOOG) latest acquisition, YouTube.
To kick off the contest, Gabriel did something close to revolutionary for an established musician. Back in March, he posted a so-called sample pack of Shock the Monkey consisting of vocals and other pieces of the original multitrack recording. For most people in the music business, that is the commercial equivalent of hiring kidnappers to babysit.
BIG-TIME LURE. Gabriel already qualifies as something of an Internet trailblazer. In 1999, he was co-founder of On Demand Distribution, or OD2, one of the first commercial digital download services. OD2 later merged with rival Loudeye, which is now owned by Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia (NOK).
For the former Genesis front man, sharing Shock the Monkey was a bold way to generate Web traffic for his record company, Real World. The label, distributed by London-based EMI Group, has an eclectic catalog of artists ranging from Ohio bluesman Skip "Little Axe" McDonald to Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali and Temple of Sound, a group of Pakistanis who mix Sufi mysticism with funk.
"One of the major issues with in-house promotional Web sites is getting enough content," says York Tillyer, interactive director at Real World, which is based in the village of Box in western England. "We were looking around for something that would generate its own momentum and that would reach out beyond our traditional audience."
As the Shock the Monkey remixes came in, users could rate their favorites. There were well over 700 entries, testament to the proliferation of music-processing software and home recording equipment. Gabriel then picked winners from the top dozen chosen by listeners. "I was amazed at the number and quality of remixes," Gabriel says in an e-mail. One remixer managed to credibly combine Gabriel's vocals with music from the opera Carmen. Another dispensed with the vocals altogether and reengineered the tight, high-energy original into New Age mood music. Gabriel, who says he got tired of listening to his own voice while judging contest entries, gave it an honorable mention.
COMMUNITY SNAPSHOT. The effect on site traffic was impressive. In the first two weeks of October alone, the contest generated 33,000 unique users, respectable for a standalone Web site. Some 13,600 people have listened to the winning remix by Multiman, who is a 38-year-old composer and animator from New Zealand (and who won a high-end sound processing console from Real World). Initial indications are that the contest indeed is helping sales of Real World artists, Real World's Tillyer says.
The contest also achieved something else widely sought after in the media/entertainment world these days: It created a "community," generating a lively conversation among remixers and listeners as they debated the technical and musical merits of the top entries. "Wasn't this in the wedding scene of The Godfather?" quipped one commentator, referring to the contribution by an Italian calling himself Filippo Villa. His Spaghetti monkey featuring a jaunty piano backup with accordion highlights, was among the runners-up.
Most of the contest winners did not seem to be the proverbial teenagers tinkering with Apple (AAPL) GarageBand software in their bedrooms, though. For instance, Sound Chateau, named runner-up for a synthesizer-heavy remix that appears to have been recorded aboard the Starship Enterprise, is a Berlin-based production house specializing in music for commercials and TV.
CONTESTS WITHOUT COPYRIGHTS. Sound Chateau's previous work includes a Christmas album featuring songs by people who have appeared in the Big Brother reality show as well as several CDs by children's cartoon character Schnappi the Crocodile. Doghouse Riley, another runner-up, which turned Shock the Monkey into a brassy roadhouse tune, is a California-based band.
Gabriel is not the only successful recording artist to let fans rework his hits. David Byrne and Brian Eno are currently encouraging listeners to "mutilate" portions of their 1981 collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, published by Virgin Records Limited and Warner Music Group (WMG). The sample packs, as well as numerous remixes, are available on www.bush-of-ghosts.com. Nine Inch Nails, the metal band from Cleveland, also is encouraging remixers, posting its 2005 single The Hand That Feeds on its official site, www.nin.com.
Gabriel and Real World are already expanding on the remix idea. Sample packs for several other Real World artists, including the Mexican band Los de Abajo, are already online. Gabriel is planning to post another of his own songs for remixing, though he hasn't yet decided which one. "Much of the music on labels like Real World is easily bypassed by traditional media outlets," says Tillyer. "This gets people talking about the work."
Speaking of traditional media, is there a lesson here for them? Maybe just this: that adjusting to Web 2.0 might require them to loosen their grip on copyrights ever so slightly.