21st Century Man
May 2000
pp. 78-81
Andre Mayer

Long before MP3, Beck reigned as popís funkiest techno visionary. Here, we download his views on the pandoraís box of online music

Beck Hansen may have started the nineties strumming a beaten-up acoustic guitar and penning low-slung folk tunes, but he's always had his sights set on more techno logically demanding territory. Like a radio dial in the restive hands of an ADD child, Beck channels a whole century's worth of musical styles, bridging the gut-bucket blues of Mississippi John Hurt to the android grooves of Kraftwerk. His first two major-label records-Mellow Gold (1994) and Odelay (1996)-established this expansive sampling mode, and as he continues to perfect his craft, his productions have become increasingly heady and complex. Last year's Midnite Vultures-an amalgam of spastic Princestyle funk, blazing Stax horn charts and rubbery electro-was a massive studio effort that required a small battalion of Power Macs to carry out.

Beck is arguably the world's funkiest archivist, and assuredly a pop visionary. His all-inclusive musical approach not only gives props to his forebears, but also illustrates how the art of manipulating previously recorded sounds-known to the chin-stroke set as "recombinant music"-can, in fact, stretch existing parameters. It's a forward-thinking concept that anticipated the online music explosion, which has armed every web surfer with the implements to create their own art.

"People should have music in their lives; it shouldn't be a luxury," says the wiry twenty-nine-year-old songwriter. "I can remember that for many years I could not afford to buy music. I lived and breathed music, and one of the reasons I fell into delta blues and folk is because I'd get it from the library." In the new point-and-click universe, however, trawling for new inspiration no longer requires rifling through those musty shelves of scuffed vinyl. "The availability of music online is some kind of revolution."

Beck says that the benefits of the net lie primarily in being able to access obscure material that traditional outlets shrug off. "It's probably a reactionary phenomenon. As radio and TV tighten up, it's harder to get interesting, original things through the media filter." The web is that channel. "I have lots of friends who have internet radio stations and play whatever the hell they want. People are hungry for that."

Despite its high-tech underpinnings, the online music movement speaks to the MY ethic propounded by Beck and independents like K Records-the Olympia, Washington, label that released his 1994 album One Foot in the Grave. As the most visible advocate of the revolution, MP3.com is, in many ways, indie rock's greatest ally: The site solicits unsigned artists and amplifies their exposure by allowing visitors to download their music at no cost. Only a Pollyanna would suggest that the Internet has leveled the playing field between a colossal unit-shifter like Britney Spears and more outré forms of creative expression, but any bedroom muso with a half-decent Fu' can now tap into a distribution network that spans the world. It's a startling new reality that at once gladdens Beck and makes him rueful: If he were launching his career today, the internet is where he would go. "I wouldn't even bother with the music business," he admits.

Beck undoubtedly profits from the well-oiled marketing machine of a major label, but he is resolute in keeping one foot in the underground. "One interesting thing about the internet is the possibility of doing guerrilla albums," he says. "The way the music business is structured, you can release an album every two years-maybe one every year if you really knock yourself out, which I've been doing for the last few years. But I think it would be great to do something and put it out anonymouslysomething that doesn't have any commercial constraints."

Given his prominence, Beck is a sitting duck for unscrupulous theft. In 1998, indie label Illegal Art-through the website Detritus.net-released Deconstructing Beck, an unauthorized recording by unknown artists who took fragments of Beck's music and reconfigured them. Beck knows full well the creative possibilities of such a venture and, in principle, doesn't begrudge the work of Detritus.net-a site run by ardent free-speech advocates who offer contraband recordings by media terrorists Negativland and John Oswald. Beck's song publisher, however, was decidedly less charitable: After catching wind of this renegade enterprise, BMG sent a cease-and-desist order to Detritus.net, largely because the site was selling the contentious record for $5. While Beck feels no violation in being sampled, the commercial motives do ruffle his equanimity. "I wouldn't mind if they were giving the sampled recordings away free, but if they're making money off of it, I think that's a shame. That's not like a kid trading among his friends. Somebody is making money [and] has money invested in a website. That's straight up somebody taking advantage of you." Beck claims that if the perps behind Deconstructing Beck-or others with similar ambitions-would simply ask for permission to sample his work, "I would be much more lenient."

Late in 1999, a contest held on Beck.com encouraged visitors to download loops from "Mixed Bizness" (a track from Midnite Vultures), play surgeon and then upload the final result. The best remix is set to appear on a future single. Beck says that he initially wanted to include individual song files on the Midnite Vultures disc "so that you could put them on your computer and make your own mixes."

"We have what we call stems, where you take five horn tracks, or six guitar tracks, and you make them one track," he explains. "You just line them up to create a simple sequence, or have people take loops of pieces of your song and create their own songs by rearranging the beats. I think that's where music's going to go. When you buy a CD, you'll also get the files, be able to rearrange them and put them onto other people's records."

It's a concept that alters the static relationship between musician and fan. It's also the foundation of Beck's artistry and the greatest upshot of the online music revolution: Given access to a vast sound library and the tools to make it sing, anyone with mouse in hand can forge original music. Says Beck: "I like the idea that the music you buy is only a blueprint for you to engage in the process."