‘Riffed’ Off

What do these three groups and individuals have in common?

What do these three groups and individuals have in common?

What do The Beatles, U2 and Bob Marley have in common? Even for those of you who are as musically ignorant as me, flabbergasted to discover that classical composer Bach was elegantly pronounced like the wood of a tree as opposed to the very Australian BATCH, you would immediately recognise the previously named groups and individuals as popular musicians. Artists of the medium of silence and sound that provides the background melody to our lives.

Whilst you may idolise each band for their individual talents- perhaps Bob Marley for his reggae rhythm and U2 for their rocking riffs-you may not be aware that many of their most popular hits, and in fact almost ALL of the greatest hits of the past 40 years, are based on the same four chords. Take a listen.

Welcome to remix culture.  A world of “combing and editing existing materials to provide something new”. A world that lives by the French concept of ‘detournement’- changing the direction of a previous media work until meanings are subverted and  ‘re-contextualised’. Facilitated by an explosion of technologies created for modifying and distributing these media works, Lawrence Lessig explains that we have shifted from a Read/Only culture, in which we passively consume media content such as music, to a Read/Write culture in which consumers can actively “re-create the culture around them”.

In a previous blog I discussed the benefits of a collaborative approach towards creativity. We see further by “standing on the shoulders of giants” as Isaac Newton stated. If we relate this idea to the remix culture of music it is easier to understand the necessity of “borrowing” from previous works. Music is an unpredictable industry in which commercial success is not guaranteed. Exploratory works risk failure, whilst remixing previous songs provides an insurance policy- if it worked before, it will work again. The Amen Break and the 4 Chord progression are only two examples of riffs that have been continually remixed by various artists over the years due to their ongoing success in pop-culture. Furthermore, amateur musicians such as Justin Bieber take their first shaky steps towards fame by producing covers of songs, by COPYING.

So while many may argue that U2 ‘riffed off’ the Beatles, Bob Marley, or vice versa, the truth is that this process has been happening on all levels of the music industry since the days of Bach. It is essential to its evolution. Audiences are comfortable with the familiar; we like what we know and, like spoilt children, are hesitant to try something new. Only by building on the success of other artists can musicians guarantee the ongoing popularity of modern compositions.

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