The revolution will be mashed up

So, a long while ago now, I found this interesting article at the inimitable Jonathon Coulton’s blog.

I was all set to write about it, but then I had this issue with my blogging software. That caused a huge delay, as did moving my entire blagoweb over to WordPress. In so doing, though, I’ve created this new media blog, and hosted it at CorrugatedMedia.com. I live in an era where I can do so in a weekend. I think this is unbelievably cool, which is why this blog exists.

Readers of this post should:

  • Have a basic understanding of the gist of the game Guitar Hero
  • Be aware that through hacking the original game files, and rebuilding the game to be played on a modded system, one can add songs to Guitar Hero
  • Be aware of pro-public-domain pro-fair-use copyright reform organization Creative Commons
  • Ideally have some knowledge of the existence of zombie-fighting troubadour slash internet sensation Jonathan Coulton

So, to summarize for the technically uninitiated or lazy, through the use of modded Playstation2s and some rather clever applications, one can insert whatever song they wish into playable builds of Guitar Hero I and II. Most of these custom tracks are simply an mp3 of the song, with a pretty sloppy guess at tablature thrown in to make it seem interactive…a hack, at best, but it’s still nice to have Back in Black as a playable track. While the Back in Black custom linked there actually has some good tabs (or “note chart” if you want to use the lingo of the custom makers,) many do not, and almost all suffer from a distinct audio challenge: sound separation.

One of the hallmarks of Guitar Hero’s gameplay is the fact that the music stops when you play it incorrectly. The vocals, drums, and sometimes other backing tracks keep going, but the guitar drops out entirely. This is crucial to the sensation that makes the game so addictive – that you’re really playing. That the show is all on you. If you screw up, the song doesn’t just keep humming along and dock you with a score penalty – the song dies, and you’re punished with harsh, dissonant squawks of shame for every misplaced note. It puts it all on you to perform well, and once you screw up for the first time, the long stretches where the song plays perfectly become a source of pride – even though they are ridiculously dumbed down from an actual guitar, and the controller only has one “string.”

This nod toward realism is a very difficult effect to achieve – it basically requires separate sound tracks, so the game can cut the guitar out, and overlay the squawks, while keeping the rest of the audio going. This is why many tracks in the Guitar Hero series were actually performed by an in-house cover band, as they could not obtain the master recordings, with the requisite separate audio channels. While by and large I have been astounded with the tolerability of these covers, here and there there are some absolute crimes – few worse than the vocals on Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box in GH2, which we have perfection in both title and description for, courtesy Tycho at Penny Arcade:

Their Kurt Fauxbain is monstrous, and sounds like a mongoose being crucified. I don’t actually know what that sounds like, but I bet I’m close.

This is a technical challenge that is going by the wayside for the official releases – as the series has gained popularity and credibility, they have found themselves able to gain access to more and more original recordings, but even in the newly-minted Guitar Hero 3, there are a lot of the dreaded “As made famous by…” tracks.

However, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Boston’s Hooked on a Feeling were the first two songs that leapt to my mind when I heard of Guitar Hero’s gameplay. I wanted them desperately. A cover version of Hooked on a Feeling was included in the first game, which woefully lacked the co-op lead/bass mode that this track truly deserved. Back in Black has yet to appear in any of the official releases, so a Custom track is the only way to go. But because the custom makers don’t have access to AC/DC’s master tracks, if you screw up, the song just keeps chugging along.

It’s still nice to have the song, but the hook of the game – the illusion of truly playing – is missing.

And this is simply the way it is for custom tracks…most of the time.

This brings us most of the way back to the inimitable Mr. Coulton’s post, but not quite yet.

Seems last year, he willfully put one of his brilliant Thing a Week songs, Code Monkey, up on the autopsy table in a remix contest over at Quick Stop Entertainment. As they note in the contest guidelines, the Creative Commons license terms require no one make any money off it, that they attribute derivative works to Coulton, and that they retain the same license on their work, so someone else can chop it up. This is a very important fact.

Coulton provided a very well labeled set of separated master tracks to the contest organizers, secure in the knowledge that this license would not cause people to reassemble these tracks and pirate them across the interwebs – a futile gesture anyway, as he has them available to listen to for free on his site. This is also a very important fact.

Now, finally, back to the article that got me tumbling down this rabbit hole. Months after this remix contest, a guy took these same separated master tracks, and created a custom Guitar Hero track with them. I found out about this off Coulton’s own page, and immediately went to the Youtube video, prepared to be disappointed.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/QcQe9IpfAa8" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Watch it. Look especially for the part at about 1:46. He’s edited out the squawks, but the guitar part drops, just like it should.

I managed to track down the creator of this custom track, Andy Sage, who gets lots of points from me not only for his selection in music, but for how he went about this process. He secured permission from Coulton before posting the track, despite the source materials being freely available in a remix contest, and all of Coulton’s music being under a license he was not breaking. Sage was under no legal obligation to contact Coulton and make sure he was cool with this, but he did so anyway, and that is the kind of attitude that makes this sort of license and culture really work. Tying this back to why I think this story is so cool is the fact that he was ABLE to contact Jonathan to do so. Try doing that with Bono.

Sage has obtained master tracks from a couple other artists, and translated them into the kind of Custom tracks that really shine – with preview audio, custom loading screen text, and accurate performer information in the playlist and venue flyby. You can see another example in this video, again, with not only the artist’s permission, but them supplying the needed audio, which he retouched for a better GH experience. He says he intends to go around to various smaller bands’ Myspace or other pages and see if he can secure more.

Not taking their work, and modifying it without their consent, but coming to them and saying, “Hey, would it be okay if I changed your work, and made it usable in a completely different way?” This, from someone who, to these artists, would just be some guy on the internet.

But I’ll bet he gets a bunch to go along with it, because he is producing something of quality, and putting it out there for the internet audience, without the primary aim being profit for himself – which, frankly, more artists could aspire to, and is part of the recipe of Coulton’s success.

So, let’s recap this.

  • Artist gains popularity through word of mouth and open, casual internet distribution, made easy by ubiquitous broadband and emerging social aspect of web surfing.
  • Artist lends art to his newfound global audience without giving up the farm – still keeping people from profiting off his art, requiring credit where it is fairly due, and requiring everything that evolves from this art to maintain this philosophy, but not retaining an iron fist on the material’s use
  • Audience member directly contacts artist for permission to use this art in a completely different medium, which he receives.
  • Audience member creates an entirely new mutation on the art – converting it into an interactive form, using tools developed by the audience for another product.
  • Audience member / modder posts video of this modified work to ubiquitous video sharing site.
  • Artist links this video on his site, encouraging the rest of his audience to check out the derivative work, with thoughts about what this new form showed him about his art.

Holy crap. Would you ever have dreamed, even 5 years ago? Holy crap.

There’s a circle of art there that has never existed in recorded history. Less draconian licensing attitudes and tools like YouTube and one-click blogging are allowing artists to find one another and comment on their work like never before.

To quote Andy:

“I really can’t stress enough how much I feel that Internet distribution is the future of the music industry; artists like JoCo are the perfect example of how successful someone can be without any aid from the now-almost-defunct “big names” in the industry.”

Jonathan himself chimed in on this a little while ago on his blog:

These days I’ve got a booking agent, a manager, a PR firm, a talent agent. Granted, they all came after I had generated a good bit of success on my own, but how far along this curve do I get to go and still say I’m an “independent musician?” Do I just mean “not signed to a label?” If I ever did sign with a label (I could still be convinced there were good reasons to do such a thing), surely they’d want me to keep doing all this fan interaction and internet stuff – but does all that then become completely corrupt? And I’m not fishing for reassurances here, it’s just that sometimes it’s hard not to see success as a kind of creeping inauthenticity.

Despite being talented and visionary enough to get where he is via authentic, grassroots internet buzz, license his creative output in a way that allows fantastic derivative works, and then – instead of trying to lock down control on those works, or cease-and-desist them – gleefully direct fans to those derivative works, the man has a conscience about his success. Wow. Just wow.

Pretentious as it may sound, these are the people who will define a new era of media – based on almost instantaneous sharing of information, respect for one another’s work, and civility.

Pretty soon some band on MySpace will meet some director they like on YouTube and some…I’m not even sure what word to use for Andy…and there will be a song with a video and an interactive version, produced by a group of people who’ve never met, and probably never would have found each other without the internet.

Just wow. Welcome to the new media world, powered by blogs, forums, search engines, social networks, and the ubiquitous bandwidth and socially-minded engineering that allows them to exist and thrive. Welcome to the new culture, powered by people believing they have something to contribute, licenses that allow them to do so without being taken advantage of, and people simply not being jerks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go try Sage’s custom of Code Monkey on Amazing in Frets on Fire – because it just takes a couple file renames to get a GH2 custom track working in FoF – a free Windows/Mac/Linux Guitar Hero clone, written by another random person on the internet.

Just wow.

October 2007