BlueBeat's Hank Risan: That's Not the Beatles, It's a "Virtual Cover Band"

BlueBeat

If you thought that was AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles you streamed for free or downloaded this week for $.25 from BlueBeat.com, it's an understandable error. The music sounded identical to songs by those artists.

But the site's owner Hank Risan tells Fast Company his catalog of music doesn't include tracks by the original artists, who, of course, own the publishing rights to their music (many have long resisted posting their music for sale online). His tunes aren't technically Beatles tracks at all but, rather, "psycho-acoustic simulations" of Beatles songs performed and broadcast on BlueBeat and made available for download.

Performances? By, what, some kind of virtual cover band? "Exactly!" Risan says. "Only they don't eat as much. And you don't have to pay them union wages!" It was if we'd summed up a concept he'd long been trying to explain to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) general counsel Steven Marks, and lawyers for EMI records, distributor of The Beatles catalog who filed suit against Risan and BlueBeat on Wednesday claiming copyright infringement, and the judge in the case who ordered BlueBeat to shut down until he can hold a hearing on Nov. 20th. Risan responded to the suit by EMI, which holds exclusive rights to distribute The Beatles catalog, calling the material on BlueBeat an "entirely different sound recording." But the details are lost on most, so Risan took about an hour late Friday to explain further.

We'll dig deeper into this when we can reach outside experts to weigh in, but at press time, here's what we were able to learn from Risan about why he believes BlueBeat is legal:

hank-risan

First, he obtained necessary licenses to broadcast original works on the Web. (Ars Technica has a good summary of the laws involved here). He claims, too, to have paid royalties to all appropriate performing rights organizations since 2003. "That's going to be very problematic for EMI when the judge hears the case," Risan says.

Next, he bought a legitimate copy of each song or album featured on BlueBeat, made a single, legal ephemeral copy, and analyzed it, "We make an analysis of that work that we break down into parametric fields like timbre, pitch, loudness. You create an analytical view of the work." Then he destroyed the ephemeral copy, he says, lest anyone say he's posting it for download.

Sounds an awful lot like ripping a CD. Not so, Risan insists. "It's done with sophisticated algorithmic, mathematic and artistic ... this is not some kind of mechanical process. This is a trial-and-error artistic endeavor."

The entire analysis, he says, goes into his computers. "Using psycho-acoustic synthetic methods, we synthesize a new sound recording in a new 3-D environment. Like you said, a virtual cover band. Instead of bringing a bunch of guys in that look like The Beatles and sound like The Beatles into a conventional recording studio, we do this all in a virtual 3-D environment."

Rather, his "independent simulated production" (don't call it a re-recording) is then "broadcast"--streamed in "colloquial" terms, Risan concedes--on BlueBeat. Those broadcasts, along with new visuals and information are bundled up for what Risan calls "time-shifted audio visual displays"--they look remarkably like song tracks--and sold for a quarter apiece. The quarter actually buys you the time-shifted audio-visual display, not, say, The Beatles' "Helter Skelter."

It's reminiscent of a scalper charging $200 for a $25 concert ticket by bundling it with a $175 commemorative pencil. Risan insists, though, that he's doing this to educate people about the coming wave of psycho-acoustic and psycho-visual technology. He points to groundbreaking work being done in this field at Stanford University and says, "The goal was never to make money and that's why we're charging a quarter and not a dollar. To educate and inform and inspire people, that's what we're all about."

There are technical and logical problems here.The "if it quacks like a duck" principal surely applies to what sound like other artists tracks, and BlueBeat benefits from that assumption. There are some philosophical and structural problems with Risan's arguments, too.

To suspend what logic tells you about BlueBeat, you have to subscribe not only to Risan's ideas but to his vocabulary. The minute you refer to his "performances" as "tracks" or call them "re-recordings," you mischaracterize his efforts, he says. What's more, he claims EMI is trying to squash innovation and creativity, namely the technology behind Risan's "psycho-acoustic simulations;" there are all kinds of reasons to loathe behemoth major music labels, but this isn't one of them. Innovation doesn't exist in a vacuum. And if you're trying to encourage creativity, why get behind a tool whose primary purpose is to mimic someone else's creation so closely it can't be differentiated from the original? Knock off designer clothing comes to mind. As close to the real thing as it might look, and despite the fact that it's synthesized from scratch, it's still stealing.

Risan admits his argument is subject to interpretation, and he's keeping the money he's made from BlueBeat aside, he says, in case he loses his legal battle. He won't say how much that is, but he says it's less than most might think. "Look what the press was doing. You guys were saying we were all pirates. So people were a little bit nervous going to the site. ... When we have our day in court on the 20th, I think that some surprises are going to happen that will open up the public's eyes to new innovation artistically."

The thing about courts, though, is that they often favor the reasonable perceptions of common people over the challenging mental gymnastics of an academic. Risan has thought this through on a deeply analytical level, applying all sorts of arithmetic to a process others equate with the "import" button on iTunes. And he's put his money where his math is, gambling BlueBeat's future on his analytical theories. But even if Risan convincingly lays out his rationale for selling seemingly stolen songs, that doesn't guarantee a judge on Nov. 20 won't think it's a load of bull. Or at least a "psycho-acoustic simulation" thereof.

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1 Comments

  • Rick Presley

    If Risan wanted to be truly creative instead of just being seen as another rip-off, he should have created a way to get other groups to record virtual covers of the original group's signature tunes. For instance, how would "Thunderstruck" sound if sung by the Beatles? Or what if Lynard Skynard sang Another Brick In the Wall? The permutations could be nearly infinte.

    Even better would be to create a whole new virtual band. What would a group sound like if we had Freddy Mercury, George Harrison, Tom Morrison sing together?

    We already have kids doing mashups on YouTube. If this had been an app, I'm sure people would have paid a lot more than a quarter to download their own creations to their MP3 players.