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How Girl Talk Mashes Up the Music Biz

The post-modern DJ’s latest album took 373 samples–B.I.G! Cream! Bananarama!–and 2.5 years to make. Along the way, he also remixed the rules of the music industry.

How Girl Talk Mashes Up the Music Biz
Girl Talk show

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Gregg Gillis, the former biomedical engineer turned mashup artist, is among the most radical recyclers since Dr. Frankenstein.

Performing as Girl Talk, the DJ has perfected the art of remixing the best beats, hooks, and choruses from other pop, gangsta rap, and rock artists, many of whom were left for dead by their labels. On his latest album, All Day, the Notorious B.I.G. flows over Cream; Rick Ross raps over Bananarama (just a few of the 373 samples–see one song’s DNA below and the full album’s here). It’s a crackerjack version of the hybrid music pioneered by acts such as The Avalanches, 2 Many DJs, and Hollertronix. And like club DJs before him, Gillis’s uses his records for promotion, not profit. He’s borrowed Radiohead’s pay-as-you-like album pricing model and, in the process, inadvertently dodged potential lawsuits from the labels of artists he samples.

Everyone from Pitchfork to the New York Times Magazine
has lauded various aspects of Girl Talk’s formula, mostly the shows or
the music itself. But most fail to recognize Gillis’s bigger mashup. He
hasn’t won over fans and critics merely by playing with the best bits of
other people’s music and performance styles. He’s sampling the most
exciting ideas in the music business, too–leaking tracks, giving music away for free, making records that make no money but put thousands of gyrating backsides at his concerts–at a time when the music
business is desperate for excitement.

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Click to Expand this visualization of a Girl Talk track

As a prolific borrower who doesn’t pay royalties for his samples or even ask permission (so far, no one’s complained), it follows that Gillis doesn’t expect his fans to pay, either. All Day, Girl Talk’s fifth full-length, is the first he’s ever offered completely free. “I knew I didn’t have to make any money off of the release,” he tells Fast Company. “I make a living off of doing shows.”

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Live, Gillis recreates his mixes on a cellophane-wrapped laptop and puts on glittery, spectacular dance parties that are part ‘70s disco and glam rock, part ‘80s punk, strewn with confetti and toilet paper that Gillis’s crew provides. In December, he filled the new Stage AE arena in his hometown Pittsburgh for two nights. Tickets for the tour he kicked off this month sold out in minutes.

Behind everything is his insistence on giving every idea a chance. “I want to like everything until I’m convinced why not,” he told the Times. He’s often described as a meticulous curator, a former biomechanical engineer with a head for math, but as he spoke via phone from his home in Pittsburgh (where the City Council recently named December 7 “Gregg Gillis Day”), he was surrounded by walls and racks and stacks of random discs. The new Kanye album was flung on top of The Wire season 2 DVD set. “I’m not that well organized,” he says. “My collection’s pretty messy.” Finding order in all that chaos takes a while–2 ½ years in the case of All Day.

Gillis insists he has no intentional business model, but he also sifted diligently through the ideas of artists he admires for just the right way to release his new collage in a way that would properly hype the subsequent tour. He considered tearing a page from Nine Inch Nails’ playbook and burning 20 copies of the record on CD or flash drive and leaving them in a club bathroom for people to find and leak to the web. “It’s hard not to just play games with that position and have fun with the fans,” he says.

In the end, he decided a straight giveaway would be the best way to stay true to his fans and grow their ranks. “I met people at shows who maybe didn’t even know I had real releases,” he says. “They thought this is something their friends just burn to CDR, and that’s the only way it exists.”

To streamline this release, Gillis and his label didn’t even suggest a donation in return for downloads. “We thought that ultimately if we give it away for free, that takes away even the complications of the pay-what-you-want model; it’s one less step, and it’s 10 less words, and that’s how the Internet works,” Gillis says.

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Illegal Art’s servers were pushed to their capacity, and Twitter logged 7,500 mentions of the album in the first week of the release in mid-November. Gillis didn’t make a dime, exactly as he’d planned. “I think it’s just become very commonplace,” he says, “the idea that giving away the music can ultimately result in a career of touring and merchandise and everything that comes along with that.”

Gillis says he makes a far more comfortable living than he ever would have made as a biomedical engineer. He pays a crew of 10 livable wages on the road now. (The toilet paper guy has a law degree.) And for someone who says he never considers the sustainability of his mashup model, Gillis recites a clear mission statement. “This music is something I spend all my time making,” he says, “It’s something I never expected to have an audience for. But now that I do, I want to know how many more people can hear it. That’s the ultimate goal for me.”

Follow Tyler Gray on Twitter.

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[Top image: Getty Images; infographic: Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez; live images: Flickr user angela n.]

 

About the author

Tyler Gray is the former Editorial Director of Fast Company and co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out in fall 2014. He previously authored The Hit Charade for HarperCollins and has written for The New York Times, SPIN, Blender, Esquire, and others.

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