because he's an artist whose re-
leases tend to be greeted with a steamroller, plunderphonician John Oswald's attempt to go legit is big news.
The Toronto composer spent four years trying to put together a grand, two-disc anthology of his subversive sonic cut-ups. What turned the project into a nightmare was his eye-popping plan for the box to be an above-board project.
Oswald has made approved plunderphonic recordings before, but nothing like this. His trademark technique of reconstructing familiar recordings with astonishing, often absurd results was officially sanctioned for the Grateful Dead-commissioned Grayfolded project as well as a scrambling of the Elektra records catalogue.
His new, handsomely packaged 60-track 69 Plunderphonics 96 set was originally scheduled for release in 1999, the 10th anniversary of Oswald's notorious 1989 proto-sampling disc, Plunderphonics. That landmark recording was famously crushed by the watchdogs at the Canadian Recording Industry Association, who claimed they were looking out for the rights of Michael Jackson and other plunderphonized artists.
The initial idea for the two-disc set was to clear all the tracks, from the Michael Jackson meltdown Dab to Oswald's stuttering James Brown splicing, with the appropriate parties and also include a licensing page detailing how much each plunderphonized artist was being paid.
That, predictably, did not go according to plan.
"I am incapable of making artistic compromises," Oswald scoffs. "It just didn't make any sense to leave tracks out rather than get clearance for them, so we initially tried to do this above-board.
"We were realistic, and in a couple of cases it always seemed like a long shot. We were always dealing with lawyers and record company executives rather than the artists themselves.
"There seem to be certain performers who will only talk to banks, and those people weren't even interested in starting to negotiate."
But surely Oswald didn't expect Michael Jackson to pick up his Neverland Ranch phone and start chatting about the logistics of a forthcoming Plunderphonics box.
"I got a letter from a VP at one of the majors who said he was a big fan of my legitimate stuff but that everything else was stealing," he counters. "All the negotiations had to go through him, and he said he would do nothing to help, even if the artists were getting paid. Even when we tried to be legitimate we were shut down. It's very confusing."
After four years of phone calls and faxes, it became clear that things weren't going to work out and the release date was pushed back further and further.
With hopes for a legitimate package finally scuttled, Oswald turned to San Francisco cut-up pranksters Negativland, who, as Oswald tells it, "liberated" the set from his Fony label and are releasing it through their own Seeland imprint, sans clearances.
With no licence fees to pay, the price of the set dropped from over $140 to just under $50, while the proposed licensing page at the back of the book is now represented by a piece of paper on fire.
"Because I'd already made certain licensing arrangements with labels, I couldn't condone an unlicensed release of this project," chuckles Oswald. "Negativland then stole the material from me, but they always knew what my reaction to this was going to be.
"They know I won't come after them, and they're hoping others won't either."
Good luck. In this era of Napster crackdowns, won't the labels be more unimpressed with Oswald and Negativland's piracy then they were a decade ago?
"There's always that possibility," Oswald laughs. "What's the point, though? There are no huge profits to tap into, and if you compare it to something like Napster, there's no replication of things people are trying to sell.
"It's the same argument I made in 1989. I'm not interested in making legal precedents. I just want people to hear this stuff."
JOHN OSWALD 69 Plunderphonics 96 (Seeland) Rating: NNNN