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illegal art

Illegal Art is the brainchild of enigmatic impresario Philo T. Farnsworth. The label stormed onto the digital battlefield in 1998 with the release of Deconstructing Beck, a collection of experimental, electronic works derived entirely from Beck Hansen samples. Litigious murmuring by Beck's handlers only served to drum up priceless publicity for the fledgling label (in a way reminiscent of the mixed-blessing lawsuits brought against earlier sample-based artists like Negativland and John Oswald). Things have calmed down a bit these days, and IA now boasts an impressive catalog of disparate, mainly sample-based music.

Mr. Farnsworth does not grant face to face interviews, but we recently "chatted" online. We talked about IA's past, present and future. A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: As Philo refuses to be photographed -- you know, so that the labels won't learn his secret identity -- the artwork that accompanies this article features guises that Philo has adopted over the years. Yes, we know it's wanky, but that's how art works.

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Splendid: Let's get the most obvious question out of the way...why are you so anti-copyright, anyway?

Philo: Well, I should clarify that we are and we aren't anti-copyright. We're against copyright law when it impedes an artist's ability to interact with pre-existing recordings. We're not against copyright protecting artists from someone copying their material and selling it without compensating them.

Splendid: So what you'd really like to see is an expansion of the definition of "fair use" to include artistic recontextualization or manipulation.

Philo: Exactly.

Splendid: What do you think the chances are that fair use laws will be expanded? Obviously, big corporations fight this sort of thing tooth and nail -- they'd like to see as narrow a definition of fair use as possible. And even some artists are very sensitive and want to exert as much control as possible over their work.

Philo: I think the chances are rather slim. Corporations seem too powerful for copyright laws to become more lenient. If anything, I think intellectual property laws will get tighter and tighter as those in control confront the "digital threat".

Splendid: So what's the future of sample-based music, then? Will it eventually be crushed?

Philo: It's already pretty much outlawed, so I imagine that it will continue to exist as it does now -- either on the margins, or in the case of bigger artists, their labels pay for each sample or they use really obscure sources.

Splendid: So basically you see as futile any attempts to "legalize" sample-based music? You just sort of plow ahead, knowing full well that a knock on the door might come some night with a big lawsuit on the other side? Sounds kind of depressing!

Philo: Well, while we are somewhat pessimistic about things changing, there is always the hope that our resistance, plus that of others, will make a difference. But that isn't why we exist. We exist simply to disseminate music that otherwise might not reach people, either for legal or aesthetic reasons.

Splendid: The last time most people probably heard of Illegal Art was back in 1998 when you released your debut, Deconstructing Beck. Things have changed a lot since then. For one thing, you have a much larger catalog now of some rather diverse stuff...how big is your catalog now, anyway? Do you have any gems in there?

Philo: We've done 11 releases to date, and will probably do five more over the next year. I think they're all gems, yet in completely different ways. We have a spectrum of stuff that goes from the Christmas CD, which is easy enough for my parents to enjoy, to Christopher Penrose's American Jingo, which is rather challenging to some ears.

AUDIO: Corporal Blossom's "White Christmas"

Splendid: How did the whole Deconstructing Beck thing end up anyway? Did you get sued?

Philo: There was never any official legal action. It was all idle threats, which is how a lot of these things operate: the big company sends a scary letter to the little person and the problem usually vanishes. We sought legal advice and were essentially told that these companies probably didn't want to go to court. We stood our ground and they eventually left us alone. There are other theories, such as that Beck was getting bad publicity from it and so they stopped pursuing it. Also, we were difficult to track down physically, which would be required to issue a real court order.

Splendid: Did you ever determine what Beck's reaction was?

Philo: I don't know if Beck really ever knew in detail what was going on. He may have given it as much attention as he would to a bag of chips he ate on a particular day. It was more just the knee-jerk reaction from his record label, publisher and personal lawyer that gave us some instant media attention.

Splendid: Yeah, it seems to have been kind of a big break for you actually. Have you had any other lawsuit threats since DB?

Philo: No. I think that the record companies have become more concerned with digital copying than digital alterations. For the time being we seem to be able to release whatever we want.

Splendid: Speaking of the Christmas CD...it's really quite nice. I think it's really well done. Do you envision doing another one some time, perhaps with a broader range of artists?

Philo: No. We're always attempting to do something different rather than repeating the same old tricks.

Splendid: I understand that you got some of your best publicity to date (apart from DB) in relation to this release. Why is that, do you think?

Philo: We were able to get good publicity for it since it was rather accessible and just plain fun. It was peculiar, though, since it was reviewed in the New York Times and not much happened. A few days later NPR played parts of it and then the sales really took off. Once people hear it, I think, it is pretty irresistible.

Splendid: Has it been a good seller for you?

Philo: It has sold very well.

Splendid: But still, you don't really feel like you want to build on that success and do a "sequel"...too commercial I guess. On the other hand, considering how well it was received, perhaps you could create a new tradition -- a sort of experimental take on the seemingly annual Mannheim Steamroller holiday CD, where each year people go out and buy the latest IA holiday album for their parties and such...

Philo: Well, if we were inclined to do something like that, we would have made Deconstructing Beck volumes 2-18 and not released anything else. I think it is much more interesting to operate on the basis that not even we know what we might release next year.

Splendid: What makes a "perfect" fit for IA? In other words, what kind of record is indicative of the IA mentality?

Philo: I guess we've sort of painted ourselves into a corner where everything has to involve samples. Beyond that, we're just looking for stuff that is odd, and artists who are doing something completely out of left field.

Splendid: Well, in a sense the identity of IA is so much tied to anti-copyright and digital issues that it's hard for me to imagine what other types of stuff would fit into that category. Would you ever release an album of chamber music, for example? Or a standard rock quartet? Assuming the music is sufficiently "out of left field", of course!

Philo: I doubt we'd release the things you're describing. I guess if we were to release anything that wasn't sample-based, it would probably still fall in the realm of experimental electronic music.

Splendid: Are there types of projects that you're particularly looking for? Do you ever say to yourself, "Hey, I really wish someone would do something like this...I'd really like to release that..."?

Philo: Well, Wobbly recently sent me a track he did with Kevin Blechdom that is basically sample-based music with really sweet vocals on top. I would love to release something like that.

Splendid: It sounds like you're trying to get into pop more. I've read in the past about how you'd really like to see certain innovations in pop music...

Philo: Well, we're pushing in both directions at once. I want to do stuff that is 100% pop and also release material that is very experimental. I do think sample-based music could be bring some interesting things to the pop world. I am personally working on audio software that will hopefully be able to create more poppish music purely out of samples.

Splendid: That's really interesting. It seems that "pop" and "experimental" are sort of mutually exclusive, though. Wouldn't you agree? Can you really ever have pop music that's experimental, or is it more that you have experimental music that draws from and is heavily informed by pop?

Philo: Pop has many aspects and I think you could tweak one of those while still making something that sounds pop. You could take traditional pop form and experiment with sound, or take traditional pop sounds and experiment with form. There are so many possible mutations that I don't see why they have to be mutually exclusive.

Splendid: But on the other hand, as soon as you've mucked around with one of those sort of key, defining elements of pop, you've sort of made it not pop anymore. I mean, it might be heavily informed by pop but it's ceased being pop, in a way. Or at least it's fundamentally changed -- imagine taking a Madonna song and leaving everything the same but just swapping in Mr. T as the singer or something. You can say that it's still a pop song, but the fact remains that the two pieces would have very different impacts.

Philo: It seems that we're getting into what the definition of pop is. I prefer to see music as a colorful continuum rather than a black and white world of pop vs. non-pop music. So many things fall between the cracks. David Cunningham was very comfortable in the seventies performing improvised music one night and then playing on the Top of the Pops the next with his "pop band", The Flying Lizards. Were the Flying Lizards less pop than most bands on that show? Sure, but they were still pop enough to make a deadpan version of "Money" a pretty big hit. Maybe stuff like that will never be as huge as Madonna, but there always seems to be some experimentation on the fringes of pop culture.

Splendid: So do you see IA ever having a breakthrough pop hit?

Philo: I would never plan on such a thing. It's like hoping to win the lottery. We're more concerned with just being open to any type of music. We want to release things that fall all along the continuum between pop and esoteric, political and apolitical, abstract and concrete. That is one of the purposes of the label -- to show all the amazing types of music you can make out of samples.

AUDIO: Christopher Penrose's "American Jingo"

Splendid: I have the impression that you're very particular about what you release. Would you consider yourself very image-conscious?

Philo: We are very particular about what we'll release, but I think it has more to do with quality rather than trying to project an image.

Splendid: Let's talk about RTMark. I know that DB as well as some of your other releases were sort of co-sponsored by them. My impression of RTMark is that they are more cultural guerrillas -- they're very political. That's not my impression of IA. I sense that IA is much more purely artistic. I understand that digital manipulation is central to the IA mentality, and that on some level that's artistically revolutionary, but I don't have the impression that IA is fundamentally, socially or politically revolutionary.

Philo: You're right that they are more political than Illegal Art. We perhaps do put the art before the politics, but wearing the anti-copyright badge on our sleeves does put us in that arena, and in contact with a lot of artists who are very political. We may release something this fall that has a lot of commentary on the "war on terrorism", but the details haven't been worked out yet. We have been hoping to release more political works, but we sometimes shy away if doesn't operate equally as an aural experience. It can be difficult to do overtly political music and have it function well musically.

Splendid: I agree, I think a lot of political art these days has become pretty clichéd.

Philo: Yes, I think it is a challenge to pull off political art and have it work both as an interesting message and as art or music, but when someone pulls it off it can be quite effective. Something like Ultra-Red's Structural Adjustments is an interesting audio documentary of the effect of public housing policies on a specific Los Angeles neighborhood and its people. The key for me, though, is that it functions both musically and as a political protest against what happened.

Splendid: Detritus.net is another one of your partners (detritus.net sponsors the Illegal Art website) that, to me at least, seems to be more of a natural fit for you. They seem much more artistically-oriented, wouldn't you say?

Philo: Yes. We fit perfectly with detritus.net. The site is run by Steev Hise, who got involved in the first compilation and since has released a full CD on Illegal Art. He hosts a bunch of other projects that cover a wide spectrum of net art and audio stuff. Hise is very politically motivated, though, in a lot of the things he supports and does.

Splendid: And yet my impression is that for Steev, it's more "political art" rather than "arty politics" -- in other words, I get the feeling that artistic considerations are important for him.

Philo: Yeah...I think that's a fair distinction. I hesitate to pigeonhole anyone, though. I look at something like Hise's live performance piece "Hello My Darling Patpong Road", or a recent digital video he sent me, and compared to the material on his Illegal Art release these types of work are pushing the message more to the forefront. At what point has he crossed the line into "arty politics"? I don't know if I want to explore that question, since I prefer to view things as more complex than fitting into these little boxes with labels on them.

Splendid: Fair enough. So what's in the future for IA? Any exciting developments forthcoming? A little birdie told me you might start distributing non-IA releases. Is that true?

Philo: Well, the future is always uncertain. We have a few tentatively planned releases, but it will be a few weeks before things are more definite. We have been carrying stuff from other labels for a while, but recently we expanded that quite a bit. It's slowly developing as we add new items each month. Our hope is to develop a decent amount of stock so that you can find a lot of sample-based music, plus other odd music, in one location.

Splendid: A large collection of disparate music like that really helps with fan "cross pollenization", doesn't it? I mean, it allows people who are fans of one particular electronic artist or genre to be exposed to music they wouldn't otherwise hear.

Philo: Yes, that is part of the motivation for expanding the catalog. A lot of this music gets marginalized even by outlets that claim to be "experimental". The more I see of the music industry, the more I realize that it is an almost impossible system to break into, even to sell a small number of CDs. You have so many gatekeepers that unless you're already marketable, chances are rather slim that you'll be able to do much other than give away MP3s on your website. We're trying to open up our little corner of influence so that a lot of this strange music can co-exist and possibly even resonate.

Splendid: Is there anybody else out there now trying to do this kind of thing? In the experimental realm, I mean?

Philo: Well, there are so many little experimental record shops and mailorder services, but I tend to be critical of them since in my view they all become very codified in what they'll carry and what they consider "experimental" or "electronic" music. Sample-based music has so many different possibilities that a lot of it gets ignored, since it often does the unexpected. There is a buyer, Tower Records in Shibuya, Japan, who supports all of our releases. Our distributor, though, has been pushing for (an in-store) display, but none of our releases fit the mold exactly for the buyer to promote us on that level. He'll comment that one release is "too dense" and another is "too commercial". Unless you are doing whatever is fashionable in the "experimental" market, things tend to fall between the cracks.

The same thing happens with places such as Forced Exposure, Other Music, Aquarius, etc. in the US. You look at all the music they sell and you'd think that they'd love something completely out of the ordinary. But what they really want is experimental music that sounds like the experimental music that is already selling. Something like P. Miles Bryson is completely misunderstood, since it requires the listener to sit down and listen attentively to have an experience with it. It's the type of release that you need to listen to from beginning to end without distraction in order to appreciate. In comparison, if I was releasing microsound-ish stuff made from simple sine waves, the distributors and store buyers could instantly comprehend and classify it. There's not much depth, so you don't have worry about consumers getting lost in their quest for "adventurous" music.

Splendid: So you're trying to be more open-minded and create a place where all of this stuff can thrive together...but mainly sample-based stuff, right?

Philo: Yeah, pretty much. Sample-based stuff and other odd things we feel are somehow related.

Splendid: Speaking of Japan...I know your stuff tends to do well there. My guess is that sales are a little slower in the US, though -- am I right? What about Europe?

Philo: Right now we're not doing anything in Europe since we've had problem with distributors in the past. I'm hoping to get set up with other distributors soon. We tend to do consistently well in Japan, and in the US sales are very unpredictable.

Splendid: Why the unpredictability?

Philo: It's difficult to say. Perhaps it's because the US music machine is so large that there's a greater threshold for breaking in on even a small level.

Splendid: But things in Japan are different? Doesn't American music dominate the industry there like it does elsewhere?

Philo: It may dominate in certain spheres, but once you get into electronic or fringe music a lot of it actually comes from Europe. Our distributor primarily imports European labels.

Splendid: Do you think the audiences in Japan are less fickle? It seems that American audiences can turn on you pretty quickly; they love you one minute and you're anathema the next!

Philo: The general stereotype is that Japanese consumers are even quicker to move on to other things. If you see something you want at a store (in Japan) you probably need to buy it right away or else you may never see it again. Even entire buildings will disappear overnight and be quickly rebuilt as something new. I'm sure the same probably applies to music, but then on the other hand you'll have individuals who collect things and become obsessed with a certain type of music and may never move on to something else.

AUDIO: Steev Hise's "Remain Calm"

Splendid: So why do you do so well in Japan, then? Does the type of stuff you release just resonate better there or something?

Philo: Well, I think it is mainly due to the fact that we have a dedicated distributor in Japan. So we have somewhat of an advantage over other labels who may just import something if it happens to be a "hit". My distributor, though, will push anything we release. I should note, though, that doing well for us just means reaching the point where we can release almost anything and sell enough copies not to lose money. Our distributor in Japan has pushed us enough to buyers, that when we release something we can count on at least a certain level of sales. Part of the reason this works is that in Japan the music industry is mainly in Tokyo. You can easily just concentrate on that area and it eventually fans out to the rest of Japan. When I lived there, the distributor would even ask me to visit buyers to drop off samples of our releases. In the US, it would be much more difficult to do something like that. We can actually sell a lot more if something gets media attention in the US, but the sales are much less reliable.

Splendid: Do you think the future for IA is generally bright? Is there still a lot of potential out there for you? Do you see yourself sticking with this for a while?

Philo: I'm hoping Illegal Art will continue indefinitely. I could see it going through less active or more active phases depending on the time and resources I'm able to dedicate towards it. I'm also open to it evolving into something that I can't even imagine at this point. My main interest is simply to support art and music that exists on the fringes.

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ILLEGAL ART LINKS

Read Splendid's reviews of Corporal Blossom's A Mutated Christmas, Realistic's Private Moments, Christopher Penrose's American Jingo, P. Miles Bryson's Alejandro's Carniceria, Girl Talk's Secret Diary and, of course, Deconstructing Beck.

Visit Illegal Art's website.

Detritus.net.

RTMark.

Some Illegal Art releases (i.e. A Mutated Christmas) appear to be in Insound's database, but we can't promise anything.


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Noah Wane's action figure, designed and produced by McFarlane Toys, will be in stores in time for the holidays.

[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - "provided" by philo :: credits graphics ]

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