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ccMixter: The new generation of openness and remixing (An interview with Victor Stone)

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In 2004, WIRED magazine’s November issue featured a CD with Creative Commons licensed music by Beastie Boys, My Morning Jacket, David Byrne, Chuck D and others, music which was also hosted on a new website, called ccMixter is a project supported by Creative Commons and more specifically Lucas Gonze, Neeru Paharia and Mike Linksvayer. Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to making it easier for people to share and remix their work with others, providing free licenses and relevant legal tools for the authors creative work and for others to share and remix.

The creator and soul of ccMixter is Victor Stone, a musician that started working as an independent contractor for when it was first envisioned and is still leading the whole initiative. ccMixter is a music remixing community website featuring samples and remixes licensed under a Creative Commons license. The goal of ccMixter was to ‘drive adoption of the cc licenses with musicians in the same way they have been embracing other publishing media such as blogs and photography and to provide a concrete example of the benefits of free wheeling re-use’ in Victor Stone’s words from his ccMixter memoirs.

Nearly 5 years later, ccMixter is one of the most successful CC projects in many different ways; it has managed to be sustainable with little or no funding; its members, musicians from all walks of life, have produced thousands of pieces of music under CC license which are now available for anyone, anywhere to use and remix; award winning artists have flocked to the site to have their music remixed by other musicians; and it has a community that is open and shareable.

So, how did Fourstones (Victor Stones name on ccMixter) do it? How did he get musicians to upload tracks, original tracks, free for anyone to use and remix? How did he get them involved into the remix culture? And what can we learn from ccMixter's success about openness and remixing in education?

I interviewed Victor Stone a couple of days ago when he was in Berlin. He is a very humble, intelligent, knowlegeable and sweet person who has impacted many people in so many ways, including myself. It was very clear for me from the beginning why Victor has succeeded in creating such a collaborative and creative community. It is really very simple. He shares the same values as his ccMixters about making great music and he cares about each and everyone of these artists. He is the soul of ccMixter and it was an honour to interview him.

Elpida Makriyannis: Hi Victor, thank you very much for this. So, how did the idea for ccMixter start? I am aware that ccMixter founders Neeru Paharia and Lucas Gonze talked to you about this idea. But how did you feel about creating an online music site?

Victor Stone: I was uploading to ACID Planet starting in 1998 and it was generally an unpleasant experience with lots of "in fighting" and old style BBS "wars". I always said if I had a chance to do an online music site it would be civil without the chance to graffiti other people's profile pages.

EM: How did you achieve that?

VS We set a standard for civility early - occasionally people would want to get nasty (mainly at me - which is fine) but we would always come back with "Look around... we don't do that here" and people faded away. On rare occasions we would ban folks who used the word 'fag' or other derogatory term. We had a near zero tolerance for any of that - one offense and you have one chance to apologize. If you don't, you're gone.

EM: Was that done in a public way for other users to see? Was that part of your role as a moderator?

VS Semi public, semi private (depended on the context). And yes, with me and community (through 'flagging') as moderator.

EM: In your ccMixter memoirs you say ‘how I learned…’, do you feel that this has been a learning process for you and how so?

VS: It's hard to summarize everything I've learned - about myself, about the creative process, about the Web...

EM: How did artists initially start to participate?

VS: Creative Commons and WIRED publicized the contest and people showed up - blogosphere stuff really. Writes up BoingBoing, Slashdot, etc.

EM: What do you think ticked them to say 'ok, yes, I don't mind for someone else to have free access to the music I create and they can even remix it'

As a reply Victor sends me a quote by Nine Inch Nails creator and composer Trent Reznor)

From Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)

If you are an unknown / lesser-known artist trying to get noticed / established:

* Establish your goals. What are you trying to do / accomplish? If you are looking for mainstream super-success (think Lady GaGa, Coldplay, U2, Justin Timberlake) - your best bet in my opinion is to look at major labels and prepare to share all revenue streams / creative control / music ownership. To reach that kind of critical mass these days your need old-school marketing muscle and that only comes from major labels. Good luck with that one.

If you're forging your own path, read on.

* Forget thinking you are going to make any real money from record sales. Make your record cheaply (but great) and GIVE IT AWAY. As an artist you want as many people as possible to hear your work. Word of mouth is the only true marketing that matters.

EM:  Do you feel that openness has made people want to participate in this remixing culture?

VS: Open and lax licensing has “enabled” remixing culture. Deriving/remixing/borrowing/stealing are all a natural state in the arts. It's how expression happens so artists are always looking for tools that make that part of the process as frictionless as possible.

EM: ccHost is also such a tool, do you feel that it has helped in this process?

VS: We wanted to spread the CC licensing of content as far and wide as possible so we were hoping musicians would install ccHost to host their own music or start mini-communities. As it turns out, musicians are flocking to where other musicians are (Last.FM, MySpace, etc.) These large social networks (and ccMixter to a degree) have defined what it means to be a musician online in 2009 -- so in the end, ccHost hasn't really been all that necessary. It's still nice to have the site open source so people can know that our transparency is total.

EM: How did you get well-known artists to participate?

VS: They show up

EM: They do?

VS: Yeah, we've solicited very few people - we haven't spent a single penny on advertising or promotion or marketing or any kind of solicitation. Especially in the last 3 years.

EM: Why do you think that well-known artists turned up to ccMixter?

VS: I'm not a marketing person so I don't have a clue how any of that viral stuff actually works. I see my job as to project the music out there into the world - to make it visible to video makers and podcasters - but I don't generally go after specific artists.

EM: What is ccMixter giving musicians that they can’t find elsewhere?

VS: I think that's the whole 'mixversation'/unexpected distributed collaboration/sample pool thing - that approach seems to be unique and we don't put up with people for whom 'fag' rolls off the tounge

EM: What happens if someone brings out an original track and then he doesn’t like how it is remixed? Have you had such issues?

VS: They whine to me. I tell them to be patient and wait - if a 'pell is good, it will get 10 remixes that completely suck - off tempo, bad key, etc. They will get 30 that are pretty good, something you play around the house. And you'll get 10 that BLOW YOU AWAY and wonder how you ever got so lucky. If the singer is good, this pattern repeats itself over and over again.

EM: Do they follow this advice?

VS: For the most part. I think we've one or two singers in five years that just yanked their original pell off the site. That's out of 1,700+

EM: The last few years you have had a lot of great artists coming out of ccMixter, how do you feel about that?

VS: Well, the music kind of speaks for itself. I do a regular podcast where I highlight the music that I personally like - I don't do a lot of chatter on the show, I just assume the music itself will say what I'm feeling.

EM: You also organised the CCMixter Secret Summer this year, would you like to talk to me about that?

VS: Yeah, that feature came about from the community a few years ago based on the common practice in offices (in the US anyway) called "secret Santa" where everybody buys a gift for a person in secret. The first 5 of these were put together directly in the forums: people sign up, get assignments in the mail and then remix in secret. Then we all upload our remixes on the same day. It turned out to be such a freaking popular feature I finally automated the process officially and we had the biggest secret mix-off ever. We are hoping/planning to do another one starting in October.

EM: Did many new musicians also participate?

VS: It was a big turn out with lots of first time in a mix-off. We actually turned several away because they didn't have enough material for others to remix.

EM: In your memoirs you say 'Hyde explains ''the people are free, the ideas are locked away'''. How do you feel that ccMixter has ‘unlocked’ some ideas?

VS: The ideas locked away he was talking about were scientific findings that were being patented and not shared (if I'm remembering the context correctly).

EM: Exactly.

VS: The same applies to music that is All Rights Reserved and not available for derivation and sharing.

EM: What do you feel makes an artist remix another artist’s work?

VS: It's just "making music".

EM: Which tracks do you feel get remixed more?

VS: Women who sound sexy (breathy, more air in the notes) will get remixed more often than anything - by far.

EM: hmmm very interesting. I am wondering if that could apply in academic work. (laughs)

VS: Could be a tip how to make a paper more popular. Just sayin... (laughs)

EM: You see the problem is that academics are reluctant in freely distributing their work and remixing each other's work. So, I would like to see what would motivate them.

VS: Academics don't quote each other? Don't derive ideas from combining old ones in new ways? I don't buy it.

EM: You are absolutely right. Wanna come and persuade them about that?

VS: 'Remixing' is just 'making music' - it is no more derivative than any other form of music - and no, I got my hands full with traumatized musicians - but thanks for asking. So the lesson they need to learn is "get over yourself".

EM: What do you think makes artists in ccMixter be so open about their work and freely distribute it under a CC license on ccMixter?


VS: See the Trent quote above - it's because these musicians get it. see also the "on copying" section of the paper. The Internet is a copy machine - it's a natural state of the thing. Denying that, is akin to feeling oppressed because, as a blacksmith, your business is being trampled by these new fangled auto-mobiles. Get over the fact that horseshoes are yesterday's technology and start figuring out how to leverage the natural 'copy state' of the new machine.

EM: Has ccMixter turned out the way you initially planned?

VS: It exceeded my hopes. I happen to very proud of what the community has produced.

EM: Being part of the ccMixter community, I understand exactly what you mean. Thank you very much for this chat Victor, it has been like looking for treasure and discovering much much more.

VS: Heh, no problem.

EM: Have a great time in Berlin!

If you are interested in listening to, sampling, mashing-up, or interacting with music in whatever way you want, ccMixter is the place to be.