Shoplifting in Reverse | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Shoplifting in Reverse 

The Droplift Project: Thirty Masterworks of Audio Collage, Media Appropriation, and Other Illegal Tricks

Collage has long been an accepted form among visual artists: when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque used pieces of newspaper advertisements in their paintings, critics understood that they were commenting on consumerism and commercialization. But audio artists trying to express similar ideas through samples, assembling collages with bits and pieces from the trash heap of pop culture, face the very real possibility of getting sued. According to House Resolution 2281, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a sonic collagist is no better than the petty thief swiping a CD from a record store.

But what about someone who sneaks into a record store and leaves a CD behind? Droplifting, a trend that began in Chicago, is the opposite of shoplifting: sonic collagists, hounded by what they consider unfair copyright laws, are now stealthily placing their own CDs in stores next to titles by Madonna and 'N Sync, hoping to subvert the established avenues of music distribution. They may not cause a revolution, and they certainly won't make any money off it. But they are chipping away at archaic laws and frustrating the cupidity of the record business.

"The recording industry pursues a legal stranglehold on work which is essentially done by marginal artists and crackpots," says Tim Maloney, aka Naked Rabbit, a Los Angeles collagist and the person responsible for coordinating the Droplift Project. "There is a one-way communication, in which we are all overloaded with stimulus from the corporate owners of culture but are unable to talk back to it in any meaningful way. It's not just frustrating for those who want to talk back at it, it's bad for our culture."

The Droplift Project isn't the first to utilize guerrilla distribution tactics. According to Richard Holland, one of the leaders of the project, he and his band, Institute for Sonic Ponderance, secretly placed their CDs at Tower Records, Best Buy, and the Quaker Goes Deaf. The Droplift Project has expanded the scheme; its recent self-titled release was limited to a pressing of 1,000 copies, but through droplifting, underground radio, and the project's Web site (, its music has spread across the U.S. and Europe.

The idea was hatched over the Internet by a group of people following the lead of such sonic plunderers as Negativland ( and John Oswald, themselves the victims of lawsuits. "It began with discussions on a mailing list," says Naked Rabbit, "the 'Snuggles' list [], which is primarily dedicated to discussion of Negativland, the progenitor of all culture-jamming tape-cut units. A lot of the people on the list did their own kind of tape-manipulation music--quite a few had radio shows in which they hammered out all manner of experimental noise into the night."

Like Napster, the Droplift Project exploits the digitalization of music to challenge the status quo. The media are cheap, and the data is easy to copy, move, and manipulate. The Droplift Project: Thirty Masterworks of Audio Collage, Media Appropriation, and Other Illegal Tricks cost about $1,500. Artists who wanted to take part paid about $50 to have their tracks included, and once the project found someone to manufacture the discs (a difficult task, since the recording industry will go after manufacturers and distributors of renegade work), the rest was fairly simple. Naked Rabbit did the production, packaging, and manufacturing, and about 50 droplifters placed the discs in record stores. Naked Rabbit also sent copies to radio stations, and the whole thing is freely downloadable on the Web site.

According to Holland and Naked Rabbit, most record store proprietors are baffled when someone tries to buy the CD, which doesn't have a bar code. "Clerks either make up a price, refuse to sell it, or give it away," says Holland. To date, no one has been caught droplifting the release, something Holland and Naked Rabbit both cite as a significant achievement (one of the project's mottoes is "Don't get caught").

On the larger issue, however, Holland says the best they could hope for was heightened awareness. As Naked Rabbit puts it, "We are taking a CD made of reused cultural ephemera, cutting it up, rearranging it, and then sneaking it in to be sold alongside other cultural ephemera--some of which had been used on our CD. It is about opening up a dialogue on an artist's right to reuse cultural material in a collage, most often for criticism."

A diverse collection of 29 tracks, the CD features many identifiable samples, including a gee-whiz Wally Cleaver-ism on Project Data Control's big-beat "Blame the Media," a funny Mr. T bit on Bonefish Jam and His Power Orchestra's "Mr. T. Adventure Story," and a not-so-disguised sample from the Jane's Addiction tune "Been Caught Stealing" on Stop Children's "To the Fullest Extent of the Law." Satirical and ironic moments abound, though the funniest track is "Free Will" by Phineas Narco and Ronald Redball, which takes on God, sex, and talk radio. Listening to the disc is a lot like walking through a contemporary art museum: some of it is likable, some is downright awful, and a lot is just incomprehensible.

"I have no delusions of the project creating any sizable change," says Holland, "but if a few people are exposed to the concept, maybe other artists will start droplifting. The most important thing about any project of this sort is to make people think about the interaction of art and commerce in a new way. We are using untraditional methods to reach a traditional end."

Naked Rabbit echoes these sentiments. "It won't solve a thing. Thinking some bizarre art action on this level will solve anything is naive and ridiculous. It may start people talking, and it may let somebody out there know there are others who think in the same vein. Now, get enough of those people together, and then maybe you can change things....There must be a mutually agreeable method of allowing collage and samples in a noncommercial fashion, say, any work of art that reaps less than $10,000 in profits [is] indemnified from copyright suit."

This might seem like a reasonable compromise, but where copyright law is involved, reason doesn't always matter. For the foreseeable future, the Droplift Project will have to pursue its sneaky distribution channels, satisfied that this time around, no one got caught.

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