Negativland learned the hard way: Actively subverting the pop music establishment can make it rain lawyers.
The Bay Area foursome has been sued twice in the past 18 months, but if members are eager to put those woes behind them, it wasn't evident at an appearance Thursday at Bogart's in Long Beach. The rare live show, closer to performance art than a typical pop concert, constantly came back to the band's legal entanglements and the larger issues behind them.
Negativland uses appropriated snippets of speech, song and commercial advertising in building complex soundscapes that operate as media satire and commentary. The sonic equivalent of collage, the technique falls into a gray area of federal copyright laws, but the band was apparently beneath the notice of corporate legal types for the first 11 years of its existence.
That changed dramatically in the fall of 1991, when Negativland released a 15-minute single on SST Records titled "U2" that parodied "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and included outtakes of disc jockey Casey Kasem cursing his underlings while fumbling through an introduction of the U2 song for his "American Top 40" program.
The CD cover, with "U2" displayed prominently, caught the attention of attorneys at Island Records, which was getting ready to release "Achtung Baby." Even though fewer than 8,000 copies of the Negativland record were shipped, Island later said it feared that buyers would confuse it with the coming U2 album (which went on to sell 295,000 copies in its first week of release).
That's when, in band member Mark Hosler's words, "someone turned on the lawyer faucet." Island obtained a temporary restraining order against the record and went on to sue for copyright infringement (music publisher Warner/Chappell joined the action). It could have been a classic David and Goliath story, with a giant record label trying to squash a fringe band that had never sold more than 15,000 records, but this time Goliath won.
The giant came away bloodied, though, at least in image. The media picked up the story, painting U2 as the bad guys, although they reportedly had nothing to do with initiating the action.
"They're not directly responsible for what happened," Hosler said from his Contra Costa County home last week, although he says the record label should have realized a lawsuit would reflect badly on the band.
Pressed by the bad publicity, Island settled with SST, but that's when things got really complicated. SST pressed Negativland to come up with the full $90,000 in legal fees incurred in the case, citing a contract clause under which the band took legal responsibility for the contents of its recordings. Negativland proposed a 50/50 split, public finger-pointing followed, and the band got sued a second time, this time by SST.
That suit, scheduled to go to trial next spring, came shortly after the band published a 96-page book called "The Letter U and the Numeral 2," which reproduces the original lawsuit as well as all the correspondence that ensued. (The funniest bit: a reproduction of an interview with the Edge in Mondo 2000, in which the unsuspecting U2 guitarist was ambushed by Negativland members who asked for a $20,000 loan. He laughingly declined.
Overall, it's a fascinating document, one that amply supports Hosler's contention that the music industry is dominated by corporate lawyers.
"We put out the book because there's no way we could trust the media to relay the tale," Hosler said. "You get to see up close how dirty and stupid it all is."
At Bogart's, the last show of its tour, Negativland performed the "U2" song and other works relating to the case, often with U2 concert footage projected onto the stage. The appropriated snippets are recorded on tape "carts" of the type used by radio stations, played DJ-style by Chris Grigg; Hosler and Don Joyce added guitars, keyboards and occasional vocals, mostly for atmospheric effect. Fourth member David Wills, a.k.a. "the Weatherman," appeared only on videotape.
While the U2 obsession sometimes veered close to portraying a band with a serious martyr complex, the final effect was a very funny and trenchant media spoof that drove home a political point near to the band's heart: The members want to broaden the interpretation of the Fair Use Doctrine of federal copyright laws to allow sampling of recorded materials for parody or commentary.
"We've been using bits and pieces of the media as long as we've been around. . . . The bits and pieces that we use are our choices of color, our palette," Hosler said last week.
Getting prior permission for each piece of appropriated material is impractical when up to 100 sources might be culled for a single musical piece, Hosler said. But he says he feels strongly enough about the form to forge ahead.
The band considers the samples part of the pervasive cultural environment and thus fair game for comment. Besides, it's what the members like to do. "I don't understand why people spend so much time doing love songs," Hosler said. "There are enough of those."
A newly released album, "Free," is again heavy in appropriated samples. The album is a pointed critique of America's celebrated freedom, born in the band's disgust over the Persian Gulf War. Sometimes devastating, sometimes hilarious, often both, the album anchors the usual sound bites to minimal musical touches, primarily keyboards and percussion.
While the U2 controversy didn't affect the recording of the new album--it was in the works before the legal actions started--Hosler wonders if the hassles and the lawsuits will have a chilling effect on future efforts, forcing the group to disband because it can't afford the legal fight for art and justice.