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The following is an article from Flak Magazine:



Jon Nelson couldn't resist dropping in to his local Best Buy last November to see if copies of a compilation CD his work appeared on had been bought up yet. Not unusual behavior for a small-time musician with some time to kill, but there was a twist: In August, Nelson had surreptitiously deposited these CDs in the store's bins, along with a bin divider he'd designed to resemble those provided for Best Buy's legitimate merchandise. Three months later, when he returned to the store, Nelson wasn't just checking back out of self-interest; he was extending his participation in an act of conceptual art that amounted to the countercultural inverse of shoplifting. What happened next, he knew, would depend upon a combination of consumers' whim and management's oft-improvised "store policy" response.

Under the name Escape Mechanism, Jon Nelson is part of the Droplift Project, an alliance of 30 audio collage artists, who assemble their work from samples of pop culture (ad jingles, newscasts, movie dialogue and mainstream music ranging from The Spice Girls to, almost too appropriately, Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing"). The artists, with the aid of down-with-the-cause volunteers, sneak — or "droplift" — their eponymous compilation CD into stores where audio collage doesn't exactly corner the market.

The term "droplifting" was coined by project collaborator Richard Holland of Turntable Trainwreck, who first tried it as a means of promoting his erstwhile band The Institute for Sonic Ponderance several years ago in Chicago. A droplifter covertly leaves his CDs in chain record stores like Best Buy or Tower, with the desired, if unlikely, outcome being that Jane or Joe Consumer will happen upon the SKU-free Droplift Project amidst familiar pop product and attempt to purchase it, thereby prompting a confused response from the cashier. What do I ring this as? Where'd it come from, anyway? It's, like, not in the computer. Hey boss? Equally baffled management may send the shopper away with the alien item for free, or quickly "legitimize" it with a price sticker and a listing in the store's inventory database.

Either way, it doesn't much matter to the Droplift Project whether money changes hands. The goal is, initially, the act of planting the CD in an ostensibly unwelcome retail environment, and ultimately, to have it heard by virgin ears. In an interview with Adbusters, Nelson described it as "a performance as subversive as it is absurd."

Skeptics, however, may be tempted to reverse the order of that statement. Droplifting's absurdist nature somewhat compromises its subversive intent: While it nobly and cleverly seeks recognition for an art form that's locked in the basement by copyright laws and corporate distribution, the Droplift Project's chosen M.O.— albeit conceptually airtight when you consider it as culturally critical performance art and not as a way to gain exposure for sound collage — almost ensures the art form's continued marginalization, and offers little substantive threat to the industry and laws that it critiques. Droplift's mission may, in fact, be most effectively furthered by the media coverage its practitioners received largely through an old-school strategy: The dissemination of press releases and review copies.

"We are not doing this just to be a pack of bastards," their very comprehensive FAQ states bluntly. "Droplifting is a stunt, but it is a serious one." Conceived as an "art-response" to archaic copyright laws that at best offer a "legal gray area" governed by the fair-use provision, and at worst censor and criminalize the art of audio collage, Droplift, its practitioners would argue, should be understood as more than a subversive distribution detour for artists working in an obscure medium, and more than an innocuous prank: It's an ongoing, multi-site performance piece with a media-activist's voice of protest.

"(Copyright law) is especially damaging to sound art works which would 'quote' existing material in a way that is transformative — such as in criticism, comment, or satire — the same way that a filmmaker 'steals' a shot from a master, or a writer reprints a poet's verse at the start of a chapter," the Droplift Guide says.

About a thousand copies of The Droplift Project were originally pressed, 500 to 600 of which project organizer Joe Scagnetti estimates were droplifted. Each of the initial 30-odd participants received around 20 copies of the pressed CD to droplift as he or she saw fit in hometowns all across the States, and remaining copies were sent out to publicity before the initial drop.

As for subsequent downloads of the CD from the website, Scagnetti guesses that most of these are "for personal listening and curiosity, rather than droplifting. We have no real way of (counting) how many burned CD-R copies have been and are being droplifted, but if I had to guess I'd put it under a few hundred. This can't account for random, rogue droplifters who burn 50 of their own copies for a single city, and you never know what kind of rich, crazy freaks are out there!"

The Droplift Project features 29 audio collage tracks, at least one of which features a sample — in this case less an illegal snippet than a subtle homage — from the όber-culture-jammers Negativland, which has been creatively undermining record industry praxis and product for over 20 years. The group's listserv, Snuggles, has long been a favored site of discussion about culturally subversive sound art and media appropriation, and it was here, in 1999, that the Droplift Project was conceived — contemporaneous with the explosion of the file-swapping free-for-all popularized by Napster and other file-swapping services.

Negativland's oeuvre, which, in addition to recordings, includes extensive writings on fair use and lawsuit-cred (they were sued in 1991 for, among other things, illegally sampling U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"), set a key precedent for the Droplift Project. Members of Negativland have since spoken supportively of the art protest. Don Joyce, a member of the collective, told Adbusters that "It's an extremely rare example of music entering the realm of conceptual art — it's an almost perfect integration of content, medium, and point made."

If you have access to a small arsenal of high-tech reproduction devices — computer, CD burner, color printer and a few empty jewel cases — you too can become a Droplift "operative." All 29 tracks, full liner notes and cover art, which consists of a full-color, two-page booklet and tray card are available on the group's website, which also has a step-by-step guide to the process.

One of the first things the guide explains is why hipster record stores are not an appropriate Droplift site: "It simply isn't necessary ... in the mall, we see a different story. Big corporate superstore chains are the kinds of structures that are destroying the tiny chance a small release has anyway, so they become the perfect target for Droplifting. The happy drones at a place like this would sooner wet themselves than actually make a decision about something not in the company handbook, especially accepting new music from a place other than a big corporate entertainment conglomerate."

The Droplift Project's appeal stems in part from its rare relationship to constraints of time and space: It seamlessly integrates the Web's freedom from those dimensions with the intimacy and immediacy they lend "real life" action. Launched entirely in a virtual community by some 50 individuals, most of whom had never met face-to-face, Droplift is the quintessential Web-based, non-hierarchical, non-geographically-restricted collaboration of which online community advocates speak fervently. The website — most notably the thorough and well-organized links page — is, for the curious initiate, a wide-open portal to the world of found sound, experimental audio, anti-consumer culture pranks, and intellectual-property dialogues. This kind of art owes a great deal to the Internet and digital technologies in general.

At the same time, the Droplift Project remains charmingly engaged with tangible, local communities. It touches down in the physical world every time an operative slips a batch of freshly burned CDs out of his baggy pants and into a climate-controlled chain store's inventories. Though born "in all places simultaneously, on the e-mail list," as collaborator and Los Angeles-based artist Tim Maloney (aka Naked Rabbit) puts it, the project relies very much on the direct actions and reactions of individual pranksters-with-conscience in diverse physical locations.

The website's message board is the best vantage point from which to view to project's advances, though much of the posts focus on technical troubleshooting ("I can't listen to the tracks with Real Player; help!") and queries as to whether any droplifts have occurred in one's hometown, rather than "check back" stories like Jon Nelson's. His post entertainingly describes three experiences he and his girlfriend had when they posed as unwitting Droplift Project buyers, and as such it comically suggests the range of Droplift outcomes. Of his first check-back, he writes, "Eventually, we were approached confidently by the manager who told us that the disc was 9.99, and the clerk was given a code to ring it up as. Not knowing an appropriate response to this obvious lie, we paid for the disc (italics added) and left. (Yes, I felt very stupid.)"

In another scenario, Nelson, attempting to 'fess up, failed to convince management that the CD was supposed to be free. "We even gave him the Droplift web address. A week later, we contacted him and were again told that after extensive deliberation, they were still convinced that the disc had been separated from its box set and could not be sold. It was going to be sent back to the warehouse."

For the retail workers I spoke to, renegade CDs were less a pricing conundrum than a small nuisance or curiosity. When asked what would happen to a droplifted CD in the Best Buy nearest me, a team member said it definitely couldn't be sold, as it lacked the all-important SKU tag. He shrugged. "It'd end up in the back room, and we'd try to figure out where it came from." As for the Droplift Project, he'd never heard of it. Ditto for a manager at Tower Records in Chicago's Loop, who said that he'd probably give away any product that didn't have a SKU and wasn't listed in the store's database.

Perhaps for Droplifting to succeed fully as conceptual art, more participants should return to the sites of their original prank, feign ignorance, and recount this "prank, part 2" online, as Nelson did. Such field notes bring the project full circle. The tactic seems every bit as useful as waiting for strangers to pick up the CDs themselves and — as Droplifters get to see the results of their actions — all the more worthwhile.

While there's no Droplift Project II in the pipeline at this time, a related CD compilation will focus on manipulation of commercial text. It's coordinated by Jay Kennedy, of The Button and will be called "Free Speech for Sale." The deadline for submissions was April 1, but interested text-manipulators with work to share can still inquire via Free Speech for Sale or by e-mailing jay@pressthebutton.com.

E-mail Susannah Felts at hannasusj@hotmail.com.