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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Splendid: I agree, I think a lot of political art these days has become
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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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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 ]