The YouTube DJ cutting up copyright

Kutiman has become an Internet sensation with his mash-up tracks and videos culled from YouTube clips.
"I am new … I am new …"

There is indeed something new about Kutiman’s approach to making music: all his songs, and the accompanying videos, have been painstakingly — and brilliantly — clipped together from YouTube clips of disparate, mostly amateur musicians. The source material for his songs is often rather pedestrian: a sidewalk rapper, a school concert, or a how-to video from some guitarist in his bedroom. But there’s considerable talent and creativity in the way it’s all been mixed together to create new music. Kutiman, who’s real name is Ophir Kutiel, was until quite recently as obscure as his source material. How he attained Internet fame over the past month is nearly as interesting — and revealing of the times — as his album. Kutiman, now 27, says he spent much of his childhood in northern Israel, where he was largely isolated from music and culture. Eventually he moved to Tel Aviv, where he was blown away by a sudden exposure to all kinds of sounds — not just the latest performers, but also artists like James Brown. “I’m still amazed by all this amazing music,” he says. He started producing albums for local artists, and then his mind was blown yet again, this time by YouTube. “The thing about YouTube that’s beautiful is anybody now can sit at their home and just play and do his thing, even if it’s not music,” he says. “I’ve learned so many things from YouTube, even cooking.” He dived deep into this world, gaining an appreciation along the way for ordinary people sharing all kinds of things with the world. This appreciation, combined with his love of music, led him to create ThruYOU. All he needed, he says, was a Net connection, a computer, Vegas Pro video editing software — and an ashtray. Working from his tiny home in Tel Aviv, it took him about two months of searching and mixing to create the album. “I really did my best to find ordinary people like myself sitting at their home,” he says. It shows. Kutiman’s videos have a fashionably amateur feel to them, even while it’s clear they’ve been produced by an unusually talented mixer. Of course sampling is nothing new. It wasn’t even new in the early 1980’s when Brian Eno and David Byrne released their album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” drawing from all sorts of unusual audio sources, including an exorcist and a frying pan. And all sorts of mash-up artists mix from professional talent.

Don’t Miss
Thru You

Switching on to the Tenori-on

Brazil radio tunes up old media

But now there’s YouTube, where regular people have uploaded hordes of amateur musical and audio material from which to sample. One can do a search on “drums,” for instance, and check out one related video after another until something perfect crops up. In early March, Kutiman posted ThruYOU and told a few friends about it, asking them not to share it until he worked out a few tweaks. But another thing was about to blow his mind: the speed with which word gets out in the age of Twitter and Facebook. The site struggled to cope with a sudden onslaught of visitors, and Kutiman found himself catapulted out of obscurity. In the past few weeks he’s been widely lauded in mainstream media outlets, blogs, and comments sections of sites like MySpace. “I didn’t expect it to blow up so big and so fast,” he says. More was yet to come. Kutiman soon became a poster child in the legal world for those who argue that current copyright laws make no sense in the Internet era. Chief among them is book author and Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who blogs about ThruYOU: “If you come to the Net armed with the idea that the old system of copyright is going to work just fine here, this more than anything is going to get you to recognize: you need some new ideas.” Kutiman did not ask permission to use the material he mixed. “I thought it would be more fun if they find out for themselves,” he says of the YouTubers from whom he borrowed material. Some of them have since contacted him, he says, but so far it’s usually to say how flattered they are and how much they like the work. He’s hoping no legal troubles will arise. Almost certainly he will inspire others to do similar things. There are hordes of crowd-generated material — not just music-related YouTube clips — from which to draw. Remarkably, all of this has happened to him in the space of about a month. Today he’s trying hard to just stay focused on his current project: producing an album for an Israeli artist. He notes that he’s making no money off ThruYOU. But he is, he admits, getting lots of attention that could help him down the road. Not that he’s not about to be typecast as a YouTube DJ. “I really want to do all kinds of things,” he says, “not just one project that got the world’s attention.”