Oh Yes, Oh Yes… Oh No!: Carl Cox, a Boombox, and Atlanta’s Music Room

“There is no protection for artists, but there is no protection for anyone,” writes William Mitchell, the Atlanta artist whose work was lifted and featured in Carl Cox’s recent social media marketing effort for his Global Radio show, without credit. There is protection, but for those not versed or interested in legalities [(cough) artists dealing in idealism and imagination], it certainly often feels pointless. Culturally, people have a hard time bridging the divide between the online and physical worlds. If you were to lift a framed piece of artwork — and someone recently did from another Atlanta venue, Noni’s — there would be outrage and you’d be labeled a thief. In that instance, a creative punishment such as being forced to work tirelessly in crafting your own version of the painting, only to have it burned later, Sisyphus style, was suggested alongside dramatic and fairly insensitive remarks like: “I hope he gets type 2 diabeetus [sic],” “I hope their sex-parts shrivel up and fall off,” “I would love if their freedom and rights are stripped away from them for the rest of their lives,” or “can’t we just publicly flog them?”

Hey, some people just need a good excuse to sound off. But if you were to take a picture of it and upload that online, no harm done, right? It’s just the internet and social media, a real cultural Wild Wild West, if you will. As long as it’s not for commercial purposes, there really aren’t any damages to account for, but being a decent human being you should probably still credit and provide context for how and why this artwork was available to you in the first place — that just makes for good sharing anyways. And hardly any creation is truly original these days, so leaving this information out isn’t fooling anyone. New York author Gladstone wrote an article titled “3 Excuses Online Plagiarists Need to Stop Making” in which one particular paragraph stands out. “But in fairness to the thieves, they simply might not get it, because it’s not just social media they see differently; it’s life. They don’t understand that anything you care about, and work to make good, matters, because the lazy and talentless see no value in labor. And though I think it’s typically a cheap dodge to say ‘relax,’ they might be out of touch with the kind of work necessary to create something worthy of theft, and therefore out of touch with the anger that comes from that violation.”

This is how you wind up with someone who is more angry at us for pointing out the thievery than the ones stealing from their peers. Commenting on the situation, we were instantly called unprofessional for pointing out the thievery and standing up for the smaller artist’s rights. Maybe that’s what makes this piece important, besides holding our industry accountable and highlighting a dedicated Atlanta cultural venue, it will help explain the complexity of what’s really going on and all the dynamics at play, in something as seemingly benign as an Instagram post. What if the artistic work is appropriated for commercial use though? Then there’s possibly a pot of gold at the end of the legal action rainbow, as you’ve just violated the money clause in the four prongs of copyright law, in which the specifics of every case must be run through the fair use gauntlet with the hopes that it doesn’t fail too spectacularly.

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

[source: 17 U.S.C. § 107]

I’m not a lawyer or well-versed in copyright law, so my advice would be seek it elsewhere from someone who is (like Atlanta’s Lee Morin), but Carl Cox’s response to how his case fairs against these rules — an absolute failure by the way — would not be his standard “oh yes, oh yes!” But more along the lines of “oh no, oh no!” Thankfully, the big man himself probably doesn’t even have a clue about what’s going on with his social media to begin with. A quick rundown: (1) adding the Carl Cox and the Global Radio branding to the work seems to serve a commercial purpose, and excluding any information about the Music Room doesn’t certainly doesn’t scream educational. (2) the signage is original art and is published in a permanent, fixed form, creative works such as this are definitely protected under common law and capable of being registered more formally. (3) all of it was lifted, this was a copy and paste effort, they didn’t even take the photo themselves or change a damn thing. (4) if the Music Room were to so choose, the venue’s artwork could be a business in and of itself through licensing. This storefront was created to distinguish the venue, it’s giving it landmark status in the eye of the public; every Tom, Dick, and Harry claiming it as their own definitely devalues its purpose and the original cost of the labor

These kinds of problems are nothing new for Mitchell. “I have my work constantly re-appropriated because I paint signs that have no signatures and murals that are accessible for the public,” he says. Even though the sign was only commissioned a year ago, it’s not the first time the Music Room‘s image has been used without permission either. Speaking over the phone, you can hear the excitement in owner Keiran Neely’s voice whenever he talks about the piece, even in its misuse. On the surface, he sees it all as flattery, and rightfully so, brushing off the biters with, “Clearly we’re doing something right.” Budweiser had previously included the storefront in a commercial (:07) with multiple, longstanding Atlanta landmarks. “They featured a video shot of Little Five Points, a video shot of the Majestic, a video shot of Turner Field, and a video shot of the boombox, so the Music Room entrance was featured in a montage of Atlanta institutions, destinations, and places that have been there for years and years and years — and we hadn’t even been there for six months and they included us.” But Keiran knew he had something right from the start when the completed piece immediately made its way front and center on a Reddit thread that would garner 600,000 views. And ever since its creation, people have been knocking down the Music Room’s front door on Twitter. Now, add to that list Carl Cox’s combined 1.5 million fans.

It’s a terrible thing, agreed, but this is America. It’s not France or some culturally sentimental place. —William Mitchell, Owner, Squared Away Signs

What began as an onsite marketing idea has definitely translated well over into the digital realm, but at a cost of $12k, it certainly didn’t come cheap. This storefront was created to distinguish the venue, it’s giving it landmark status in the eye of the public; every Tom, Dick, and Harry claiming it as their own definitely devalues its purpose and the original cost of the labor. William Mitchell is one of Atlanta’s top sign painters, having designed murals for companies like Coca-Cola and Sweetwater, but Keiran wanted the best and, for a living piece of artwork, it was worth the price. When he took over the building in May of 2014, Keiran knew the plans for a street car coming to Edgewood Avenue and felt the need for a clever visual device to attract riders’ attention. “I’m standing outside one day with my business partner and I was like, ‘What can we do with this?'” As a DJ for over twenty years, he’s carried with him an appreciation for analog and is a self-proclaimed speaker geeker. It’s no surprise then that his epiphany was to fill all the windows with a larger than life boombox, “The holy spirit came to me one afternoon.” Mitchell’s old school playback device compliments the space’s vinyl record bar top and the Music Room’s overall dedication to the roots of dance music, the boombox being an iconic symbol for breakers and anybody who was obsessed with sound in those days.

the Music Room's front
The Music Room is fast becoming infamous for its boombox front. Photo provided by owner Keiran Neely.

Speaking from the vantage point of a sign painter and muralist, William Mitchell completely nails the same dilemma that much of the DJ world is facing today. “The business community is completely intolerant of any artistic compensation, because artists are treated like prostitutes, if we get difficult or complicated, the john moves on to the next prostitute that will let him abuse her. It’s a terrible thing, agreed, but this is America. It’s not France or some culturally sentimental place.” We definitely have a cultural problem here in America, the land of the free… to infringe upon everyone else’s rights. Despite a recent wave of challenges involving street art and intellectual property, when I mention mine, and the larger community’s, disappointment in no real legal precedent ever being set due to the artists always settling out of court — instances like Miami’s Aholsniffsglue run in with American Eagle Outfitters — Mitchell explains, “But it’s a cultural mindset problem that is too deep to penetrate with lawsuits. Also, Carl Cox is an artist who probably gets his work stolen even more than me. If I sue someone, it will likely be a business that is not an individual artist like me.” He’s right, the artist’s place is not in court. Aholsniffsglue went from excitement about setting a precedent, according to a statement made to South Florida’s NBC 6 by Ahol and the gallery that represents him, during the heat of summer to telling the Miami New Times after settlement by the dead of winter, “I’m just glad the case is over. It’s been a burden on me, but I finally woke up this morning free from all that stress.”

The problem with having sympathy for Carl Cox as an artist, as opposed to AE as a company, is that his “brand” has distanced itself from the arts and become just as much of a business as anything else. It’s not just Cox either, this dynamic of well-oiled machines replacing artistic ownership and integrity is something the industry is currently reeling from (something we covered previously through the insights of Mr. C here). Keiran mentions a recent Luke Solomon Facebook post on the subject that ironically received a lot of attention.

In it, Solomon inhales the smoke and shatters the mirrors behind the major dance music artists as we know them today. He rails that the wheels have long since spun right off the decks and landed underneath massive, un-circumvent-able PR vehicles, that it’s less about the records in rotation — the work of an individual DJ — and more about the media spin — an increasingly team effort. Fast becoming a common sentiment, Solomon states, “The music has become such a secondary part of the majority of these careers, mostly without the DJ’s even being aware of it.” He then summarizes his rant by dialing up some questionable statistics, “99 percent PR — 1 percent music.” A point to which Keiran agrees, “These days, the success of the DJ is more contingent on the quality of their marketing than it is on the DJ themselves.” I mention that the culture surrounding this music is supposed to be much more based around idealism than what it has become, to which he responds, “To be perfectly honest, it’s an industry to create experiences for people and, what once came up as this utopian idea for an amazing experience on the dance floor has turned into nothing but an industry and a business now, you know. I hate to say it.”

What the world knows today as global club culture has certainly grown up since its starting point as a sanctuary for still somewhat — at least socially considered — second-class citizens or its rave days of being diabolized by dilated pupils. A proper industry is something many worked very hard for, and most who stake their claim at the top have been vocal about and very proud of; just look to interviews with Frankie Knuckles, Judy Weinstein, and the Def Mix crew. That’s why Keiran’s remarks hold a hint of reservation about being completely jaded, but things have certainly changed. “Now that I’m consumed by the industry as an operator of a music venue myself, I bump into people, work with people all the time, where the business comes first, ‘How am I going to collect the check?’ And then the party comes second.”

What once came up as this utopian idea for an amazing experience on the dance floor has turned into nothing but an industry and a business now, you know. I hate to say it. —Keiran Neely, Owner, Music Room

When Luke Solomon notes that, “With an incredible team, you can create an entire career and sustain it — much like politicians have been doing for years.” The burning question is can you also damage it? Or do we forgive getting caught playing the political game and throw the campaign staff under the bus? With the amount of money he has flowing in (estimates go from a cool $15 million, to an outlandish $275 figure), Carl Cox pays people to do much of his busy work for him and, as Keiran states regarding the Music Room, “They really didn’t do their homework.” The size of Cox’s team specifically became clear after firing off an email to his publicist for comment; the exchange went from Steve at EMMS Publicity to another Steve serving as manager at Safehouse, and finally wound up at the media company Vice with Nick, who is part of a “team” that runs Carl Cox’s social media. He gave a sincere apology and offered two solutions: to credit the photo or delete it, asking me which I’d prefer — confusing because I have nothing to do with the artwork or the venue.

This kind of system is meant to help artists focus on their artistry, but what’s an artist that’s so disconnected from the people that make him the success he is? A bit dull and, in this case, a victim to the middlemen. “I don’t think that Carl would ever — I mean, who knows…” Keiran wonders before coming to terms with his more serious doubts that Carl Cox has even the slightest to do with it. Listening to him give his mock interpretation of what goes on behind the scenes gives a real dopey sense to the kind of handling that might be happening. “He probably doesn’t even care. I mean, he does care, because he’s been told he needs to care, you know? Like, ‘This is important Carl, take a picture. Okay, come on Carl, we need you to look great on social media. Okay Carl, get your makeup done so you can look good in your Ibiza TV shoots.'” A mistake like this does reflect on the very image that the Carl Cox team are trying to protect. “It’s a whole package and then this comes out [laughs]. It makes him look like a fool, right? He’s clearly devalued his own brand in a sense,” Kiran says before clarifying, “It’s not him personally, I really don’t think it is.” It’s still extremely rich considering the brand has made viral waves off of the pseudo-intellectual sounding quote-featuring images of Carl Cox railing on how the industry is being spoiled by this or that, and people not prioritizing or focusing on the music first.

With such a fast paced newsfeed cycle on social networks like Facebook or Instagram, responding days later with a question posed to the wrong person is another blunder of the bumbling bureaucracy. Deleting it does absolutely nobody any good, unless they’re operating out of spite. Unsure of the position between two parties I was suddenly in, not previously having ever had communications with either the owner or the artist, I easily found both of their emails on the web (count me as one of those rare people who know how to use Google I guess) and forwarded the email to the actual parties it involved. Keiran noticed and that’s when we set up a phone conversation, where he explained how things went from there, “I basically said to them, I’m not trying to cause a stink, but I just want to make sure we’re credited for this, that’s all.” But creating a fix that’s finalized only after almost a week has passed is simply the basic common courtesy that was owed in the first place and not really a reparation.

It also begs the question that if Carl Cox clearly doesn’t check his own social media, create his own graphics, and who knows what else, how does something like this slip through the cracks of an imposing wall of industry professionals separating him from his fans? “It blows my mind that they have a team of people. Why didn’t they notice all these comments?” Keiran asks, referring to the multitude of surprised and disappointed Atlanta music community members who weighed in on the photo. “Everyone in Atlanta all of a sudden knew what was going on,” he continues, this being a testament to ATL’s pride in and ownership of a scene that’s taken a lot of hard work to build over the years. Many of the commenters are clearly big fans of both institutions, with most being vocal about a show being one good way to make amends. Keiran has definitely considered it, but says, “I don’t want to be cheeky and come across as ‘you need to give me stuff because you messed up,’ that’s just not my style, you know?” But, after our talk, he met with his attorney to consider the best way forward for this and all the seemingly inevitable future occasions that are bound to pop up. His intent is making sure it doesn’t happen again and if it does that he’s well prepared to hold transgressors accountable. As for the man holding the brush? William Mitchell is less concerned, “I just want to make sure that we don’t discourage people from using and photographing the art, and that it is strictly about giving credit.” Mitchell’s job is done and paid for, it’s Keiran that has to worry about his business.

That another DJ who could possibly be considered a guest (if you take away the rather exorbitant fees for a midsize space) in their home stole from them is what really bothers Keiran, “I mean Carl Cox is in our industry, the Music Room would be a venue he could play at.” Whether legal action, a make up show, or nothing beyond the apology and some simple credit, the fact of the matter is that the cultural bar has been lowered in favor of businessmen and PR persons. “It really was more upsetting that they just yanked it off the internet and didn’t bother to give us credit. It’s very unprofessional and un—” he takes a pause, “you know, I guess, uncreative.” The way I end my conversation with Keiran Neely boils down, perhaps unintentionally, the real difference between David and Goliath here, “The integrity of the music is always on the top of our mission at the Music Room. It always has been, and always will be.” So Carl Cox (and company), find the “oh yes” man in you, have some integrity, and show us you’re more creative than an “oops” and a simple apology? Some dedicated members of the music community in the city of Atlanta, which you stole from, will be waiting.

Austen van der Bleek

"The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.” — Charles Bukowski... Is Austen a good writer? It’s doubtful. As a DJ he’s been described as “too young to be this deep.” You can find him performing around Florida and representing for Open House Conspiracy.

One thought on “Oh Yes, Oh Yes… Oh No!: Carl Cox, a Boombox, and Atlanta’s Music Room

  • October 26, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    Great article and way to go, Keiran! The Music Room is great music, period. I personally love the R&B night on Thursday with the live band and guest singers. The mural outside IS the business and it’s name is appropriate.

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