Kutiman’s Gambit or: Somehow Connecting an International Community with Fairly Inaccessible Music

Kutiman, whose real name is Ophir Kutiel, is an Israeli musician, producer, and video artist whose career has focused on enthusiastically exploring new music and mashing ideas together in novel and often very danceable ways. Off Grid: Psychedelic Jazz from the Interweb (2016) is Kutiman’s most recent video album, part love letter to two of his earliest inspirations—avant-garde jazz and psychedelia—and part celebration of the global music community that thrives online. Off Grid is an evolution of Kutiman’s previous online-only video albums, including Thru You (2009), My Favorite Band (2011), and Thru You Too (2014). Kutiman’s big hit, of course, is Thru You, another YouTube collage that won him a spot on Time magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009 and the notice of artists across the globe.

Off Grid takes 96 unrelated YouTube videos and edits segments together to create an album of ten tracks, seamlessly connected. The end result will be right up the alley of Bitch’s Brew-era Miles Davis fans or Frank Zappa zealots, but the album’s unique genesis gives the casual listener something to hang their hat on. Indeed, Kutiman allows the viewer to click on pop-up annotations that link to the YouTube pages of the featured artists, a move that gives a human face (or faces) to music that doesn’t exactly scream accessibility. Kutiman has also upped his game in regards to visual production for Off Grid. There are a variety of psychedelic effects and washes that give the video a thoroughly retro feel (despite the absence of the iconic liquid light!) that is juxtaposed with the legions of YouTube clips.

Interestingly, not every ingredient in Kutiman’s musical gumbo is from a jazz recording [insert your own “it’s all jazz to me, baby” joke]. Featured performers run the gamut from amateur to pro (and the occasional critter) and cover a variety of styles, from Carnatic music to surf rock. Some recordings are tutorials or demos for instruments from all across the world, like the Nigerian okpokolo or a vintage Italian synthesizer. Some videos are field recordings or found sounds—not quite your traditional performance video.

It's not the notes you're playing. It's the notes you're *not* playing!
It’s not the notes you’re playing. It’s the notes you’re *not* playing!

There is definitely some postmodern quirkiness afoot, but Kutiman does not seem interested in one-upping any of his colleagues’ musical representations of the 21st century schizoid man. In fact, the themes of community and shared vision run deep throughout this work. The individual musicians are manipulated to appear and sound like they are playing in concert, not creating a discordant mess out of incommensurable musical tastes. In this sense, Kutiman’s work resembles the optimism and humor of other active mashup artists (or pop collagists, as they are also known) like Girl Talk and Jib Kidder. Kidder is perhaps the best comparison as he also plumbs the depths of YouTube for bricolage fodder.

Furthermore, the international acclaim enjoyed by Kutiman’s work—as well as its demonstrated accessibility—gives credence to the utopian vision of a global music community all grooving together. This seems to be what critics hone in on when discussing Kutiman’s music and it is a recurring topic in think pieces regarding the fate of 21st century music. Also, similar collaborative online audio/video projects have been released on the web to much acclaim, perhaps the most notable being Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in which a choir is assembled by mixing together thousands of videos submitted by individual vocalists singing their part (here is a video of Eric TED-talking it).

Let’s talk a bit more in depth about the presentation and preservation of Off Grid.

Off Grid exists in essentially three forms on the internet: as a video on Kutiman’s YouTube channel, as the featured work on Kutiman’s website, and as a video embedded in far too many places across the web to account for.

While watching Kutiman’s finished product on his YouTube channel, the viewer has the opportunity to click on annotations that lead to the YouTube pages for the individual source videos. These annotations appear directly in Kutiman’s video (not in the description like in his previous works) and open a new window when clicked. This creates an interesting user experience that facilitates exploration and discovery. However, this feature takes a different form when users view Off Grid from Kutiman’s web site: instead of live annotations, there is a Credits button that opens a stylish collage of 96 screenshots—arranged by individual movements of Off Grid—that lead to the source videos. The Credits feature opens new windows, but it does not pause Off Grid while you explore other videos. Also, Kutiman’s website does not feature the comments section, related videos or likes/dislikes that the YouTube page offers.

A segment from the collage of annotations at www.kutiman.com.
A segment from the collage of annotations at www.kutiman.com.

Also, Off Grid is the only work featured on Kutiman’s homepage, as the other works are held on his YouTube channel and various outlets across the web. His homepage seems to be a place where he shows off his newest creation for a bit, not its eternal repository. As the artist said in an interview with Billboard, “It’s all going to be on the internet. It’s from the Internet, and that’s where it belongs. You can link, you can dig in it and see the other musicians, read comments or something.” If that quote isn’t a good indicator of the artist’s intent, I don’t know what is. This leads me to believe that, despite some unique functionality only found on Kutiman’s website, the YouTube page for Off Grid—along with YouTube pages for the individual annotations—is the most important thing to preserve. Of course, I do not imagine that I will really have to pick between the two; I am stating my priorities more to demonstrate the significance of the work.

The spread of Off Grid throughout the “interweb” is a trickier thing to address. I think that providing context is of the utmost importance, as a future researcher will want to know how Kutiman’s work was received. It will be necessary to collect a representative batch of reviews, blogs, and even social media posts regarding Off Grid. Since these items will be gathered for the sake of context, screenshots will likely fit the bill—there is no real need to preserve their functionality.

So while it may be argued that Thru You is Kutiman’s biggest hit (let’s face it, Off Grid’s nearly 40 minute run time, lack of straightforward vocals, and preoccupation with anti-commercial jazz styles do it no favors when it comes to going viral), I would argue that Off Grid is a more sophisticated example of the online-only music album. In particular, its on-the-fly annotations show how Kutiman has refined his work to better support user interactions and recognize YouTube as his primary platform. Furthermore, Off Grid is a work that will help future new media scholars, musicologists, pop culture historians and more understand the different types of online music collaborations that arose in the early 21st century. We need to proactively document these types of projects and their reception because they will help us understand how artists navigated these tumultuous times—music labels crumbling, streaming services profiting (but ripping artists off?), pirates aplenty, mashup artists giving the finger to copyright maximalists, indie (and established) artists crowdsourcing to support themselves, and so on.


6 Replies to “Kutiman’s Gambit or: Somehow Connecting an International Community with Fairly Inaccessible Music”

  1. With the three pieces discussed here, in light of the fiscal implications of the last paragraph, I wonder if any of them made Kutiman any money. Were they backed in some way like crowdfunding? Or did the projects on YouTube make enough money through ads to support the making of the next project?

    Big money – labels and distribution and marketing and the lack there of – is a big issue with my project as well and I wonder how much it does affect the success of the project. As you say, Off Grid was deeply experimental and 40 minutes long, a challenge to most listeners. So even if it had secured a commercial release, would it have garnered much popularity? How do labels determine what to produce or not? What would the record label keep in it’s archive to ensure that it could remaster the genius of Kutiman’s seminal work for it’s anniversary releases (a la the Disney vault) that’s different from what the independent creator would have access to?

    1. Apparently Kutiman does not make *much* money from the videos and gets his money “producing, playing, and performing” (http://www.pri.org/programs/sideshow/13-kutiman-keeps-making-music-thru-youtube). Still, I am sure he has gotten a lot of money via the exposure he gets from the videos. For instance, he was given tour footage from Maroon 5 and asked to create a video for them. I’d imagine that they paid him (and, of course, he gets even more exposure once they post it to YouTube).

      I found a video on YouTube suggesting that Kutiman made $152 in February 2016 from his YouTube video, but I am not sure how this was figured out. The About page for the video says the “team calculate total monthly earnings of YouTubers using complicated formulas and many specific factors that influence earnings.” Well, as long as the formula are complicated and the factors are specific!

      I think that YouTube allowed for Off Grid (and Thru You, etc.) to reach levels of popularity that a commercial release would have impeded. First off, no major label would release Off Grid unless it was modified into something more easily sold. For example, many labels have teams of people—more often than not Swedes—who design a piece of music by committee to maximize salability (or sometimes its potential to go viral, as in the case of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video that was tailor-made to be meme-ified). Much like the various web comics we learned about this week, the lack of a traditional middleman and the interesting qualities of the format allowed the artist to create something new and exciting.

      In regards to what the record label would keep in order to release remasters… that’s a good question! I don’t think that Kutiman did any “clean up” to the audio that he mashed up, such as audio normalization or adding reverb/distortion/delay/etc. So Kutiman was using audio samples of varied quality that had gone through YouTube compression. Perhaps the record label would want to get hold of the original recordings that were cut-n-paste by Kutiman. They could retouch these recordings and then replace them into the audio mixing file that Kutiman used. The file would keep all of the automation and editing choices made by Kutiman, so you could just pop in the remastered assets.

      Or maybe that wouldn’t work! It is tough to say unless I can see exactly how Kutiman worked in editing program. The unique affordances of the program would determine how best to remaster the work.

  2. I think what makes this particularly interesting is (correct me if I’m wrong) but the musicians did NOT make these videos for this project, unlike something like Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir. Because of this, I think it would be interesting to know a bit more about the selection process for the songs used: How did Kutiman choose the pieces he did? Is there any “making of” videos where he explains how he found the videos/sounds he wanted? It might be helpful to feature the process, because for some audiences that could be as useful as the final video itself (although this is perhaps outside of your scope).

    As an endnote– did Kutiman obtain permission to use the original videos in the one he created? I think his relationship with the original videos/artists might inform you a bit about how to consider their connection in your plan.

    1. You are correct, Kutiman did not seek permission from the artists, so this project is quite different from the Virtual Choir. This site has the “making of” video that Kutiman included with the Thru You project (http://www.theoreticallycorrect.com/thru-you/thru-you-kutiman-projects.html). Unfortunately, no such video exists for Off Grid, so we don’t know whether or not the situation was exactly the same this time around.

      Kutiman’s decision to just go ahead and use people’s videos has definitely sparked many “this dude is stealing!” arguments in forums across the web. I feel like this is something worth preserving when it comes to wanting to document sharing culture. Interestingly, this topic was brought back up in a big way last week when indie game developer Digital Homicide set up a $10 million dollar lawsuit against YouTuber Jim Sterling for posting several bad reviews of their products. I’ve seen this reignite the argument over whether or not Let’s Play folk should be able to do what they do—are they simply leeching money off someone else’s hard work, etc.

  3. You do a great job establishing the context for Off Grid, both in terms of how it relates to Kutiman’s other work and how it connects to a range of other mashup work like Girl Talk. I liked your points on the way this kind of work produces a vision of “global music community all grooving together.” So from that, I think you establish a nice frame for understanding the significance of the work and it’s context in related work.

    I like how you have unpacked how Off Grid works differently on YouTube and on his site. I also like how you are fine with putting a stake in the ground on which of them matters the most. In reading, I also found myself wondering if the works he used are things that you think would ideally be saved along with the piece itself. That is, to what extent do you think that linked interweb notion he has there suggests the need to collect and preserve the hypertext that exists as a dialog of his piece with the pieces he drew from?

    In any event, I think this is looking great. You have clearly articulated a case for significance and begun unpacking what would ideally be collected to make sure that you could preserve the key parts of the work to enable potential future users to make use of this.

    The one thing I would pose, is that it would also be great to hear a bit more about what some current and future stakeholders for this work might be and what their different needs and wants for it would suggest about which parts of it matter most to them.

  4. Nice summary of the issues around Off Grid. As you mentioned in class, the media buzz around ThruYou made it easier for me to argue for significance based on notoriety, so this does a good job of showing how the specific details of Off Grid make it also worthy of preservation.

    Alice’s point about the creators of the original videos was also something I thought about… how to account for the intentions and role of the original artists. It’s potentially relevant both in a legal sense (what are the copyright implications, if any, involved in preserving and providing access to the project in the future) but also in whether to seek some documentation from these original artists, to get some idea of the context of those original videos. Preserving those videos (and their accompanying YouTube descriptions and comments) might go some way toward this, but it would be interesting to get more reactions from the creators of the original videos… I wasn’t able to find much, alas.

    The affordances of various ripping/editing/posting platforms in play here (including YouTube itself) is angle I hadn’t thought much about, but it’s interesting (particularly in light of this week’s Manovich and Davison articles about Photoshop and MS Paint). The Wired article on ThruYou mentions he used Sony Vegas Pro, which is actually primarily a video editing software. Not sure if he used different software for OffGrid but if so, it would be interesting to think about how the affordances of those tools might have affected or facilitated differences between the two works…

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