Troy Mighty of Dead Western on Creativity and Intellectual Property

A version of this interview was originally published by “The Woove,” a digital and print publication of WUVT-FM 90.7 Blacksburg in 2008.

During the 2007-2008 University Academic year, the Virginia Tech student community spent a lot of time discussing issues relating to the ownership of music and other intellectual property.

After some threatening emails circulating around the campus, reports surfaced in Virginia Tech’s The Collegiate Times that the RIAA had sent 36 letters to the college involving students who they believed had violated copyright protections for audio recordings by using popular means to share music online.

In response, Blacksburg arts and culture magazine 16 Blocks published incendiary commentary on the post-Napster musical map penned by WUVT DJ Len Comaratta, a call to action against Digital Rights Management and other “reactionary” and “draconian” applications of copyright by local author Brent Jesiek, and an educational article on protecting your own art by Flash Clark

Soon thereafter, the Free Culture club of Virginia Tech hosted free software luminary Richard Stallman to speak about his conviction that, contrary to the spirit of the Constitutional clause which enables copyright, current application of intellectual property law erodes and weakens creative communities.

This interview with outsider folk artist Troy Mighty, who performs as Dead Western, is the first in a series in which I talk to underground musicians who visit Blacksburg about how these see the relationships between creativity and intellectual property. Dead Western played in Blacksburg during the Fall of 2006 at the Halfway House with out-of-towners Donny Hue and the Colors and local favorites The Disappearers Collective and Social Studies.

Richard Todd Stafford: Are you ever consciously inspired by the lyrics, music, or poetry of others when you are writing music?

Troy Mighty: Indeed, though perhaps not in the most literate or obvious ways. My lyrics are an amalgamation of things that I think about and things that I need to think about. The pathetic ramblings of our president has inspired many a few line. A single line was written after reading about sound experiments that Milford Graves was conducting in relation to the human heartbeat. Some songs are saturated with different inspirations, as some songs are carried with me for months before completion, soaking up so much information. I think the literal lyrics or music or poetry of others actually plays a very tiny role in my thought processes/lyric writing. It is more a matter of picking up subject matter, than that of scalping the thoughts of others.. It is generally the more abstract sort of communicative efforts from others which seep into my suppers, and out through my songs.

Richard Todd Stafford: What, in your opinion, constitutes fair use of your lyrics? For instance, would you feel slighted if another artist appropriated words from a song you first sang with full attribution? What if that artist became commercially successful, or achieved wide exposure based in part on the derivative work? Would your opinions change if the other artist did not give full attribution, or only sometimes gave attribution? Also, what if the other artist was terrible, or had blatantly objectionable values?

Troy Mighty: Each part of this question makes me cringe even more than the last.

I spend a lot of time writing lyrics; a great deal of thought and energy is put into them. A song might sit for a few months even, unfinished, waiting for the next words to reveal themselves.

I think that the words I put together  are unique to me, and often rather comprehensive, so the idea of someone else making these words their own is a sensitive one.

In the end, though, I cannot do anything but know that I exist, and that the things I put out into the world will be interpreted and treated in different ways. I do my part in putting these things out there, and in ensuring the information I put out is clear. If someone else takes that information, makes it their own, and runs with it, it’s very likely that I will only be left to live my life and continue creating. My integrity is held within myself much more than in the interpretations of others.

Richard Todd Stafford: Would you let another band you didn’t know cover one of your songs, if you could prevent it?

Troy Mighty: I don’t see myself trying to prevent such a thing.

My not knowing someone is not really an issue in this.

If the end result was a terrible rendition of one of my songs, I think it’d be easy enough to find some amusement in that situation. There’s no saying that my knowing the person might guarantee a pleasing rendition, as there are many people who I enjoy knowing, but who’s music I don’t necessarily enjoy.

Richard Todd Stafford: Have you yet encountered appropriation or imitation of your work — either lyrically or musically — that made you uncomfortable?

Troy Mighty: No; I’ve thus far remained untouchable.

Richard Todd Stafford: Have you ever been reproached by an audience member for a perceived unethical or unoriginal appropriation on your own part?

Tory Mighty: No. I’m sure I’d be surprised if this was somehow a situation. I have borrowed two different lines – one from Devo, and one from the Subhumans – for two different songs of mine, but have always recognized that they are borrowed lines. In printing lyrics for packaging, I have used these lines in quotes, since they are things that somebody else had said.. I am simply using the ideas in their quotes to further emphasize the ideas that I am presenting in the respective songs. I would be interested in speaking with anyone who did manage to find any part of my material unethical or unoriginal. I could understand somebody misunderstanding the sometimes cryptic-seeming things I sing, but could not understand this person not accepting the very honest approach that I try to maintain.

Richard Todd Stafford: You have a very unique sound, especially your vocal delivery; still your music draws identifiably from folk- and rock- idioms. Can you talk a bit about how genre convention influences your creative process?

Troy Mighty: It does only in an unconscious way. I soak up a lot of sounds, and of course I cannot deny their influence in my music. I approach music from a generally ignorant place, though, and am not conscious of trying to create any certain sound, or cross-pollination of sounds.

Richard Todd Stafford: What do you think about fans sharing your music with their friends using mix-tapes or -CDs?

Troy Mighty: I love making mix tapes. It can be therapeutic for all involved. As can be the sharing of music. The more heart that is put into a compilation and it’s packaging, the more handmade something is, the more meaning and warmth it holds. I would prefer to be a part of the compilations which have seen a lot of love in their creation, but I also must let the world turn as it will, so –

Richard Todd Stafford: Does it change your opinion when they share whole albums or records, or if they share the music anonymously through p2p or torrent technology?

Troy Mighty: I’m unfamiliar with what p2p or torrent technology is, so cannot comment on that.

A large part of why I’ve stuck to mostly vinyl releases over the last few years has to do with the sacred feelings surrounding this that exists.

These feelings, I believe, are so incredibly diminished when so much of your music lives inside of CD-rs and digital music machines. I want to elongate this process for as long as possible with my music, so that it has plenty of time to exist in the manner in which it was made to exist, before being exploited by the faceless CD-rs and iPods of the world.

Richard Todd Stafford: Are you bummed or amped about the possibility of “fans” pages on MySpace, Facebook, or similar social networking sites for Dead Western?

Troy Mighty: That idea is nothing but strange to me. A little creepy, also.

Richard Todd Stafford: How do you feel about radio play: pirate, independent, college, and/or commercial?

Troy Mighty: Pirate, independent, college, yes! More of the better, please. Free form and fuck yeah is the way to go with radio; I find it quite a shame that so much of the radio is dedicated to music and advertisement that generates money. There aren’t even live DJs on lots of radio anymore. Yikes. 

Soften your Screams into Sings, Dead Western’s full length vinyl debut, [was] released this summer on the KDVS Recordings label. Funded by the University of California, Davis, and made available through the university’s KDVS free form radio station, it is the only record label of it’s kind, that I know of. I am listening to that station right now, and am so pleased to be able to hear the music of my friends and peers and neighbors, as well as all varieties of other national and international, current and older music on the radio. Yeah! Commercial. bah. That word is one to stay away from.

Richard Todd Stafford: Would it be cool with you if a DJ at a club or party used short samples or whole tracks as part of his/her act?

Troy Mighty: I’ve heard of this happening, and was pretty excited to hear about it.

Like I said, all I can do is put it out there. How the information is used, I feel like I have little part in, and I often am tricked into thinking that it’s not used much at all, simply because I am very little in this world.

So to hear that someone was genuinely thinking about me, and rocked my song on their DJ night, generally pleases me.

Using short samples is a different sort of thing, and I think of cut-up novels or other forms of collage. The information that I put into the world is essentially just more information, there for the using.

Richard Todd Stafford: What if a long and identifiable sample appeared in a recording?

Troy Mighty: Well that would sure be odd, eh? I would hope the person responsible would at least introduce themselves to me, if not ask my permission first.

Richard Todd Stafford: How do you feel about people who anonymously record your shows, either audio or video? […]

Troy Mighty: […] I have anonymously recorded many shows myself, for my own personal interest in recording, I suppose. I sometimes never even go back to listen to what I’ve recorded. I know that others have more ambitious interests in recording the performances of others, and of course, in this, is the possibility of someone exploiting your performance for the sake of profit.. I have very little control over things like this, and do not feel interested in preventing whatever might happen from happening in these regards. I am interested in the field recording and documentation aspects of live recording. I think these practices have a lot of potential, in regards to the piece of time that they are capturing and sharing with the world. I hope that those more involved in such recordings appreciate the piece of time that they are taking, and treat their sharing of this with great respect to the artist/ the artist’s aesthetics. Other recordings, of course, could come from a place of genuine interest in the art form of recording/documenting the performance, and I feel very positive about this idea.

Richard Todd Stafford: Would you care if a person who makes a recording of your show posts the video on a website such as YouTube that generates a lot of money for a third party?

Troy Mighty: I am not aware of what it means for them to be generating a lot of money for a third party, and would be interested in learning.

Otherwise, there are currently several video clips that folks have posted onto YouTube, of tiny bits of shows that they’ve somehow recorded. Most of them are of rather poor audio/video quality, but there are a few that came through clearer. All of them are pleasing to see on there. I take it in the context of someone appreciating what I’m doing to a point of documenting it, and then going beyond that to share it with whomever might care to see it.

My image is not my property, it has no monetary worth, and I would be crazy to think that I needed to protect it as though it did. I have seen images of me or my performance captured and displayed that made me frown, but can do nothing but shrug my shoulders to this, wishing that everyone shared my particular aesthetics.

It certainly is wild that this sort of information is so easily passed around. It is so, though, and my intuitions look at it in a rather harmless light.

Again, I’m not sure of what money aspects you speak of, and it puts an evil sounding twist on the innocent sharing of information that I see. I have large blinders on while on the Internet. I am very sensitive to advertisements, and the general practice of “reelin’ ’em in”. I put effort into ignoring the things on the screen that I are not what I am looking for, so I think it’s very possible that I do not notice the evil that lurks behind the innocence. That evil will exist whether I notice it or pay it any mind, or not. I am learning to tread lightly, nearly unnoticed, through the treacherous world of capitalist society.

Richard Todd Stafford: Would you care if a person who makes a recording of your show posts the video on a website like Metacafe or Revver that can generate money for the recorder him/herself?

Troy Mighty: Again, I’m not familiar with this sort of web site. I don’t spend much time on the computer, and so although the internet is a vast ocean, it is not one that I will ever swim very far through. And again, there’s not much I care to do about this sort of thing. Everyone has ambitions of being an entrepreneur, it seems, and there are more and more avenues for one to explore the possibilities of being one’s own boss.

I can’t imagine a video of anything I do/am doing to be worth much money to anyone, especially while I am alive and well, which I think is  what makes me feel especially blasé about one’s efforts to exploit such images. Gleaning monetary profit from the simple world around might be the prerogative of some, and it’s only through the encouragement of other exciting avenues of life that I am able to put effort into dissuading them.

Richard Todd Stafford: Have you ever considered selling the rights to one or more of your songs to another band, a manager, promotions entity, label, or distro?

Troy Mighty: No.