Fun No More: Appropriation for Profit

by Jason Brown and/or “Wobbly”


So these were the three circumstances that compelled me to experiment in music: I was involved in music; I was working with turntables (then with tape-recorders); I was horrified by modern 12-tone music. I said to myself, “Maybe I can find something different…maybe salvation, liberation, is possible.” Seeing that no one knew what to do anymore with DoReMi, maybe we had to look outside that…Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi…In other words, I wasted my life.
— Pierre Schaeffer, formulator of Musique Concrete [1]

Appropriative media techniques, propagandized in their nascence as tools for provoking the listener into noticing Bold New Perspectives on language and meaning, have now been refined into a stunningly effective set of techniques that encourage anything but distracting self-reflection.

The so-called “cut-up” strategy is named after the physical cutting and rearrangement of media, from words on paper to magnetic tape. William S. Burroughs described the cut-up as a tool for artists to introduce unpredictable spontaneity, but, as Burroughs knew when describing them, sampling and “cut-up” editing are deeply structural ploys capable of being far more than fodder for idea-starved artists. In “The Cut Up Method of Brion Gysin,” he relates these strategies to game and military planning, noting that the utility of their random factor is that “your opponent will gain no advantage from knowing your strategy since he cannot predict the move.” [2]

In advertising, as with other war games, this tactic exploits the weakness of opponents — in this case, wary audience members — who assume that they have an idea of what is going to happen next or even that they know what it is they are listening to (for example an ad which says how stupid soft drink commercials are, parodying the jingles and tropes of typical ads, turning out to be a soft drink commercial itself). This research took just under forty years.

In an inversion of the compositional methodologies of “classical” music, Musique Concrete and the cut-up technique moved from raw sound towards a structure, often a randomly produced structure. However, the effect which this move has had upon a consumer audience has been carefully examined and is now a well-mapped structure unto itself. This means that the content of the cut-up can be subsumed by the structure of the “cut-up style,” a semiotics of jumps-cuts, rapid samples, and seemingly “random” sounds.

It is perfectly logical that Pierre Schaeffer now feels that his life was wasted in an attempt to move away from “DoReMi”; the psychically manipulative schema of idiot savant DoReMi “pop” music has instead subsumed the discoveries of the tape cut-up experiments of Schaeffer, Burroughs, and others of their pioneering ilk. Indeed, the commercial success of techno as a genre (as one of many examples [3]) has much to do with a careful marketing evaluation and transformation of the “failed” work of the modernist dabblers who had been unable to recognize the full socio-economic implications of their theories of appropriation. These cut up structures are now methodologies for cutting past the defenses of audience attention.

As corporate media are keenly aware, any product-thing desirous of an audience must first puncture the modern attention span and keep the wound open for as long as possible. The aesthetic of the appropriative “cut-up,” once an avant garde trick, has become a well-developed set of culturally, psychically, and physiologically invasive technologies for heightening and maintaining just such a conceptual disjuncture between product-presentation and mass-market target flesh. Refined from its playful dadaist roots but still wearing a clever costume of “randomishness,” these techniques keep media consumers interested (like it or not), and, when used as tools for preventing jaded attention spans from predicting the next ploy of an ad, they effectively keep the audience bleeding and receptive. It was into this wound that Wobbly thrust itself.

All About Wobbly

Music is far from an unmediated experience, perceived directly by the heart;immeasurable personal freedom is lost to this belief.
— Dr. Laslo “Liar” Gamph,
former director of Neurophysiological Profit Research, GIS Inc. [4]

Once it was clearly too late for the use of the cut-up for mere artistic ends, we of Wobbly entered the media arena in an attempt to self-consciously map the pervasive practice of “appropriative” expression and to diagram the language of removal and recontextualization which increasingly comprised the environment of contemporary culture. It was all very scientific.

Our weekly broadcasts began in 1990 on KCSB FM at UC Santa Barbara, and these unmoderated radio frequency (RF) transmission experiments continued for many years, as follows:

  • Phase 1: Live vocals on equal footing with “found” recordings, all implications encouraged. Talk radio parody/critique with topicless on-air telephone “interaction.” Piano lullabies and calming children’s records slowly tortured beyond recognition. 11/23 Hz experiments begin.
  • Phase 2: Refinement of intuitive and consciously focused sonic cut-up techniques, executed with agonizingly precise ambivalence in order to distort listener perception of cross-cut advertising. Increasing work with hip all-new genre, “electro-acoustic music.” Musical content of sound reproduction stripped to reveal the actual reproductive medium as nakedly as possible.
  • Phase 3: Relentless juxtaposition of what are currently considered irreconcilable genres until the irreconcilability is itself welcomed into the background. Ambient drones and melodics assembled from the shattered codes of the “pop music” drug. The sounds of broken media contexts (and broken media themselves) indexed alongside traditionally recognized musical forms until the difference goes missing.

And the difference has indeed gone missing.

During the first years of the Wobbly experiment, our broadcasts moved towards a “unique” vocabulary composed mostly of the vocabularies of moribund sound experiments from the early part of the century but with the inevitable influence of the latest in cross-cut, profit-hungry media cuts. In the later years of our small-market radio tests, this vocabulary was utilized with strictest discipline in order to make the output stream appear to represent the widest extremes of open choices available to the improvising and open-minded radio programmer; when listening, it seemed as if anything could happen next.

But, reassuringly, nothing increasingly continued to actually happen. Content-less restructuration of quasi-randomly chosen “media” once again proved its ability to induce blind listener interest in the radio broadcast venue just as it continues to do throughout the world of commerce as a whole. And this proven commercial effectiveness was what would send our tactics rocketing to a new level of performance.

In one of our more advanced experiments along these lines, the Wobbly RF transmission succeeded in making tens of listeners call in and read their credit card numbers over the phone without any clear idea in the listeners’ minds as to why they were doing so. They then spent the rest of the broadcast waiting outside of a closed shopping mall. Afterwards, most of them could not remember how or why they came to be there, although a poll indicated that the majority had found the experience “interesting” and “worthwhile.”

Clearly, it was time for us to move Wobbly’s talents beyond non-commercial outlets.


Man does not have the right to develop his own mind. This kind of liberal orientation has great appeal. We must electrically control the brain. Some day armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.
— Dr. Jose Delgado

Director of Neuropsychiatry, Yale University Medical School [5]

The soothing mantra of billion-dollar ad campaigns composed of quarter-second jump-cuts and studio-recorded “samples” increasingly fills the electro-acoustic spaces within which agents such as Wobbly once attempted to peddle our (so-called) self-defense tactics. In fact, one thing which held the Wobbly “radio shows” together was an awareness that the very techniques being used to provoke the listener into depression-inducing reflexivity were also proving themselves far more powerful than any traditional media narcotic yet known. The same sledgehammer targeting the same demographically aligned head is capable of jarring the consumer completely and uncomfortably awake but is just as capable of knocking the subject into a blissful unconsciousness. And it is abundantly clear to us which of these states most consumers would prefer.

Recognizing these inevitable factors and evolving beyond our simple past as mere sonic explorers, Wobbly has managed to leap the gap; we have succeeded in becoming slavish corporate researchers. Currently acting as subsidized agents of General Injectables and Signals Incorporated, we continue towards the goal of neurolinguistic information mapping and are now busily turning our “discoveries” into profit potential of a revolutionary order.

The magnetic tape and razor blade splicing which Burroughs and Schaeffer toyed with have been utterly supplanted by up-to-date tools which are able to bring the effects of”the cut-up and the aesthetics of appropriation directly into the brains of our audience. And now that “soft kill” or so-called “non-lethal” desire manipulation technologies[6] have moved from government labs and into the hands of benevolent corporations, not only can these tools continue to be used to keep the masses from destroying valuable capital, they can be used for the even more far-reaching motive of maximum economic efficiency.

Hence, Wobbly’s research is currently being enacted with the hope that the technical and biological lessons of the decades following the advent of the now quaint “cut-up” can finally be implemented in our special brand of popular music for optimal crowd control and purchase inducement. With some solid digital media-product under our belts and both the San Francisco and Santa Barbara coastal population centers under the direct influence of Wobbly technologies, it’s a sure deal that “appropriative sample” is going to spell Big Bux in your future…soon!


  1. “Musique Concrete — music made of raw sounds — emerged in Paris in 1948 at the RTF (Radio Television Francais). Its originator, leading researcher, and articulate spokesman was Pierre Schaeffer, at that time working as an electro-acoustic engineer with the RTF.” Pierre Shaeffer, interview with Tim Hodgkinson, Recommended Records Quarterly magazine, volume 2, number 1, in 1987.
  2. Burroughs, William S. “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin” in The Third Mind. William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. New York: Viking Press, 1978.
  3. A more pointed example is Emergency Broadcast Network’s video and sound editing for U2’s

    Zoo TV tour which freely appropriated broadcast media during the concerts, voiding the sounds and images, using the cut-up style to void the transmissions of any meaning beyond the aesthetic. This took place while the copyright suit of Island records (U2’s label) against the band Negativland was still pending. EBN is very well paid. The members of Negativland (who attempt to use cut-ups to express ideas and make points) are now very poor.

  4. Laslo Gamph — author of the popular management training pamphlet Mysterium Tremendum: Corporate Voodoo Secrets — made this comment in a hand-written note which was mailed to the offices of Wired magazine just before his disappearance. He is currently still “missing.”
  5. Congressional Record, No. 26, Vol. 118, Feb. 24, 1974, testimony of Jose Delgado
  6. For more information on these technologies, please see the thirteen-part series in the Napa Sentinel, “Mind Control” by Harry V. Martin and David Caul, August-November 1991.

Wobbly. “Fun No More: Appropriation for Profit”
Thresholds: viewing culture volume 10 (1996): 43-48.