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Archive for February, 2004

Gearing up for Grey Tuesday

Thursday, February 19th, 2004

PREPARATIONS FOR Grey Tuesday are underway. Have a look at the press release and read the post below for more information. One last addition to the plan: we’re also calling for independent radio stations to play the Grey Album in its entirety on Tuesday. College radio, community radio, web radio, whichever. If you work at a radio station, contact us, and if you have a favorite independent radio station, give them a call and get them on board.

Announcing Grey Tuesday

Wednesday, February 18th, 2004

THE FIGHT IS ON. EMI’s censorship of Grey Album is getting tons of attention, but it really can’t get too much: these cease-and-desist letters should be as big a story as the RIAA’s lawsuits were in the fall. It’s a clear, simple, downloadable example of how the major record labels stifle creativity and try to manipulate the public’s access to music, and it’s the perfect way to explain to non-experts why the copyright system needs to be reformed. What’s more, as a case study, the Grey Album proves that filesharing networks are a necessary and legitimate means of defense (for sample-based musicians, music reviewers, and everyone else who likes music) against a music industry that consistently attacks the public interest. The Grey Album story needs to get out there. It’s been on slashdot.org, it got New Yorkered, but we need to get it in regular newspapers everywhere. Here’s how you can help us make it happen:

This coming Tuesday, February 24, will henceforth be known as Grey Tuesday. On that day, we’re going to get as many websites as we possibly can to host the Grey Album for 24 hours as civil disobedience against EMI’s actions. Participating websites can also get very large style points by turning their webpage grayscale for the day(scale). It’s also a good way for people to participate who don’t have lots of webspace. We hope you’ll get on board. And if you don’t have your own webpage, send a couple emails and try to get you favorite sites on board.

RIAA Racketeers

Wednesday, February 18th, 2004

THIS IS GREAT. A woman in New Jersey who was targetted by the RIAA for filesharing has just filed a countersuit, which charges the major labels with racketeering. Her lawyer says of the filesharing lawsuits, “They’re banding together to extort money, telling people they’re guilty and they will have to pay big bucks to defend their cases if they don’t pony up now. It is fundamentally not fair.”


T-Shirts, Bumperstickers, Blazin’ Blip Blop

Wednesday, February 18th, 2004

WE FINALLY HAVE some t-shirts (as promised). Check ’em out. When the major labels ran an ad campaign in the early 80s about the evils of tape recorders, some punks turned their slogan on its head and “Home Taping is Killing Music (and it’s illegal)” became “Home Taping is Killing the Music Industry (and it’s fun)”. Now filesharing and CD-burning are the major-label-killer the casette tape never was, but “Home Taping” still has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Thanks to Andrew Egenes for adapting the tape-n-crossbones logo and Fujichia Records for doing the slik screening.

The shirt is $8 + $2 shipping. When most websites sell t-shirts, they cost at least twice that– we’re making shirts cheap because we want to get the word out. Also new in the extremely-cheap department, bumperstickers:

Just $1.00, including postage– get one for everyone you know who plays music. Thanks to Dennis for the design. The expanding supply of Downhill Battle stuff lives in the Postal Department.


With all the attention we’ve been giving recently to outlaw remixes, we’ve got to shout out Downhill Battle affiliate Burncopy Records’s deliciously illegal and hilariously titled release, Blazin’ Blip Blop and Blar & Blee. It is the party rocker for people who are sick of party rockers. Download it today.

The Stifling Copyright Cartel

Tuesday, February 17th, 2004

WHEN EMI WENT after Danger Mouse last week, they didn’t stop there. At least one of the websites that’s been publicly hosting mp3s of the Grey Album also received a cease and desist letter from EMI, which demanded that they take down the album, which they did (how could they afford the court case?). The letter is now posted on their site, waxy.org. Fortunately, the Grey Album is still being publicly hosted by the good folks at Illegal Art. If you haven’t heard it yet, you can (and should) download the mp3s right here.

The Grey Album is only one of thousands of legitimate and valuable efforts that have been stifled by the current system (not to mention the ones that were never even attempted because of the legal climate). For the best discussions of the artistic and intellectual reasons why sampling should be legalized, check out this article by Negativland and this flash presentation by Lawrence Lessig. But what’s happened in the past week is also important: the details of the Grey Album case demonstrate that nothing short of a clear legal codification of the right to sample will solve the current problem.

Danger Mouse’s album is one of the most “respectful” and undeniably positive examples of sampling; it honors both the Beatles and Jay-Z. Yet the lawyers and bureaucrats at EMI have shown zero flexibility and not a glimmer of interest in the artistic significance of this work. And without a clearly defined right to sample, the five major record labels will continue to use copyright in a reactionary and narrowly self-interested manner that limits and erodes creativity. Their actions are also self-defeating: good new music is being created that people want to buy, but the major labels are so obsessed with hoarding their copyrights that they are literally turning customers away.

Open-source software advocates often argue that arbitrary regulation stifles innovation and slows progress. Translating these arguments into fields like art and culture is always a dubious venture, but in the case of sampling there’s a pretty clear parallel; there is no question that the music you hear on the radio would be more diverse and exciting if DJs and producers weren’t trussed up by arbitrary regulations that have nothing to do with music.

Here’s just how ridiculous the Danger Mouse situation is:

1. Jay-Z intentionally took the step of releasing an a cappella version of the Black Album, with the specific purpose of facilitating remixes. For him, it encourages people to reuse his vocals which ultimately raises the status of the album (and increases sales of the original). At this point, neither he nor his record label have tried to stop the Grey Album. EMI claims copyright on the White Album, meaning that the Grey Album is being shut down to provide some sort of abstract “protection” to a 35 year old recording.

2. There was no legal way for Danger Mouse to make this album. A small, independent DJ would never be granted permission to sample Beatles recordings. Since there is no compulsory license for samples, as there is for cover songs, sample rates must negotiated directly with the record label. This means that labels can not only demand exorbitant rates, but that they can simply refuse to allow a particular use, effectively censoring certain types of music (even someone like Jay-Z might not be able to secure Beatles samples, no matter how much he offers). Copyright was originally included in the US Constitution to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts”; the law uses temporary copyright monopolies as a tool to encourage more creativity and innovation. But the major record labels have twisted that purpose into a copyright regime that inhibits creativity and innovation– it’s become a failure in its own terms.

3. Even if EMI’s general economic rights were thought to trump the public’s interest in hearing new music, neither EMI nor the Beatles will suffer any economic damages from Danger Mouse’s use of the White Album. There is nothing about the Grey Album that would discourage someone from purchasing the White Album— in fact it is likely to encourage a new generation of music fans to do so. So why does EMI want to shut it down? Because they’re trying to protect a precedent, not just prevent this particular use. Their fear is that if they permit any unauthorized use, they’ll lose their ability to protect the copyright in other situations. This means that not only are corporations deciding that certain art isn’t allowed to be created, but they aren’t even taking this extreme step with any direct economic justification.

4. EMI isn’t just trying to shut down a musician who they believe is unfairly profiting from the White Album, they’re also trying to censor the album entirely by preventing the public from hearing it. As noted above, cease and desist letters are being sent to websites that are giving the album away freely. And while EMI can’t keep the Grey Album off of filesharing networks, their lawsuits against families have scared many people away from using peer-to-peer software. There is simply no justification for denying or attempting to deny the public the right to hear this music.

Again, these points are just to emphasize that even in the most generous circumstances, the major labels’ response to sampling serves no public or private interest. But the overarching need to establish musicians’ right to sample should be examined first and foremost from the perspective of music and culture. The Negativland article, Changing Copyright, is the best starting point and speaks from experience; Negativland (a band) has an interesting and storied history fighting the RIAA over fair use and sampling rights.

By the way, we are scheming about a civil disobedience action in protest of EMI, so please stay posted.

Wired picks up Grey Album / EMI story

Saturday, February 14th, 2004

WIRED NEWS has picked up on the Grey Album / EMI story– they saw our press release from Wednesday and called us. Here’s the article: “Copyright Enters a Gray Area”.

One of the main reasons we started Downhill Battle was a frustration with the terms of the public debate about music. For years, record execs have not only been framing media coverage of the music business, by pushing stories from the industry perspective, but they’ve been virtually the only voice in the articles. We’re trying to bring a public perspective to the table by forcing the question: “what’s good for music, culture, and musicians?” rather than: “what’s good for major label profit forecasts?”

More Downhill Battle news clippings can be found on the press page.

CRIA goes to court

Friday, February 13th, 2004

OH CANADA, it seemed for a while like things were going to be a little bit more rational up there, but now the CRIA (the Canadian RIAA) has gone to court to obtain the identities of 29 suspected filesharers, in preparation for filing lawsuits. Even though downloading is legal in Canada, apparently the record companies think uploading is not. If there are any Canadians out there who would like to help with press, please drop us a line. Of course, the lawsuits aren’t going to do anything but make a few random families miserable for a while, and stimulate innovation in the lawsuit-proof- filesharing department.

We’ve already written about MUTE, the filesharing network completely obscures the identity of sharers. Now the people at The Big Hack are tackling the lawsuit problem from another angle, by playing Zen games with the very premise of digital copyright. A music file, after all, is just a very large number. So if a Metallica song is the number 5, for example, you could break it up into 3 and 2 (3+2=5). But a Madonna song could also be broken up, into 3 and 8, let’s say. Since 3 can be a part of both songs, no one can claim a copyright on it, and the same goes for 2, 8, and every other number. Combine uncopyrighted numbers in the right way, and you end up with a copyrighted song. The result could be a brightnet where all the information is out in the open, but where nobody can claim exclusive ownership of any one piece (and no one would have grounds to file a suit).

The troublemakers at The Big Hack are starting off by releasing two demo CDs full of completely legal content stored such that each block (like the number 3 in the example above) is used by multiple files. They’ve hinted that, once the two CDs have been distributed, they’ll show users how to rearrange the blocks into copyrighted information. The first CD, Shock, is already available for download (guess what the second CD is called).


Downhill Battle web buttons and banners have been quickly filling the new Sandbox— including this little beauty from our boy Andrew:

T-shirts and bumper stickers are in the works, and should be arriving very soon.

The “Grey Album”

Wednesday, February 11th, 2004

THE “GREY ALBUM” is an absolute must-download record. Created by DJ Danger Mouse, it remixes Jay-Z’s Black Album with the Beatles White Album, and it’s really good (just ask Rolling Stone or the Boston Globe). But since Danger Mouse has no way to get rights for the albums, the major labels say that the Grey Album is illegal.

The big five labels use copyright to stifle creative freedom in a number of ways, and EMI has just sent a cease-and-desist letter to Danger Mouse and the handful of record stores that were selling the 3,000 copy release. No one is suprised that EMI is trying to ban this album, they don’t care about artistic value, they just think about protecting their “property”. But these and similar actions should give pause to everyone who cares about innovative music and artistic creativity. Corporations, including the five major labels, have gradually and thoroughly perverted copyright law; hip-hop, with its history of sampling and remixes, suffers the most. You will probably never hear a track from the Grey Album on the radio, and that is simply a shame.

After Rebecca saw the news on MTV.com, we wrote up this press release and sent it out. One of the things we mention in the release is that almost everyone who has reviewed the album, downloaded a copy from filesharing networks– which the RIAA also claims is illegal. When even reviewers from major mainstream publications have to disobey the record companies in order to write about new music, something has gone very wrong, and it’s time to fix the system.

Since we issued the press release, we’ve learned that EMI (representing Capitol) doesn’t even hold a copyright on the sound recording of the White Album. The LP was released in 1968, before copyright on sound recordings existed (EMI may try to claim that they own a copyright on the CD remastering, but, hey, maybe Danger Mouse got the music from original vinyl). None of this matters, of course; it’s not as if Danger Mouse or any of the record stores sued have the resources to make this case in court. And even if he through some miracle beat EMI, the record could still be blocked by Michael Jackson and Sony (who own the publishing rights) or by Jay-Z’s label (though it’s worth noting that Jay-Z himself took the unusual step of releasing an a capella 12-inch of the entire album specifically so it could be remixed). The larger point is that the decision about what music can be created and released is in the hands of corporations, not musicians. If you’re a DJ, or you make sample-based music, you are not allowed to use your instrument to make the art you want to make. Imagine if John Lennon was in the studio and someone told him, “You’re not allowed to play that chord. Chuck Berry owns it already.” Anyone who doubts that sampling is an art should download the Grey Album right now. You can find it with Soulseek (pc) or Acquisition (mac).

One solution to this problem is anything but radical: compulsory licensing with a reasonable fee (this is how cover songs work: you cover a song, you pay a small percentage of your record sales). Predictably, music monopolists like EMI like complete control better than simple, painless improvements. And of course, at Downhill Battle we prefer more fundamental change.


We’ve got a new section on the site today, called the Sandbox. It’s a place for all of our outreach graphics like banners ads, website buttons, and buddy icons. If you run a website, maybe you can put one up. If you’re a designer, maybe you can make something beautiful (and effective). Big thanks to everyone who has submitted graphics so far, and we’re looking forward to getting even more.


Tuesday, February 10th, 2004

FEBRUARY AND MARCH are going to be big outreach months for Downhill Battle. First, there’s noncommercial radio: the interview with Nick ran in CMJ, we’ve already recorded some PSAs, and the next step is a big mailing to 100-200 college and community radio stations. Then there’s campus organizing: Rebecca is finding the people who want to do it, and getting together materials for them to start with (contact her to get in on that). Next there’s free weeklies: a group of volunteers recruited through the Get Involved page are putting together a contact list of journalists at independent weeklies who’ve been writing on this issue (up until now we’ve been focusing mainly on journalists at large daily newspapers). Finally, we’re starting an outreach effort to independent labels that still have their name on the RIAA members list. There are still some reputable independent labels on that list, and we don’t want them losing any business, what with all this RIAA-boycotting going on (the major labels try to get indies on the list to make the RIAA seem legit). Anyway, there’s an easy solution: we’ll just tell them what’s going on, and they’ll take their name off the list–it’s not as if it’s in their interest to be associated with the majors at a time like this. Again, to get in on any of these efforts, go to the Get Involved page.

Parallel to the outreach effort, we’ve just added a new section, Downhill Battle Postal. It’s going to be the central repository for the awesome physical stuff we can send you, and you can go there to stock up. Right now, there’s the “Warning” labels and our brand new sticker (above). We’re ramping up to start making t-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, and other stuff.

Outreach is vital to making this campaign a success. One of the new stickers stuck on the mirror in the bathroom of your favorite music venue brings cool people from your town to learn more on this site. Put one on your bag or on the inside of your car and someone will ask you “What the hell is that?” …and then you can tell them about this brand new movement that’s sorting out the clash between business and music. Finally, the (small) profit we make selling the stickers goes to our budget for the outreach mailings mentioned above (we need some money for postage and blank CDs).


The rumor is true: if you hold a Pepsi bottle at an angle and look up at the cap you can see whether it’s a winning iTunes cap. But use this knowledge wisely: there’s absolutely no reason to start buying Pepsi, even if every bottle comes with an iTune. If you’re already addicted to the stuff, so be it. But remember to be smart with that cap.

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Sage Francis Interview

Sunday, February 8th, 2004

RAPPER SAGE FRANCIS has just begun his Fuck Clear Channel Tour. Pretty cool, huh? Read our new interview with him and check him out on tour if you get a chance. Interview with Sage Francis.


Get the hastily-made Downhill Battle buddy icon to impress your friends and spread the word. As for other internet communications venues, Downhill Battle is now on Orkut and is still on Friendster. The email for both of those accounts is friendster|at|downhillbatte.org.


We’ve been reluctant in the past to ask for donations to Downhill Battle. It seems like a lot of websites are a little too quick to start seeking contributions and we wanted to make sure we had some real work under our belt first. But we’ve finally added a contribution button below the Resources section on this page. If you’d like to contribute, we would sincerely appreciate it– we’ve been running Downhill Battle on zero dollars and we could use a little help to cover costs and keep on trucking. Donate with PayPal.