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Archive for April, 2004

FMC Conference and VCL in Canada

Friday, April 30th, 2004

WE’RE HEADING DOWN TO D.C. this weekend to participate in the Future of Music Coalition conference. Holmes will be on a panel discussion entitled, “The Celestial Jukebox: Fact, Fiction, Future?”. It should be pretty interesting, there’s a lot of very smart people who are thinking about where the music industry is headed. Our approach going into a conference like this is to look for ways we can work on real action plans, whether they’re web projects, software projects, or political organizing projects. Sometimes it feels like we have plenty of ideas and expertise floating around about these issues, but there’s not enough happening on the ground to make things like voluntary collective licensing come to life (see the EFF proposal for more on VCL). There’s also people from the major labels who’ll be there, so things could get a little rowdy (don’t bet on it, though).

Along the same lines, we’ve been thinking a lot about Canada these days. It’s a small country (30 million) with strong independent music scenes and a reasonably responsive political system. But most of all, Canada right now is very fertile political ground for artist-friendly approaches to online music distribution. The recent Canadian court ruling that filesharing is not illegal has created a situation where legislators feel that something needs to be done. And while legislators’ first instinct will be to fall back on reactionary laws that criminalize filesharing, it should be possible to propose a system that would benefit everyone: voluntary collective licensing. We need to get a better understanding of the political landscape in Canada right now, but the right kind of organizing campaign could dramatically change the debate. If Canada were to adopt VCL, it would be a concrete demonstration of a musician-friendly alternative to the RIAA’s ugly lawsuit spree, just north of the border.

Finally, while the Canadian court ruling seems to have created an unusual opportunity for progress, there are many countries that could serve as launch pads for the global adoption of VCL. To our readers outside the United States: survey the political scene and see what it will take to make VCL part of the digital music debate. Then get in touch.


Claire Chanel and Scary Sherman (of jayzconstructionset and riaamix fame) made it onto TechTV. ‘Scary’ made the decision to only speak through Jay-Z samples, which he plays off his laptop. Watch the segment. Moral of the story: do some cool copyright art project and you can be on TV. What are you waiting for?


And here’s a strange little item for the weekend (linking to this blog is a bit strange, just click on the second story down): And the award for Best “I just got fired from the music industry” Email goes to….

In yo face, iTunes

Thursday, April 29th, 2004

WE LOVE IT WHEN THIS HAPPENS. Yesterday, Apple released a new version of iTunes, and they made some changes on the server side that put our iTMS-4-ALL script out of commission. Well, one day later it’s fixed and back in business (thanks Jason Rohrer). A similar success story was posted to Slashdot today. Apple had changed the authentication process in order to break some open source tools for listening to iTunes streams, and within 24 hours this hero in Australia hacked things back together again. We have big plans for that little iTunes script, so it felt good to win this round of the arms race so quickly.

One other quick note: DJ Dangermouse, famous for putting out the Grey Album, has a new political project with MURS. You should read his page for details.

iTunes per iPod dot com

Wednesday, April 28th, 2004

IS APPLE’S iPOD A GOOD THING or a bad thing? We think it’s definitely a good thing, and here’s one reason why: as of April 15th, Apple had sold around 2.9 million iPods and about 60 million iTunes. If you do the math, that works out to about 21 iTunes per iPod. Given that even the smallest iPods hold 1,000 songs, and some hold 10,000, I think we can safely say that iPods are helping to break the major label monopoly. For fun statistics on the anniversary of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, we give you:


On that page and in other recent posts you’ll notice that we’re really pushing Voluntary Collective Licensing (VCL). There’s a reason for that: of all the systems for online music distribution VCL makes the most sense from an efficiency standpoint and, more importantly, it would be amazing for musicians, independent labels, and our music culture as a whole. If you haven’t yet, have a look at the EFF’s proposal, or check out other proposals at Click-the-Vote. We are 100% focused on making this thing a reality, and we’ll be talking more about strategy in upcoming posts.

Christian Rock, Values, and the Major Labels

Monday, April 26th, 2004

CHRISTIAN ROCK is one of the many popular genres that have been completely sidelined by the major record labels. You don’t hear it on the radio in most major markets, you don’t see it on MTV, and you can’t find it in most record stores. This New York Times article examines why most Christian rock bands support filesharing– they want to spread their religious beliefs as widely as possible and filesharing is a great way to do that. In fact, Christian rock fans are just as likely to fileshare as fans of other kinds of music, something that surprises a lot of people.

But support for filesharing and a desire to change the structure of the music industy is an issue that spans the political spectrum. The right, the left, libertarians, and a lot of people in between are fed up with the current system and are ready to make a change. What unites us all on this issue is values. And by “values” we aren’t using a code word for one particular set of values, as people often do. We really mean any values. It may sound cliche, but the major labels are truly valueless; they function exclusively to create wealth for a very small number of executives, investors, and superstars (not so much for the investors these days). Worse than just lacking values, the major labels actively force values out. They muzzle public expressions of values by artists because they fear it could politicize their calculated corporate neutrality. And the industry blocks independent labels from expressing values in the mainstream by bribing radio stations to keep out competition.

So, if you care about music because you think it can build community, because you think it can spread a belief system, because you think it can change politics, because you are inspired by musicians, or simply because you think it is beautiful– then you and your music are being marginalized. “But,” an economist might protest, “the music business is a business, and we need big corporations to pick out music for the rest of us and distribute it across the country.” Well, perhaps at some point in our history musicians did need companies with deep pockets to spread their music far and wide, but things have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Recording studios are cheap, it’s simple to burn or print CDs, and the internet provides every musician with an international distribution network. There’s no longer any economic justification for conglomerate record labels. The only reason the major labels are able to lumber along at all is because they use their monopoly power to force everyone into their system.

Which brings us back to filesharing. Filesharing networks have created the greatest music library the world has ever seen, one that’s easier to use than anyone would have ever thought possible. Children are growing up with broader access to music than ever before and millions of teenagers hear a greater variety of music in a year than their parents have heard in their entire lives. And there is a simple, clear, and practical way to let this music library thrive and get musicians more money than they’re making now (read about it). Would anyone who cares about music as a personal or social good want to destroy the music library and pass up musicians’ best chance in decades at making a decent living? Of course not. But the major labels aren’t in this because they care, so they look at these breakthroughs and see no value at all, just a new set of conditions that will make their monopoly harder to maintain. To solve this “problem”, they’re literally asking the government to declare everyone who’s moving towards this new and better system a felon.

Every day we see Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are clamoring to prop-up an outdated industry that negates every value they espouse, whether it’s individual liberties, the public good, or Christian sprituality. For a politician, taking cash from Hollywood in exchange for favors has always been an easy way to boost your campaign funding without causing a lot of controversy– who in the world pays attention to bills about copyright law anyway? Fortunately, that’s starting to change. Stay tuned over the next couple weeks for ways you can help us deliver a wake up call.


The student movement for free culture kickoff on Friday (see the previous post) was great. Get involved and stay tuned at freeculture.org.


Be a t-shirt factory!

Student Free Culture Movement

Friday, April 23rd, 2004

Student Free Culture Movement

Student Free Culture Movement

Thursday, April 22nd, 2004

THIS FRIDAY AT SWARTHMORE College, Downhill Battle will be at the kick-off event of the new international student movement for free culture. Leading copyright intellectual Lawrence Lessig will be giving a talk about his new book, Free Culture, and the first meeting of this new student organization (no official name yet) will follow. Swarthmore is just outside Philadelphia, and you’re all invited. Check out the press release hosted on the new freeculture.org.

“Free culture” is the idea that culture should be open, shared, and collaborative and shouldn’t be locked down by governments or corporations. It’s ‘free as in free speech’, not as in ‘free stuff’. In music, that means sampling rights for artists, it means fair use rights for the public, and it means freeing independent music from the major label monopoly that maginalizes indie labels and musicians and bribes radio stations to keep them off the air.

This new student organizing project is beginning as a collaboration between the Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons (SCDC) and Downhill Battle, but it’s going to get a lot bigger than that. Students have always been in a unique position of power; they have energy, free time, and influence over some of societies most powerful institutions: colleges and universities. And there’s already a huge amount of interest on campuses in issues such as filesharing, online rights, copyright reform, and open-source software. Imagine what could happen if that interest turned into political action. That’s exactly what Swarthmore’s SCDC is already doing; it’s working, and it’s going to spread fast.

For example, what if students across the US and around the world demanded that their schools only use free and open-source software in computer labs and administrative offices? Tons of students are absolutely fanatical about linux, and they have the political power on campus to make this happen, whether they realize it or not. All they need is a little kick to start thinking strategically about spreading linux and then to get outside and make it happen. Spreading linux means curtailing Microsoft’s ability to force DRM schemes onto the public. That is a very big deal for the future of music.

Big thanks to Deity Limited for developing the freeculture.org site. It’s a modular, standards-based, open-source weapon of justice.

Project RIAA-mix

Thursday, April 22nd, 2004

YOU KNOW THOSE FAKE SONGS put out by the labels on filesharing networks that have 20 seconds of music followed by intense screeching noise? Claire Chanel and Scary Sherman, the hilariously-pseudonymed music activists behind jayzconstructionset.com, are now telling us that these annoying fakes constitute an entirely new subgenre of music: the RIAA-mix (get it? re-mix, riaa-mix?). They’ve put out a compilation of some of the greats of this genre, including “remixes” of Aerosmith, 50 cent, Sheryl Crow, and G&R. Apparently, Loudeye and Overpeer, the companies that create these ear-bleeding gems and propagate them on filesharing networks, are a superproducer duo– like Pharrel & Chad only a lot noisier. Don’t understand any of this? Check out riaamix.com.

Philosophical stumper: in addition to providing mp3s and streaming audio, Chanel and Sherman are selling the CD. Now what if they get sued for selling the songs the RIAA wants us to download?

Gavin Castelon – New Buttons

Sunday, April 18th, 2004

GAVIN CASTLETON IS A RAPPER who’s toured with Sage Francis, and when he saw our interview with Sage he sent us a link to a really hot track on his last album. It’s about the what’s wrong with the music industry and what Gavin calls an “artistic cleansing” that’s on its way. It’s a good song, too. Here’s the mp3 (don’t let the long intro throw you off): The Great American Bottleneck.

You can check out the song’s lyrics and bibliography, hear more songs, and give Gavin some support by buying his album, going to a show, or making a donation.


       New Buttons!

We’ve got 2 new buttons for sale in our Postal Department, designed by Allison Gore.

Get some for you and your friends.




DJ Neil Armstrong – Mixtape Crackdown

Saturday, April 17th, 2004

DJ NEIL ARMSTRONG MAKES GREAT MUSIC that the current system says is illegal. He creates clever and listenable mixtapes, most famously the Original series, where he connects the dots between modern hip hop songs and the soul and R & B that they sample from. Is sampling about sampling legal? Meta-legal? The major labels certainly don’t care, and stores that sell mixtapes are afraid. As he says in our new interview:

Don’t get me wrong; people still sell [mixtapes] out here, but it’s different. They don’t display them out in the open. If you call a store, and ask them, “Do you sell mix tapes?” they will always say no, even if they do.
Read the interview with Neil

This crackdown on mixtapes is devastating small hip hop record stores. Just this past week we were contacted by Alan Berry, whose Indianapolis record store was raided by the RIAA last fall.

We have since lost both of our stores. 14 years of blood sweat and hip-hop gone. Have to sell everything for legal defense. Even my home is on the market. I can’t get a job with 13 felonies hanging on my resume. My court date is less than a month away. So please anyone that knows someone that can help me, pass this info to them. I BEG for myself and my family. I don’t think anyone should go to jail for selling mix cds. To my brothers in the industry, please help get the word out. My time is short. Thanks.
Read more about the raid

Berry’s store was not involved with selling pirate copies–just mix CDs. The same mix CDs that the majors themselves use as a promotional channel and as a pipeline for discovering new artists. It is an established industry practice to use the underground mixtape scene to generate buzz for a new artist or album (see this trailer for a new documentary). Cracking down on the mixtape scene is clearly counterproductive for the majors, but they’re willing to shoot themselves in the foot in their desperate fight to maintain control. Alan told ballerstatus “You will see a lot of urban music stores closing without mixes.” Yeah, and a 50-cent fan will feel really cool picking up the clean version of the latest G-Unit album here.

We’d be fine with the major labels destroying their last shreds of credibility in the hip hop community, except that family businesses who actually care about music are getting stepped on. If you live in the Indianapolis area, Alan Berry’s court date is approaching, and he needs help. Contact us if you’re down to help.

iTMS as a starting point

Friday, April 16th, 2004

OUR FRIEND JASON ROHRER, creator of the secure filesharing software MUTE and the Downhill Battle Peer-to-Peer Legal Defense Fund, has just written a great script that can search and display song and album results from the iTunes Music Store. We are psyched to present the script today: you can try it out here and you can get the source code here.

As Jason points out, this simple web interface is just the beginning. The iTunes database of song information, while very limited in its musical selection compared to filesharing networks, could serve as a key foundation for making peer-to-peer programs more welcoming and more vital.
One important use of Jason’s script would be to get information about whether a song or album is released by a major label or an independent (similar to the web functionality of RIAA Radar). This would make it easier for people who are searching for music determine whether or not they want to pay to support the label that releases it. As simple as it sounds, this could have a major political impact as people start to think more concretely about whether their music dollars are really going to musicians or just to radio station bribes and multi-million dollar executive salaries.

A second, and more elaborate use of this data source, would be to add browsability to filesharing software. People think about music in terms of bands, genres, and album, but filesharing software forces people to search by keywords–it’s just not a very music-oriented experience. If getting music can be more like browsing through All Music Guide it will make the great things about filesharing even better. The iTMS database could be a starting point for a filesharing program that lets users browse by genre, artist, and album, and then searches for the music on the network.

We hope that programmers and web designers will be interested in pursuing some of these ideas. We’ve made a page with more details about these two concepts as well as other, more complicated, ways that this script could have an impact. Read it.