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The “Grey Album”

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.

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