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Grey Tuesday and Music Activism

GREY TUESDAY EXCEEDED everyone’s expectations. When we put the word out about this protest, we had no idea how many sites would join in (over 400 did). When EMI’s lawyers sent legal threats on Monday afternoon to people who were planning to host the album, we had no idea how many would risk getting sued to make this important political stand (over 170 did). We didn’t know we’d get messages of solidarity from prominent political and intellectual forces like the EFF and Lawrence Lessig, but we did (and thanks). All of us who took part in this protest have done a lot to spur a rethinking of copyright law in terms of what’s good for musicians and what’s good for our music culture. And we’ve made it more apparent than ever how the major record labels have twisted the original purpose of copyright law (“to promote the progress of science and the useful arts”) in order to suppress music that doesn’t flow through their system.

And there are other pressing problems:

  • Payola. – The five major record labels pay radio stations to play their songs, making it impossible for independent labels to get mainstream airplay. It’s simply mind-boggling that this has become an accepted practice, and payola is just as much a problem now as it was when Congress tried to outlaw it in the 1950’s More info.
  • Coercion – Musicians know that unless they sign with a major, they will be effectively blacklisted from radio. So if they want their music to reach a large audience, they are forced to accept whatever record deal a major label offers.
  • Exploitative Contracts – Major label contracts mean that when you spend $15 on a CD, the musician gets less than a dollar, and in many cases they get nothing at all. It sounds almost impossible, but it’s a fact of the modern record industry. More info
  • Our Music Culture Suffers – When some of the best musicians are barred from mainstream radio and when many of the songs we do hear are only there because the station has been bribed, music suffers.

These problems persist because 85% of the music market is controlled by a small cartel of five major labels. A quick glance at the existing economy of independent record labels reveals how things could be different. Independent labels don’t bribe radio stations, they can’t force musicians into contracts, and they don’t sue independent hip hop producers for sampling their records (especially when it’s clearly boosting their own sales). There’s no longer any economic rationale for huge consolidated labels that control production, marketing, and distribution (not to mention that these are some of the worst-run companies in the world). The only reason the major labels have managed to stay alive is through anti-competitive bullying and collusion; just ask any independent label owner. But if the major label monopoly fell apart tomorrow, independent and artist-run labels would quickly fill the void and we’d finally have a genuinely competitive music business. Musicians, their fans, and the public as a whole would be far better off.

There’s nothing new about this analysis; musicians have been complaining about the major label system for years. What’s new is that change could actually become a reality. Peer-to-peer networks and home CD-copiers are pushing the major labels’ business model to the point of collapse. Fans, no longer held captive, have no reason to keep paying into a corrupt system. Meanwhile many independent labels and musicians are thriving: the cost of recording an album (or building a recording studio) is plummeting, and musicians who want to book a tour or sell music directly to their fan base have more options than ever before. The major record labels are on the brink, and there’s a chance to break their monopoly forever.

Everyone who took part in Grey Tuesday showed that people who care passionately about music can band together to support it and to defend it. EMI tried to shut down the Grey Album, and we simply said no. If we now decide that we want to permanently change the shape of the music industry, the major labels have no way to stop us.

UPDATE:After a quick preliminary survey of sites that hosted files during Grey Tuesday, we are certain that the Grey Album was the number one album in the country yesterday (by a lot). Danger Mouse “moved” more units than Norah Jones and Kanye West, with over 100,000 copies downloaded. That’s more than 1 million digital tracks. More details soon.

2nd UPDATE: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has issued a brief legal analysis of the Grey Tuesday protest, which strongly supports the fair-use rights of the protesters. Read it here.

Some press coverage of Grey Tuesday (and click here for the latest from google news):

-New York Times “Defiant Downloads Rise From Underground”
-E! Online “Grey Tuesday: Copyright or Wrong?”
-MTV News news headlines
-BBC News “Beatles remix web protest”

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