On February 24, more than 100,000 people downloaded DJ Danger Mouse’s Jay-Z/Beatles hybrid The Grey Album, according to music activists Downhill Battle, who organized the Grey Tuesday online protest.
Two weeks earlier, EMI, which owns the Beatles’ catalog, had served Danger Mouse with a cease-and-desist order to halt production and distribution of The Grey Album. He complied and left the issue alone, but Downhill Battle picked up the fight.
They conceived of Grey Tuesday as a way to fight what they call EMI’s “corporate censorship” — denying the public the chance to hear a work they felt had great artistic merit.
“We thought it was really important for our site to distribute this album,” said 23-year-old Nicolas Reville of Downhill Battle, “because for the public to make decisions about whether the copyright law we have now is the one that’s best, people need to hear it. If people can’t hear it, nobody knows what they’re missing.”
Reville and his Downhill Battle cohorts Holmes Wilson, 23, and Rebecca Laurie, 18, rallied Web sites to host free downloads of The Grey Album and to turn their pages grey as a symbolic demonstration. Close to 200 sites offered the files for download, and some 250 more went grey.
It was an enormous success that shined a media spotlight on the little-known group, which was started in August with the goal of representing consumers in issues regarding music creation and distribution. Downhill Battle has taken an ideological — and some would say idealistic — stance against the business of music, going so far as to call on fellow activists to sticker retail CDs with labels decrying major-label lawsuits against file-sharers. (The stickers are available on the group’s Web site, downhillbattle.org.)
“We started Downhill Battle because we felt like the file-sharing issue and the debate about the music industry had become completely one-sided,” Reville said. “Major-label record executives were trying to say that file-sharing was ruining music, when really it was our best chance to break the major-label monopoly.”
At the heart of The Grey Album fight, however, was not file-sharing but the way laws affecting sampling impact hip-hop and electronic music. Currently, a producer like Danger Mouse must get permission and pay a negotiated fee to sample copyrighted material. In this case, that would have meant clearing samples with both Jay-Z and the Beatles. The Beatles catalog is notoriously guarded and they do not allow their music to be sampled.
“Protecting artistic works is an important part of what a music company does — just as it is an important part of any intellectual-property business to protect its content,” an EMI spokesperson said in a statement given to MTV News. “When EMI became aware of this unauthorized use of [the Beatles’] The White Album, it asked the DJ to stop. When EMI became aware that others were illegally distributing this unauthorized work on the Internet, we asked them to stop. EMI authorizes remixes and samples all the time. There is a well-established market for licensing samples and remixes. In this case, the DJ did not ask us permission and never attempted to use established channels.”
But Downhill Battle argues that in reality, getting Beatles samples cleared is next to impossible and that the laws currently guiding copyright don’t adhere to the post-modern notion of collage, or samples — one of the key ingredients of hip-hop and electronic music. It’s a debate as old as the genres themselves.
“In the visual arts you have people like Picasso or Rauschenberg who are creating artwork out of collage,” Reville said. “For music, the rules are totally different and musicians that build a collage are treated like criminals. We need to find a way to change that to make sampling practical.”
For now, Downhill Battle are ready if and when EMI decides to pursue legal action over Grey Tuesday. They said they have several lawyers interested in their position who have offered pro-bono services.
They also like to point out the difference between the way the issue has been handled by the two artists involved. Jay-Z encourages remixing of his farewell, The Black Album, and issued an a cappella version just for that purpose.
“There’s a huge amount of attention to him and his work now,” said Reville. “It’s gotten back to us that [Jay-Z] loves The Grey Album and that everyone at Roc-A-Fella loves the album. They haven’t intervened legally. They’ve been much smarter than EMI and the Beatles because I think they understand the issues more.”