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Music activist champions outlaws

March 31, 2004|John Jurgensen | Hartford Courant

Many of the people involved in the guerrilla war against the music industry are simply out to get free stuff. They are de facto combatants, downloading songs in anonymity -- unless, that is, the industry flushes them out with a lawsuit.

Then there are individuals who stage more conspicuous offensives. People like 24-year-old Holmes Wilson, who stepped into the role of music activist last August, when he and friend Nicholas Reville started a legal defense fund for file swappers sued by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Out of a home in Worcester, Mass., they run Downhill Battle, an advocacy group that wants to rid the market of what he calls the "oligopoly" of major labels that dominate the recording industry. From sticker campaigns to a subversion of a music-based Pepsi promotion, Downhill Battle has built a reputation through grassroots multitasking.

Last week, the group launched its latest effort, BannedMu sic.org, a free source for music that the major labels consider illegal and onerous. One of the recordings available is the creation of a Los Angeles producer and DJ that touched off a controversy at the start of the year, solidifying Downhill Battle's role as a organizational force.

By painstakingly melding the vocal tracks from rapper Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with musical swatches from the Beatles' "White Album," DJ Danger Mouse concocted his own "Grey Album." He only pressed a few thousand copies, but as underground acclaim erupted, the Beatles' publisher, EMI, responded with a storm of cease-and-desist letters.

Downhill Battle got a threatening letter when it organized Grey Tuesday, a day in February when almost 200 websites offered the album for download.

"That was really, really exciting," Wilson says.

"We expected to be sued the following day, and it's more than a month later, and we haven't heard from them," Wilson says.

It was a defining moment for Downhill Battle and for the issue that the group has chosen as its main platform: the freedom to sample music.

As a musical tool, sampling -- the lifting of musical riffs and phrases from other recordings -- came into its own with the emergence of rap. But in the early 1990s, musicians who had been sampled fought back.

In the years after that legal crackdown, Wilson says, "they started jacking up the prices [for permission to sample]. You couldn't really use samples legally without a major label behind you." Today, the logistical and financial burden for independent musicians who create sample-based music is far too great, he says. Downhill Battle proposes a more regulated procedure for clearing samples, something akin to the royalties-based permission musicians obtain when they want to cover a song written by someone else.

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