On 24th February 2004, a music activist group called Downhill Battle organised Grey Tuesday, an event where site owners turned their sites grey and/or hosted DJ Danger Mouse’s iconic album, ‘The Grey Album’. The purpose was to protest EMI’s attempts to halt its release, despite Jay-Z and the remaining members of The Beatles (Ringo and Paul) approving the project.
The Grey Album
Earlier that month, Danger Mouse produced The Grey Album with the intention of releasing 3,000 copies. It was a mashup of Jay-Z acapellas from his album, ‘The Black Album’, and The Beatles’s ‘The White Album’. Danger Mouse did so without permission to sample either body of work. Like with many forms of mashup music, the media loved it and publications ranked it highly, including Entertainment Weekly who awarded it Best Album of 2004 and The Village Voice, who ranked it #10 on its annual Pazz and Jop poll.
Danger Mouse said he was obsessed with the project and just wanted to see if he could do it.
I stuck to those two because I thought it would be more challenging and more fun and more of a statement to what you could do with sample alone. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things, it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.
EMI Music’s response and Downhill Battle’s counteraction
EMI, however, wasn’t as enthusastic about its release. The major record company held the copyrights for The Beatles’s music and ordered Danger Mouse and any retailers selling the album to stop doing so. That’s when Downhill Battle created Grey Tuesday, as an act of online protest. The group called on willing participants to post MP3 copies of The Grey Album for free download on their site for 24 hours on the grounds that the sampling was fair use.
This first-of-its-kind protest signals a refusal to let major label lawyers control what musicians can create and what the public can hear. The Grey Album is only one of the thousands of legitimate and valuable efforts that have been stifled by the record industry– not to mention the ones that were never even attempted because of the current legal climate. We cannot allow these corporations to continue censoring art; we need common-sense reforms to copyright law that can make sampling legal and practical for artists.Downhill Battle on the album
The result was 170 sites hosting the album and over 100,000 copies downloaded that day alone. While many participants got cease and desist letters from EMI, no one was charged.
Danger Mouse’s response
In response to the furore surrounding The Grey Album, Danger Mouse said he never intended for there to be a copyright battle.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen. I just sent out a few tracks (and) now online stores are selling it and people are downloading it all over the place.
It was not my intent to break copyright laws. It was my intent to make an art project.”
16 years later, what has changed?
The reason I wrote this was how it reminded me of Blackout Tuesday a few months ago. Not for the underlying nature of the events as they were significantly different but the parallels between taking a stand against record companies. Blackout Tuesday was later appropriated by people who didn’t understand its meaning and turned it into performative activism. I can’t speak on what success Grey Tuesday achieved but looking at both, I’d say the record companies are still high and mighty and the artists who work for them—or against them—are still at their mercy.
Artists like Amerigo Gazaway, who received cease and desist letters from Sony over mashup album, ‘Bizarre Tribe: Quest To The Pharcyde’, and Jonwayne, who got pulled up for using a similar design to Marlboro’s packaging for his album, ‘Cassette’, are 2 of many who have felt the wrath of major corporations scared of not adding a few extra bucks on top of their millions.
Having protest days are noble but we need systematic changes if we want creative and social freedoms. There needs to be an end to exploitation of Black people in the music industry and record companies ruling music with iron fists. There also needs to be an acknowledgement that those two things are not mutually exclusive.
Sampling is not theft. Deal with it.