Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.
The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.
The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.
In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.
Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.
So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.
Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.
Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.
I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.
So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.
Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).
And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.
Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.
A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.
One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.
The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.
Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.
Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.
 This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post: https://www.epsilontheory.com/in-praise-of-bitcoin/