Grey Tuesday, online cultural activism and the mash-up of music and politics (originally published in October 2004)

Sam Howard-Spink


This paper is included in the First Monday Special Issue: Music and the Internet, published in July 2005. Special Issue editor David Beer asked authors to submit additional comments regarding their articles.
I write this introduction on March 29, 2005 , the day that Internet file-sharing finally made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in MGM v. Grokster – for a full overview of the case see the EFF website, . It is a moment long-anticipated by the content industries and the resistive coalition of “copyfighters” – high noon in the nation’s highest legal institution. From this vantage point it would be premature to speculate on the case’s likely long-term impacts on the music industry – on and off-line – and technological innovation. What is certain is that more people are participants in the musical world than at any time in history, and a Supreme Court decision cannot arrest that tide. The mash-up aesthetic has spread since the Grey Album cast it into the public consciousness, from dedicated national radio shows to the 47th GRAMMY awards, which opened with an attempted live mash-up of six acts. Cease and desist letters remain a genuine threat to remix DJs and websites even as the scene’s emerging stars are courted by major labels. Meanwhile, Downhill Battle continues to develop creative and attention-grabbing activist projects centered on copyright and fair use issues. The lifespan of the mash-up genre cannot be predicted, but the combustible mixture of music and politics is perennial.
In 2003, a little–known DJ by the name of Danger Mouse created a "mash–up" album that remixed the music of the Beatles’ White Album and hiphop star Jay–Z’s Black Album to produce a new record called The Grey Album. The swift and draconian legal reaction to the online dissemination of this technically illegal but culturally fascinating artifact gave rise to a "day of digital civil disobedience," organized by music activism group Downhill Battle. Grey Tuesday, as the day of action was known, marks a potentially new site for a blend of online political and cultural activism in the highly charged realm of intellectual property expansionism. This paper examines emergent examples of musical and Internet activism including a detailed look at Grey Tuesday itself; considers the cultural significance of the mash–up genre and the value of the musical "amateur;" and concludes with a brief consideration of "semiotic democracy" and the new mix — or, if you will, mash–up — of culture and politics that has emerged as a consequence of the rise of digital networks.

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