First Monday

Grey Tuesday, online cultural activism and the mash-up of music and politics by Sam Howard-Spink

Special Issue Update

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 & 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.


Online activism — questions
Copyright activism on the rise
Examples of music activism
Grey Tuesday in detail
Grey Tuesday’s implications for online activism
History of the mash–up
The value of the musical amateur
The politics of the mash–up and "semiotic democracy"
Conclusion: Mashing–up cultural activity and political activism





In late 2003, California DJ Brian Burton — a.k.a. Danger Mouse — created an album that blended the music of the Beatles’ White Album with the vocal tracks from hiphop star Jay–Z’s Black Album to produce a new record that he called the Grey Album. This hybrid belonged to a musical genre known as "mash–up" or "bootleg," a variation on sample–based recordings that had been bubbling under in clubs and on the Internet since around 2000. EMI Records and Capitol Records, the owners of the copyright on the sound recordings of the White Album, reacted strongly to the release and threatened legal action against Mr. Burton and anyone who sold or distributed the Grey Album [ 1]. This move prompted a burgeoning music activist group, Downhill Battle (, to jump into the fray with a call for a day of protest on 24 February 2004, dubbed Grey Tuesday. On this day of digital civil disobedience, participating Web sites and blogs offered Danger Mouse’s mash–up for download in defiance of EMI’s legal threats.

The tale of the Grey Album and Grey Tuesday offers a rich case study for the examination of a wide variety of contemporary cultural issues within the context of the "copyright wars," remix culture and the age of the digital network. In this paper I explore a handful of them: emergent forms of online activism; the cultural significance of mash–ups and sample–based music; and finally, the mash–up–like blend of cultural activity and political activism that Grey Tuesday encapsulates. The first section lays out some basic questions about online activism, and then examines recent examples of political activism centered around copyright generally and music specifically. This will provide the foundation for a detailed look the Grey Tuesday event itself, which offers a unique lens through which a re–examination of online activism can take place. This is followed by section on the history of the mash–up and a reconsideration of the value of the musical "amateur" (via Hennion, 1996). I conclude with a brief consideration of "semiotic democracy," the politics of remixing and the new blend of culture and politics that has emerged since the rise of digital networks.



Online activism — questions

The emergence of the Internet as a tool for political activism presents researchers with a variety of questions, some of which are explored by contributors to an anthology on "cyberactivism" (McCaughey and Ayers, 2003). For example, given that a significant risk in political activism has historically involved a willingness to put one’s body on the line, does the absence of such a body in cyberspace compromise the effectiveness of online activism [ 2]? In what ways does cyberactivism demand or depend on real life (RL) activism, and under what conditions can a purely online act (for example the signing of an e–mail petition) cause genuine political change? A question related directly to the political–opportunities model of social movement theory (McAdam, 1982; cited in McCaughey and Ayers) might ask: "To what extent does the Internet create or not create activist opportunities?" As we shall see, Grey Tuesday offers some unique approaches to answering these questions, as well as providing raw material for the framing of new ones.

A fundamental question the Grey Tuesday protest lays bare is: "Can the Internet be used for protest, or does it simply support RL protests?" It is obvious that the Internet is a valuable tool for organizing and information exchange (for example at anti–WTO protests since Seattle in 1999), and until very recently it was used almost exclusively to facilitate meetings, events and engagements in–the–flesh, or "meatspace" as it is sometimes derisively referred to. However, there are specific and unique forms of online protest such as those used by "hacktivists" — online sit–ins and Web page spoofing being two examples — that allow us to conceptualize the Internet as a venue and tool for protest in and of itself. Again, there are specific aspects of the Grey Tuesday story that suggest this is indeed the case.

One of the measures of any activism event’s success is the extent to which it garners mass, mainstream media attention — indeed in many cases bringing issues to a wider audience may be the sole purpose of activism at all. Jonah Peretti’s now infamous e–mail exchange with Nike over customizing a pair of shoes with the word "sweatshop" was certainly an example of successful online activism, but it reached a new status of effectiveness entirely when it was covered in newspapers and NBC’s The Today Show. This is another area worth exploring with regard to Grey Tuesday. The album was already garnering mainstream attention in magazines and newspapers, but the political dimension of the story was made explicit by the protest, which in turn kept the story alive beyond its expected lifespan.



Copyright activism on the rise

Copyright has long been too arcane and complex a subject to engender much in the way of a public recognition of its inherent political importance. One of the reasons for this is that in the analog, material world, it did a relatively sound job. With the signing into law of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the most recent expansion of "limited times" under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the copyright balance has tilted so far in favor of established intellectual property accumulators that it has produced a growing body of opposition (Vaidhyanathan, 2004a).

Events such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of Eldred v. Ashcroft [ 3], the Sklyarov arrest [ 4] and the Edward Felten case [ 5] drew the attention and ire of those on the front lines of the issues: copyright owners on the one hand and users and developers of digital products on the other. But it has often been the legal attacks on digital music services and technologies that pushed the issue of copyright absolutism on to the front pages of newspapers, into evening news segments, and thus ultimately into the lives of the general public. Napster so captured the imagination of computer users that its demise at the hands of the music industry’s lawsuits not only created a "digital Hezbollah," in the entertaining hyperbole of John Perry Barlow (2000), but also spawned a wave of new peer–to–peer systems, many of which were themselves forms of activism on the parts of programmers against the corporate oligopoly of the major labels.

The failure to outlaw P2P systems outright led to a shift in tactics and the strategy of filing thousands of lawsuits against individual "uploaders" of songs on to P2P networks. This move was both hailed and reviled as a PR move, given that it brought the issue to prominence all across the mainstream media while also signaling that the recording industry was willing to criminalize its own customers — in many cases teenagers without the resources to defend themselves in court — to protect its anachronistic business model.

Copyright has long been too arcane and complex a subject to engender much in the way of a public recognition of its inherent political importance.

The steady expansion of copyright controls as they apply in the digital realm has produced a movement of resistance comprised of software developers and programmers, librarians, academics and more traditional media activists, as well as ordinary citizens (Lessig, 2004). In some cases activist organizations such as the Electronic Frontier ( Foundation and Public Knowledge ( take what is known as a "public interest" approach and focus their attention on established venues of debate — the courts, newspapers and other media outlets. They operate within the confines of the law and acceptable establishment discourse. The Future of Music Coalition ( is a similar case: a not-for-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C. that lobbies for musicians’ rights and seeks to play a role in policy debate on music, intellectual property and technology issues.

However, as in any large and growing activist movement, there are radical fringe elements that operate under the assumption that resistance according to the terms laid down by the establishment is analogous to playing in a fixed game. It is this category that Downhill Battle, the organization behind Grey Tuesday, falls into.

Vaidhyanathan describes two rhetorical strategies that might shift the copyright debate away from the "property–talk trap" that has thus far framed it in favor of the content industries. The first is to borrow a page from the environment movement of 40 years ago and to start to engage in "commons talk" that over time could build a level of public concern about how information is used, transferred and owned in society (see also Boyle, 1997). The second strategy involves a targeting of the uses and users of copyrighted material, which almost by definition includes everyone in society. Based on the simple premise of the "right to read," such an activism seeks to bring to people’s attention the fact their old uses of copyrighted material, for example making a mix CD, are now either under threat or perhaps already illegal. The Grey Album itself is an excellent example of such a new and intriguing use of musical material, and the Grey Tuesday event consolidated its political relevance.



Examples of music activism

Music has long been recognized as having political power (Attali, 1985; Sakolsky and Wei–Han Ho, 1995). An extremely short list might point to such examples as slave spirituals that evolved into the Blues; Woodie Guthrie’s guitar that proclaimed "this machine kills fascists"; the 1960s counter–culture movement’s protest songs asking "What are we fighting for?"; the emergence of punk in Wilsonian England’s "winter of discontent" of the 1970s; Public Enemy’s rallying cry to "Fight the Power."

More recently there have been efforts to capitalize specifically on music’s capacity to involve a wide range of people, and youth in particular, in a new engagement with the political process. The three examples below reveal the diversity of means — but similarity of goals — of different groups attempting to galvanize and foster political involvement through an identification with music.

This is closer to a genuinely new kind of activism, one that blends explicitly cultural issues with wider political concerns and engagements, facilitated through the use and deployment of new technologies that engender new kinds of support for, and contact between, members. To the extent that it offers a wide range of music for download, MfA is also participating in a new form of political/cultural meaning–creation and dissemination the likes of which was not possible before the Internet.



Grey Tuesday in detail

The press release [ 10] sent out by Downhill Battle (DB) announcing Grey Tuesday clearly lays out the rationale behind the event. It is an "online protest" to offer free downloads of an album "being censored by a lawsuit threat from EMI Records" and is explicitly described as "an act of civil disobedience against a copyright regime that routinely suppresses musical innovation." The strongly confrontational rhetoric, which is characteristic of radical political activism, is taken up by DB’s co–founders, who are quoted accusing the major record labels of turning copyright law "into a weapon," and seeking "to ban a work of art" with no interest in actual compensation. The public is "fighting back" against a handful of corporations that have "radically perverted" the intentions of the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting to note that one of the key platforms for the justification of the action is that the Grey Album had been "critically acclaimed" by such publications as Rolling Stone ("the ultimate remix record" and "ingenious"), the Boston Globe ("the most creatively captivating" album of the year) and the New Yorker in a Talk of the Town piece (all cited in 10). Downhill Battle strikes a particularly strong chord when it points out that the reviewers in these and other publications must have obtained the Grey Album illegally through file–sharing networks (or presumably another form of "illegitimate" copying, given only 3,000 copies of the record were pressed and distributed to stores). As DB co–founder Rebecca Laurie states: "If music reviewers have to break the law to hear new, innovative music, then something has gone wrong with the law."

It is also worth noting that the organizers made some effort to be constructive and not merely confrontational: DB offers that

"one solution to this problem is anything but radical: compulsory licensing with a reasonable fee (this is how cover songs work: you cover a song, you pay a small percentage of your record sales). Predictably, music monopolists like EMI like complete control better than simple, painless improvements. And of course, at DB we prefer more fundamental change."

They add that the Grey Album case demands a clear legal codification of the right to sample.

It was only on 18 February that DB announced and named its day of protest, to be held just six days later. The post to its Web site outlined some specific reasons for such a move that place it firmly in an activist tradition of informing and mobilizing (see Vegh, 2003; in McCaughey and Ayers). With regard to the former, the cease & desist letters from EMI are

"a clear, simple, downloadable example of how the major record labels stifle creativity and try to manipulate the public’s access to music, and it’s the perfect way to explain to non–experts why the copyright system needs to be reformed."

DB also offered an explicit endorsement of file–sharing:

"As a case study, the Grey Album proves that filesharing networks are a necessary and legitimate means of defense (for sample–based musicians, music reviewers, and everyone else who likes music) against a music industry that consistently attacks the public interest."

Finally, the organizers called for a mobilization that would garner mainstream attention: "The Grey Album story needs to get out there. It’s been on, it got New Yorkered, but we need to get it in regular newspapers everywhere." When DB received its own C&D on 23 February, the organizers reiterated that they had "a fair–use right to post this music under current copyright law" and that "our posting of the Grey Album on Downhill Battle is a political act with no commercial interest and fits well within fair use rights."

To determine whether current copyright law is serving musicians and fans, the public needs to be able to hear the kind of work that’s currently being suppressed.

According to DB, the day itself was a success far beyond their expectations. Over 170 sites hosted the album itself, and over 400 participated in some way, most by turning their sites "grey" for the day [ 11]. BigChampagne, a company that tracks filesharing activity, found that the Grey Album was being searched for as often as such mainstream stars as Britney Spears and Outkast, and estimated that over 100,000 copies were downloaded on the day itself. This is the equivalent number of sales needed to achieve "gold" status — though of course this is a disingenuous comparison since the download was free.

DB set up a new Web site called to ride the coattails of Grey Tuesday. Its mission is two–fold: first, "To make it impossible for the five major record labels to use legal threats to stifle music" by making publically available music that a major has tried "to stomp out"; and second, "To advocate for common–sense reforms to copyright law that can make sampling legal and practical for artists, and benefitting both the musicians who created source material and sample–based musicians who are using it to create new works. For an informed and vibrant discussion to exist on these topics, sample–based music needs to be readily available. To determine whether current copyright law is serving musicians and fans, the public needs to be able to hear the kind of work that’s currently being suppressed." [ 12]



Grey Tuesday’s implications for online activism

The Grey Tuesday event offers several new angles of approach to theorizing online activism. It was an exclusively online event making use of the unique characteristics of the medium of the Internet. Since only 3,000 copies of the Grey Album itself had been pressed for strictly material distribution, the music itself could only be disseminated through the Internet. The current debate over control of music and copyrighted works moving across digital networks is itself a by–product of the new phenomenon of downloading and file–sharing, so the cause of the need to protest is the same as the method by which that protest is enacted: one protests against restrictions on downloading by downloading; the organizers and participants protest against restrictions on the dissemination of music cultural products by disseminating said cultural products. This is analogous to assembling a gathering of political speakers and free–speech advocates in order to protest restrictions on the right to assemble and exercise free speech.

Just as significantly from an activist perspective, DB made a concerted effort to capitalize on the publicity generated by Grey Tuesday, which was covered in several mainstream newspaper and news outlets, including the New York Times ("Defiant Downloads Rise From Underground," 25 February) and the BBC. The group took the opportunity to highlight other issues of political and economic concern to musicians, such as radio payola, coercion to sign "exploitative contracts" with major labels, and the negative impact this has on musical culture in general.

Such mainstream attention is designed not only to broadcast the concerns of the activists to a larger audience, but also to direct traffic to its own Web site. It is at this point that online protests reveal another special quality: the importance of links. A Web site is a more valuable tool than a magazine or flyer because it can instantly link interested parties to other resources, thereby widening the range of topics that a visitor might respond to. Links to related sites create new expansions of communities and connections to other informational and organizational resources, which might itself constitute a new branch in online activism theory. For example, the DB site includes links to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (its fair–use FAQ and a special page on the legal implications of hosting the Grey Album); a Web site called; and a piece by Negativland on the artistic and intellectual justifications for sampling.

At this point I turn away from a strict consideration of activism to examine the phenomenon of the mash–up, and remix culture itself, in more detail.



History of the mash–up

The mixing of musical styles and texts has a history that far predates the first mash–up, or even Western popular music. In Cassette Culture, Manuel (1993) writes about the legacy of parody and tune borrowing in Indian music, in which familiar "texts" are laid over borrowed tunes and melodies, mixing folk and popular styles. This takes on a new life with the arrival of cassette technology, which ironically helps to reinforce tradition through a shift of control from the centre to the periphery, rather than the other way around. (One could argue that today’s mash–ups also draw on and to an extent reinforce traditional "folk" uses of music — as well as appropriating older songs — and with a corresponding shift in control).

Mash–ups, in a Western context, are not a revolutionary new musical invention but a branch on the musical family tree that can be traced back to at least the early days of hiphop. DJs such as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash combined drum breaks on vinyl records to produce extended tracks that could then be rapped over by vocalists, and the first hiphop hit — "Rapper’s Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang — uses the instantly recognizable bassline from a Chic hit. From these roots one can trace the phenomenon of remixing, which became a standard way to expand the lifespan and sales potential of pop hits through the 1980s and 90s.

Taking vocal tracks and combining them with musical tracks from completely different genres was a new bud on the sampling/remixing branch. In his book Words and music, British music writer Paul Morley (2004) describes mash–ups in his own idiosyncratic way:

"The bootleg mix ... whereby anonymous raiders of the twentieth century, or ‘bastards,’ armed with a decent hard drive, a lust for life, a love of music that borders on the diseased, and a warped sense of humor mash up tracks taken off the Internet, twist genres across themselves, and rewrite musical history in a way musicians would never think of. Access on the Internet to a capella vocals and instrumental backing tracks means that homebodies, who are all in the mind, can ignore legalities and logic and all manner of niceties and splice together any music that takes their fancy."

Within the mash–up community, legend has it that the first true "mash–up" as it is understood today was a 1994 track by the Evolution Control Committee that combined a Public Enemy rap over a Herb Albert instrumental (Manriki, 2003). Some time around 2000, this new underground style found a home at a small club in London’s West End, where the Cartel Communique began a mash–up (or "bootleg" as it was called then) night called "King of the Boots". The name was changed to "Bastard," adopted from the term "bastard–pop," another early term for mash–ups. The popularity of the genre spread to clubs around Europe and eventually to the U.S. The mash–up garnered some mainstream press with the first release by Belgian brothers 2 Many DJs. This was not only a thrilling and imaginative mix–CD but also came with a story: the brothers had attempted to clear every song used on the CD in order to release it commercially, but were unable to do so, forcing it to remain underground.

The essential point is that this style of recombinant music has a past and was already on the verge of breaking through from the underground. It took an especially iconoclastic and instantly recognizable mash–up to grab mainstream attention, and Danger Mouse found the combination — the pop royalty that is the Beatles and the most famous hiphop artist of his day, Jay–Z. This might not have been enough on its own, but the heat was turned up by EMI’s legal reaction, which in turn was seized upon by Downhill Battle.

There are other factors that must be acknowledged in this history. One of the most obvious is technology. The explosion in mash–ups occurred in large part because cheap computers and easy–to–use software, such as Acid and Pro–Tools, have proliferated far beyond the sound–proofed walls of the professional recording studio. As well as simplified production, the Internet — and P2P in particular — was also necessary for the distribution and dissemination of mash–up tracks around the scene and around the world. Of course, quality and talent still play a large role: the Grey Album worked because it is good, not simply because it was a clever idea. It is also relevant that remixing and sampling are the currency of today’s popular culture. Cultural appropriation takes place on our televisions and cinema screens, in the advertising that surrounds us and in the music that is piped to us on radio — which is why the illegality of a project like the Grey Album strikes so many people as counter–intuitive. There is a political element to this point that I will return to in the conclusion.



The value of the musical amateur

A particularly helpful perspective on the value of the mash–up can be found in a paper by Antoine Hennion (1999) that explores the hidden value of amateur practices in music, which he charts alongside the explosion in the record market and media audiences through the mid–twentieth century. To Hennion, "amateur" means anyone who is a "music user," from the Sunday pianist to the participant in a local choir, from a record store browser to an audience member at an opera or rock concert. Using Walter Benjamin’s "aura" as a theoretical framing device and drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of taste, Hennion examines how the "technical facilities and commercial appetites of the record industry" seek to convert amateurs into manipulated consumers, and calls for a new field of enquiry into the impact of amateur participation in all levels of music.

"There are no passive amateurs: it is we who have too few categories to understand the variety and ingenuity of the love of music ... [The] history of music must be rewritten, based not on works but on the amateur, seeing him gradually developing in the face of efforts to liberate music from its ritual, religious and political tasks."

"The amateur is not the original mythical figure of a love of music, led astray by our universe of specialists. He is the end point of a very long story, who has, little by little, given music its autonomy, after having turned it into an art, and having extracted it with difficulty from its magical functions, its role of sending crowds into transports or as a catalyst of faith."

Musical culture needs amateurs; in fact it cannot exist without them. There is no brick wall between musician and listener; they are part of the same whole.

What is important here is the acknowledgement that those who download music, as much as those who produce the music, are part of the same matrix. So are the bedroom hobbyists who appropriate the musical media around them, and use relatively cheap technology to create something almost entirely new. Hennion identifies a third aspect to add to the two "orthodox" relations with music — which is to say music as a work of art to be admired, and music as a collective activity giving a group identity — that links our practical uses of music:

"... it is music as a ceremony of pleasure, a series of little habits and ways of doing things in real life, each to his own taste, a group of routines, arrangements and surprises ... Far from acting against each other, the practice of an instrument or singing, listening to records and radio, attendance at concerts, all work together in various ways."

Contrary to the perspective of the recording industry, musical culture needs amateurs; in fact it cannot exist without them. There is no brick wall between musician and listener; they are part of the same whole. The remix or mash–up DJ also occupies a part of that space, as does the participant on a P2P system that makes files available for sharing. When Hennion writes of liberation from music’s political tasks, he is referring to its role as a tool of power and structuring control, à la Attali (1985), and not its potential to galvanize political resistance, which is what the creators of Downhill Battle and Music For America are striving to achieve.



The politics of the mash–up and "semiotic democracy"

Though remixing and mash–ups may seem inherently apolitical on the surface, there are certainly grounds for a political analysis of the phenomenon. The mash–up is by no means the first music to exist at the margins of the law, and in fact part of its roots lie in forms of political resistance: Negativland’s mixing of familiar songs, advertising jingles, news reports and radio DJ banter were created as statements about how consumerism, news and pop culture were becoming indistinguishable, and were always designed to draw attention to the restrictiveness of copyright laws (Negativland, 1995; in Sakolsky and Wei–Han Ho).

In fact, in a culture of disposability, the genre of the mash–up might well have benefited from its underground status, which adds to its subversive cache. The music is effectively contraband and is only permitted to exist to the extent that it remains below a commercial radar. It is also for this reason that to a large extent it has remained an Internet phenomenon, although there are signs that this is changing: for example, David Bowie’s call for mash–ups of his own songs for use in an Audi commercial, or MTV Europe’s thrice–weekly show "MTV Mash" which also cuts up the videos of the songs being mixed.

Like its cousin hiphop — which itself has carried political overtones practically since its inception (e.g. "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) — the mash–up came into existence at the margins and has the potential to expand what we mean when we use the word "creative." It is a challenge to a Romantic legacy that tells us that art must spring from the mind of a uniquely talented creator, and a new twist on the modernist distinction between high and low art. It is another step on the path towards the democratization of creativity, towards the dismantling of the myth of a special class of creators isolated from the rest of us consumers.

Mash–up is another step on the path towards the democratization of creativity, towards the dismantling of the myth of a special class of creators isolated from the rest of us consumers.

Contrary to the claims of Frankfurt School pessimists such as Adorno, consumers are not completely passive. As cultural studies theorists and researchers such as Ang (1985) and Morley (1996) have argued, audiences have interpretive and interactive power over the media texts they receive. Thomas Frank (2002) cites sociologist Herbert Gans as a pre–cursor to such a cultural studies approach: "[Gans] argues [that] audiences have the power to demand and receive, through the medium of the market, the culture of their choosing from the entertainment industry." (One might hope that Frank, who criticizes cultural studies for lacking an explicit dimension of political engagement, might be impressed with the opportunities for culture–based direct action epitomized by Grey Tuesday.) In musical terms, Manuel and Hennion both emphasize the importance of abandoning the consumer/producer dichotomy in favor of a continuum or spectrum along which people negotiate their own role and space. Manuel writes of a process of "creative resignification," in which music is not inherently resistive or manipulative, but an arena in which forces are symbolically negotiated and contested. The consumption and recycling of mass music — either in the form of tune borrowing in India or mash–ups around the world — can be seen as creative social practices which may constitute oppositional critiques.

In his important new book Promises to keep: Technology, law and the future of entertainment, William Fisher III (2004) suggests that the opportunities offered by digital network technologies include cost savings, consumer satisfaction, benefits to artists and cultural diversity. However, the most revolutionary potential benefit is the enhancement and expansion of "semiotic democracy," also sometimes known as "cultural democracy" (Vaidhyanathan, 2004b) [ 13]. Semiotic democracy describes the struggle for power over cultural meaning–making. John Fiske uses the term in Television culture (1987) in reference to the opening up of television’s discursive practice to the viewer. The "producerly texts" that make up television programs treat readers "as members of a semiotic democracy, already equipped with the discursive competencies to make meanings and motivated by pleasure to want to participate in the process". While one must avoid making assumptions about what motivates the bedroom DJ to mash up popular musical texts with no real expectation of financial reward, it is not unreasonable to suggest that pleasure in participation is highly significant.

Over the course of the Twentieth Century the struggle for power over meaning–making has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, particularly in the age of media conglomerates that vertically and horizontally integrate all aspects of media creation and distribution. Maintaining a sharp division between producers and consumers of media and entertainment products is in the protectionist economic interests of those conglomerates. (It has been suggested that the real reason the record companies take such a hard line over P2P distribution is because a more level, or democratic, playing field calls into question the legitimacy of their own stated reasons for existence.)

Fisher writes: "Reversing the concentration of semiotic power would benefit us all. People would be more engaged, less alienated, if they had more voice in the construction of their cultural environment. And the environment itself [...] would be more variegated and stimulating." Moreover, the opportunity for a new kind of creativity also emerges, one that is "more collaborative and playful, less individualist or hierarchical." The short history of P2P has thus far been dominated by the sharing of already completed cultural products: songs or albums, television shows, written documents, etc. Over time, the adoption of a culture of sharing has the potential to change our relationship to those kinds of works. We can modify or adapt them and then re–circulate them again, giving rise to a collective creativity that could even drive greater social collectivity.

Semiotic democracy speaks to the power of active audiences in their own processes of meaning creation. The Grey Tuesday story suggests that more than "meaning" is being created here; indeed, it epitomizes a new form of political engagement. At the individual level is Danger Mouse himself and the creative artifact that he generated by recombining elements of our cultural environment and heritage. At a collective level, the participants in the Grey Tuesday protest became the distributors — and even the marketers — of the Grey Album artifact itself. This is where cultural studies and political economy find a new area of common ground: audiences are not merely active in the sense of creating meanings; they are active in the evolution of the technological and economic structures of the music circulation system itself. And, either consciously or unwittingly, every person who has downloaded The Grey Album has been party to the fostering of an emergent form of political participation.

In microcosm, a similar transformation has taken place within Downhill Battle itself. In an interview with the newsletter of Harvard University’s Berkman Center (Rustad, 2004), Downhill Battle co–founder Nicholas Reville discussed the organization’s post–Grey Tuesday projects, including the Barbie in a Blender Day (defending appropriationist art), (an effort to demonstrate the usefulness of P2P systems — in this case BitTorrent — to large corporations such as Microsoft), and even the formation of Downhill Battle Labs (software development geared to increasing ease–of–use of open source software such as BitTorrent; see group’s Web site for details). Reville makes a point about DB’s evolution that is entirely reflective of the wider implications of activism around music:

"We never imagined that Downhill Battle would become such a long–term project for us. When [DB co–founder] Holmes [Wilson] and I started the site in August 2003, we saw it as a chance to make a timely push–back against a totally one–sided debate about the future of the music industry. Now we’ve been sucked into an even bigger fight for the future of our culture and the role that the Internet can play in reshaping it."

In their own way, mash–ups began as political statements, and Grey Tuesday is merely carrying on that tradition, adding an explicitly activist piece to the larger puzzle. But what began as a fairly thematically localized act of resistance about music burst its banks, and is now contributing to the flood of activism around intellectual property and free culture.


Conclusion: Mashing–up cultural activity and political activism

The remix today is part of how our culture operates and relates to itself. The blending of styles, the appropriation of signs and symbols, sounds and images — this is postmodernism at work. And yet it is more, because in its own way it is a form of progress in that it reveals the democratic and emancipatory potential of new technologies, and the capacity for cultural participation to actualize that potential.

There are conceptual threads linking the practice of the mash–up with the blurring to the point of irrelevance of any meaningful distinction between professional and amateur musical practitioner and distributor. Just as significantly, the emergence of digital technologies and networks that made bedroom mash–ups and their distribution possible has paved the way for a blending of cultural activity and political activism, which is symbolised by Grey Tuesday and expanded by groups such as Music For America.

Mash–ups take familiar vocal and musical tracks and blend them together to create something new and unexpected.

The recording industry’s draconian legalistic reaction to P2P — which has well–established historical consistencies with the dominant music industry’s previous responses to emergent and disruptive (but ultimately beneficial) new technologies — has made the digital distribution of music a political issue in and of itself: the "criminalization" of millions of people for making innovative use of a new communication tool at their disposal is a political act of power that is mirrored by the political act of resistance made possible by the new digital infrastructure. The participation of amateur remixers and P2P users constitutes a newly emergent field of resistance to the dominating, centralized, bureaucratic control that is characteristic of the oligopolistic recorded music industry — and, by extension, all monopolizers of cultural and informational goods and the "pay for play" copyright absolutism that is their goal.

This brings us full circle back to Grey Tuesday. This event was perhaps the first explicit identification of the practice of sampling, mashing and file–sharing as overtly political acts, and their practitioners as constitutive of a political force. Along with Music For America, which advertises itself as a way to "break down the barriers between culture and politics," Grey Tuesday and Downhill Battle have opened up a new political front, or at least raised its profile. People are becoming increasingly accustomed to playing with their culture, and seeing it played with. With the copyright industries essentially in control of the drafting and implementation of copyright laws, and technologies such as Digital Rights Management handing even more control to owners at the expense of users, any assertion of fair use rights or cultural playfulness becomes a de facto act of resistance. Grey Tuesday simply made an implicit act explicit.

Mash–ups take familiar vocal and musical tracks and blend them together to create something new and unexpected. Grey Tuesday should be viewed as a case study of a similar blending of cultural activity and political activism, and as a model for future online political engagement in the space where culture and technology intersect with law and policy.



In September 2004, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that any and all samples used by music producers must be paid for, including snippets of sounds or chords made unidentifiable by heavy distortion. The case, Bridgeport Music v. Westbound Records [ 14], revolved around a 1.5 second sample from the George Clinton and Funkadelic song "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" that had been used in the NWA song "100 Miles and Runnin’" featured in a 1998 Master P movie produced by No Limit Films. A week after the controversial decision, Downhill Battle announced a new protest project [ 15]. The group called on musicians to create 30–second songs made exclusively from the disputed sample for an online compilation in direct disobedience of the ruling. Within six days, Downhill Battle was hosting 41 songs. End of article


About the author

Sam Howard–Spink is a PhD student in Media Ecology in the Department of Culture & Communication at New York University. A Londoner by birth, Sam has been a journalist for 13 years in the U.K., Asia and the United States, with much of that time spent covering the international music industry and the impact of digital technologies. He has written for a variety of publications including Music Week, Music Business International, South China Morning Post, IBM Think Research and openDemocracy.
E–mail: shs263 [at] nyu [dot] edu.



The author would like to thank Siva Vaidhyanathan for his guidance in the preparation of this paper, as well as his fellow PhD colleagues (in particular Sue Collins, Gabriele Cosentino and David Parisi) for providing the feedback and stimulating conversations needed to pull it together.



1. This move was not followed by Jay–Z’s label Rock–A–Fella, which had put out an a cappella version of the Black Album with the specific intent of allowing remixes.

2. Or, how is receiving a cease & desist letter the same as or different to being threatened with arrest at a protest?

3. See

4. United States of America v. Dmitry Sklyarov. See Bob Porterfield, "Russian Software Firm off Legal Hook," Associated Press (18 December 2002), at

5. For an introductory FAQ on Felten et al. vs RIAA et al. see

6. See

7. See

8. See

9. See

10. See

11. In a press release announcing a new sample–based protest called "Three Notes and Runnin’" in September 2004, Downhill Battle claimed the Grey Tuesday protests drew 100,000 participants. See

12. At the time of writing (September 2004), hosted three albums: The Grey Album itself; The Double Black Album, a mash–up of vocals from Jay–Z’s Black Album with music built from samples of Metallica’s Black Album (Metallica of course being notorious for its public antagonism towards Napster and file–sharing in general, despite building its own early reputation on the back of illegal live bootleg recordings) by a DJ known as Cheap Cologne; and Stay Free Magazine’s Illegal Art Compilation, a collection of songs from such artists as Biz Markie, the Beastie Boys, The Verve, Public Enemy and De La Soul, that have been the subject of sampling lawsuits.

13. Or, to use a similar term employed by Nicholas Reville of Downhill Battle, "participatory culture" (Rustad, 2004).

14. See

15. See



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Editorial history

Paper received 23 September 2004; accepted 30 September 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Sam Howard–Spink

Grey Tuesday, online cultural activism and the mash–up of music and politics
by Sam Howard–Spink
First Monday, volume 9, number 10 (October 2004),