On a gray, windy afternoon in January 2007, on a quiet street in downtown Atlanta, a team of thirty or forty law enforcement officers, dressed in S.W.A.T. gear, armed with assault rifles, and accompanied by drugsniffing dogs, burst through an unmarked door. After arresting their two targets, they confiscated several items, including cars, computers, bank statements, and electronic equipment. Most important, they found the contraband they’d been looking for: tens of thousands of “mixtape” CDs, none of them officially licensed by the recording industry.
This was hardly a back-alley counterfeiting operation. For one thing, the CDs in the studio, though slated for retail distribution, contained material that can’t be found on the shelves of Wal-Mart or in the catalog of the iTunes Music Store. For another thing, the targets of the raid were two of the most famous names in hip-hop. The suspects, Tyree “DJ Drama” Simmons and Donald “Don” Cannon, were partners in the Atlanta-based Aphilliates Music Group, co-owners of the raided recording studio, and producers of the wildly successful Gangsta Grillz mixtape franchise—a CD series on which songs by new and established hiphop performers were remixed, assembled in a playlist, and rapped over by guest vocalists. After being charged with felony violations of Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced Corruption (RICO) law—typically used to fight organized crime—each suspect was released on $100,000 bail. The raid was organized and overseen by members of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade group that represents the interests of record labels. The 81,000 CDs seized at the Aphilliates studios¹ were only a tiny fraction of the millions of unlicensed mixtapes confiscated each year; however, due to the high profile of this raid’s targets, it became national news, and sparked nationwide debate and protest. Brad Buckles, the executive vice president of the RIAA’s antipiracy division, explained that it was a cut-and-dry matter of crime and punishment. As he told an MTV reporter shortly after the raid, “We enforce our rights civilly or work with police against those who violate state law... If it’s a product that’s violating the law, it becomes a target.”²
Many fans and commentators questioned the logic of this argument. After all, the Aphilliates had been working with the blessings of their accusers. The RIAA’s member labels were some of their biggest customers, often paying $10,000 to $25,000 just to have the company produce a single mixtape for one of their artists—largely for the sheen of authenticity it provided, but also for the additional marketing and distribution clout represented by Atlanta’s mixtape network. Major hip-hop acts like T.I., 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Sean “Diddy” Combs gained early prominence on mixtapes, and continued to rely on them heavily even after achieving mainstream success. True, it was a legal “gray area,” as DJ Drama acknowledged when we spoke,³ but up until then, the record labels had been equal partners in the aff air.
Why would the recording industry organize a felony bust of their own business partners, for manufacturing the very products they’d been paid to produce? Why risk alienating the same fans and communities that they’d paid so handsomely to court? Why demonize some of the industry’s most successful producers, among the few who reliably bring new acts to national prominence, as record sales continue to slide precipitously? As Ted Cohen, a music industry con sul tant and former major label executive, told the New York Times, it was just a matter of the music industry being “schizophrenic”—of the “right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”⁴ Ultimately, however, this is more of a description than an explanation. What caused this “schizophrenia?” Why can’t the recording industry decide whether DJ Drama is its savior or its nemesis?
These questions lie at the heart of this book. We are living in times of ambiguity, confusion, and contradiction that reach far beyond the boundaries of the music industry. On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, traditional warfare between standing armies has been supplanted by clashes between military contractors and “enemy combatants.” On the trading floors of New York and London, traditional stocks and bonds have been joined by increasingly esoteric securities comprised of repackaged debt. In America’s corporate headquarters, factories buy and sell the rights to dump carbon dioxide and other pollutants into our atmosphere. We no longer have a clear notion of where the lines may be drawn between soldier and civilian, asset and liability, consumption and conservation. And the price of this uncertainty is mounting crisis—political, economic, and ecological.
This is a moment of profound change, a moment when the old definitions no longer apply, and when the new definitions have yet to be written. Although the change is fueled by such forces as accelerating technological innovation and globalization, these terms don’t tell us much about either its causes or its potential eff ects. I argue in this book that we may gain a wider understanding of the situation, and even glimpse the grains of the emerging social order, by examining a smaller discursive crisis and its emerging resolution: namely, the struggle over musical culture and practice in the age of sampling and file sharing.
Throughout history, musical aesthetics, practices, and technologies have been at the center of countless battles and debates over the shape of society. This is because music possesses a unique power to reflect, transmit, and amplify what Cornelius Castoriadis⁵ (echoing Lacan) calls the “social imaginary”— even when it is devoid of explicit lyrical or symbolic denotation. Some acts of musical regulation and resistance—such as the prohibition, preservation, and transformation of African musical forms in the antebellum American South—have carried explicit political connotations for all parties concerned. The great bulk of battles, though, have taken place without any conscious acknowledgment of their larger significance. When a shop keeper plays classical music to keep teens from hanging out in his parking lot, or when those teens bring a boom box to counter his sonic claim over the space, neither action is taken as anything more than instrumental. Yet the consequences of these actions, especially in aggregate, ripple throughout the larger geographical, economic, and political landscapes.
Clearly, my definition of “resistance” differs somewhat from the standard Gramscian model. Far from being “organic intellectuals,” fighting hegemonic power in the interest of class-consciousness, the resisters I describe in this book are mostly interested in circumventing regulatory hurdles for practical purposes. A DJ would never get any work done if he had to clear the copyrights for every sample he used; far better just to make the music, and hope to fly under the radar of the recording industry’s legal departments. Nonetheless, the impact of the DJ on today’s hegemonic institutions couldn’t be more destabilizing if it had been plotted in the back room of a smoky café by a cabal of wild-eyed insurrectionists.
My argument is framed in terms of cultural production and its relationship to power and material production; this fact would appear to locate my work squarely within the field of cultural studies. However, I believe a more appropriate philosophical home for this book lies within an emerging interdisciplinary field that Siva Vaidhyanathan6 has recently dubbed “critical information studies,” or CIS. Like me, scholars in this field are concerned with “the ways in which culture and information are regulated, and thus the relationships among regulation and commerce, creativity, science, technology, politics and other human affairs.”⁷