Rapper uses Web to fight recording industry

Public Enemy's Chuck D is known for taking on powerful establishments, and now he is fighting the recording industry with the Web as his primary weapon.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
4 min read
Public Enemy's Chuck D is known for taking on powerful establishments--from the police to politicians--through his incendiary rap lyrics. Now the artist is taking on the entrenched recording industry, using the Web as his primary weapon.

When Chuck D set out a few weeks ago to promote Public Enemy's upcoming album, Bring The Noise 2000, he decided to post clips from the songs on the group's Web site. The clips were available for free downloading using MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3), a booming technology that allows users to download CD-quality music via the Net.

Public Enemy's Chuck D on the RIAA

According to Chuck D, soon after he posted the clips, Public Enemy's record Label, Def Jam, ordered the group to remove the audio files because the album is not scheduled to be released until next year.

Threatened with potential a lawsuit, Chuck D says he conceded to the company's requests--but not without his typically heated commentary. He blasted Def Jam on Public Enemy's Web site and accused the recording industry of "running scared from the technology that evens out the creative field and makes artists harder to pimp."

A Def Jam spokeswoman would not comment on the situation nor confirm whether Public Enemy was asked to remove the clips from its site.

To Chuck D, the incident marks just the first round in his fight to challenge the recording industry's control over artists and over how music is distributed both online and off.

"The fear [in the recording industry] is that a highway is being built," Chuck D said in an interview today. "We only have Model T Fords on it now, but these legal departments know there will be trucks doing 90 miles an hour doing mad traffic."


Public Enemy's Chuck D on the future on internet music

The order Chuck D says he received from Def Jam and its parent company Polygram underscores the increasingly heated battle between proponents of the MP3 download format and the recording industry, which has been fighting to curb the illegal distribution of copyrighted music via the Internet.

MP3 technology compresses high-quality sound files so they can be downloaded quickly onto a PC hard drive.

The recording industry's primary lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), has vocally opposed widespread use of MP3 on Web sites unaffiliated with the group, as well as products it has charged with promoting the dissemination of "pirated" music files.

Most notably in October, the RIAA filed a lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia in an attempt to block the distribution of its Rio PMP300 player--a portable device that can play back MP3 audio files from computer hard drives. A federal judge in California, however, denied the RIAA's request to stop Diamond from shipping the Rio. The device now sells for $200 in stores.

To many observers, the Internet is opening up a new channel through which music artists can sell, distribute, and market their albums. The potential of this channel is starting to be realized--albeit on a small scale--according to legal experts, and the momentum for more artist autonomy could grow as the use of recordable CDs and MP3 players increases.

"Before, if you wanted to market an artist, you needed access to a wide communications medium, such as newspapers and television," said Michael Overly, an Internet law specialist at Foley & Lardner.

"Now you have a communications medium that's very inexpensive, [and as a result] I think this need to have a record company to promote to consumers is diminishing a little bit," he added. "As it becomes more easy to cut your own CDs and as MP3 players are more accessible, I think you'll see some changes here."

Chuck D says the attacks on MP3 signal that the industry is afraid musicians will circumvent record labels' distribution role. Without the involvement of record labels, he said, artists would be able to offer their albums at deflated prices.

"If you make something for 90 cents, how can you justify to sell it for $9?" he said. "I believe that the fan is the most important, and the fan's been ripped off by the companies pimping technology.

"This ain't going to be no tacit phenomenon," he said. "If you couldn't download the sound, then we're talking about something that might not work. But now, you can make your own CDs. You can't beat that with a baseball bat."

Nevertheless, Chuck D does not anticipate that MP3 will eliminate the record industry's role. Rather, he predicts that the technology will help even out the profit share between artists and labels because it gives artists more control over selling their music.

"There's going to be a need for the record companies, but at the same time it shouldn't be 80-20, 90-10," Chuck D said of the typical revenue-sharing ratios between the companies and artists. "Every record contract should be a joint venture."