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Fight songs
The members of Downhill Battle have taken up arms against the major record labels. Are they tilting at windmills, or is this a war they can win?

Shuffling down Worcester’s shabby, deserted Harding Street, Holmes Wilson stops and points to an empty brick warehouse across the road. Once upon a time, he says, it was home to the Space, a fan-operated, all-ages performance venue that was forced to shutter about five years ago, to the dismay of the city’s small but vibrant arts scene. But recently there’s been an effort afoot to pick up where the Space left off, to find another spot that could be home to the sort of do-it-yourself music and art events it once showcased. Spearheading the push is a group called DC-FIY: "Don’t Complain — Fix It Yourself."

It’s a slogan that could just as easily belong to Downhill Battle, the nonprofit organization Wilson, 24, founded last summer with friend and fellow Worcesterite Nicholas Reville. Wilson and Reville see a music industry that’s broken — bloated, outdated, money-hungry, monopolistic — and they aim to fix it. With music-sharing technology evolving exponentially and the Internet continuing to revolutionize communication, and with the major labels’ business models crumbling into obsolescence as lawsuits against file-sharers earn them new enemies daily (see "Deaf to Reason," News and Features, October 8), this is a unique moment in history, and Downhill Battle plans to seize it. Wilson and Reville envision a better, fairer music business — one with more diversity, where independent labels have more clout, artists are paid fairly, and music fans are active participants rather than mere consumers. The lessons they learned about community and creativity at the Space have sustained them in their quest to knock the Big Four (label conglomerates Universal, Sony-BMG, Warner, and EMI) down to size. "That’s the sort of direction that we feel the music industry as a whole is going," says Reville, 25. "Decentralization, and empowerment of individuals to be curators of music and be directly engaged with it."

For a little more than a year, Wilson and Reville, along with Downhill Battle full-timers Tiffiniy Cheng, Nick Nassar, and Rebecca Laurie, plus a number of loosely affiliated musicians, designers, programmers, and activists, have been working to effect that change through creative and provocative projects that speak the language of their peers. They seek to counter the misinformation they say is propagated by the major labels (via their lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA); to raise awareness of and support for a legal P2P collective licensing system that would get money into artists’ pockets; to develop software useful to the peer-to-peer community; and to work in broader ways toward connecting the indie-music scene with the tech community and the free-culture movement. That, they say, is how the music-industry battle will be won.

Are they simply four naive idealists, railing in vain against the system? Or can this modestly funded operation, run out of a spare room in Reville’s mother’s house, really cut the multinational major-label Goliath off at the knees and usher in a new era of legitimacy for the P2P movement? To hear the Downhill Battlers tell it, this is a fight they’ll win. "All the social and economic and technological trends are pointed in this direction," says Reville. "Yeah, we’re on a shoestring budget. But we’re smarter than they are about the Internet, we’re smarter about publicity, and we’re not trying to fake people. We have reality on our side. The overwhelming majority of musicians are on our side. And we’re in a position to totally change public perceptions."

"It’s teetering on the edge, and we know we could be part of tipping the scales," adds Wilson. "It’s really that simple."

WEDGED INTO a Formica booth at Worcester’s Pickle Barrel Delicatessen, Reville, Wilson, Nassar, and Cheng tuck into French fries and sip hot beverages as they explain Downhill Battle’s beefs with the record industry. "We don’t have any personal vendetta against the major labels," says Reville. "We just see them right now as the biggest obstacle that’s preventing a healthy music culture from happening. If they decide that they want to reform their business practices and stop doing the anti-competitive and exploitative things that they do, then that’s fine. We’re not opposed to their existence, we just want a level playing field."

The members of Downhill Battle are no strangers to social-justice activism, having worked on fair-trade and anti-sweatshop issues, and engaged in community organizing in Worcester. They apply the same ideals to this crusade, seeking to loosen the corporate stranglehold on the music-distribution system and to erase — or at least blur — the line between polished pop pap and the indie-music ghetto. They’d like to see that system replaced with one where, Wilson says as he stirs his cocoa, "the cream rises to the top."

There will always be superstars, they admit. But "artists like Sheryl Crow? Who knows if she will be popular in a decentralized distribution system," says Cheng.

"Britney Spears," Wilson offers as another example. "A lot of people say, ‘I really hope this happens so we can finally get Britney Spears off the radio.’ "

In other words, Britney sells lots of records not because she’s particularly talented or even much beloved, but because the major labels create a market for her through practices such as pay-for-play, where major labels dole out millions to independent promoters to make sure their songs get on the radio. The folks at Downhill Battle want to bust through such contrivances, and believe that efforts such as theirs can only improve the quality of music. "It’s a meritocracy," says Cheng. "Those people who are really good will rise to the top."

Wilson, with tousled hair and two-day stubble, and Reville, in a tatty blue-striped shirt, one button unbuttoned and unnoticed, look the quintessence of indie rock. Sure enough, Wilson rattles off a list of favorite musicians — Lightning Bolt, Wolf Colonel, the Microphones — that are anathema to the Billboard charts.

But they dig stuff from the bigs too, says Reville. "Jay-Z or Kanye West. Major-label rock is pretty fucked right now, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in hip-hop." Still, he says, "major labels have been such an enemy of independent music for so long that I think a lot of people in that scene have just gotten used to the idea that ‘Okay, we’re permanently marginalized.’ It sort of becomes a badge of honor. The marginalization becomes part of the identity. People have forgotten that independent music can be part of the mainstream." Meanwhile, even major-label artists like Moby are chafing under their corporate paymasters. "Korn just put out a video a few months back of kids trashing a record store and a bunch of statistics about the economic injustice of music," says Wilson.

File-sharing, they contend, offers a ready-made antidote to the major labels’ failures. "What the RIAA is so good at is totally distracting the debate from the positives of file-sharing," says Reville. "They say, ‘This is gonna kill music, they’re hurting the musician.’ But, of course, from the point of view of monopolists, anything that gives people a way around the system is a negative."

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Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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