Download This

On February 24, 2004, tens of thousands of Internet users downloaded a suite of audio files produced by DJ Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse. The Grey Album–comprised of vocals from rapper Jay-Z’s Black Album and instrumentals from the Beatles’ “White Album”–had already been hailed by Rolling Stone as “the ultimate remix record,” and its appeal was easy to comprehend. What provoked the mass download was a cease and desist order issued by EMI against Burton, who had failed to clear his Beatles samples. According to the activist group Downhill Battle, over 100,000 copies of the album were downloaded on “Grey Tuesday,” in what organizers described as “an act of civil disobedience against a copyright regime that routinely suppresses musical innovation.”

Since the popularization of Internet file-sharing roughly half a decade ago, the music industry has portrayed itself as a sovereign state under siege. What has changed in the years since then is the nature of the war. The majors took collective comfort in A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster several years ago, when there was an identifiable, emblematic foe. They can hardly be as enthusiastic about the latest round of lawsuits, filed in late-March against some 500 suspected file-sharers, each identified only as “John Doe.” So far the Recording Industry Association of America has filed nearly 2,000 lawsuits against individuals, most of them similarly nameless. Those individuals represent just the tip of the iceberg that is today’s peer-to-peer public; the industry is an ocean liner bearing down on it, too unwieldy to change course.

So where does jazz fit in?

On an island somewhere-out of the ship’s path and nowhere near the ice.

Our music commands an even smaller corner of the file-sharing world than it does in the real world, if such a thing can be fathomed. During Napster’s pre-litigation heyday, a search for even the best-known living jazz musicians would turn up nada. Today, results are much the same on its various successors. So the good news is that jazz labels and musicians aren’t suffering the supposed ill effects of online piracy. But there’s a flip side to the coin. At a time when the Internet has the potential to ignite critical mass from a grassroots base, jazz should be fighting hard for inclusion. Commercial interests dominate radio, television and every other form of media; the Web, with its person-to-person infrastructure, could be the last viable outlet for an un-hyped music.

But how can jazz get in on the action?

One answer comes from the realm of the jam bands, where the trading of bootlegged performances is a communal ritual. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead, a number of groups have allowed this practice, under the condition that no one profits from the exchange. Some enterprising bands take it further: Phish sells authorized high-quality downloads of live shows, complete with printable disc jackets. The Allman Brothers Band has dabbled in soundboard recordings: mixed live, duplicated onsite and sold right after the show. These and other bands have discovered that file-sharing enables the cultivation of new, album-buying fans. The whole idealistic model relies on the fact that current fans enjoy proselytizing the music they love; that prospective fans seek out more of what catches their ear; and that communities fostered online continue to exist in the dues-paying, ticket-buying world.

A very small handful of jazz artists offer an online experience, as opposed to a mere itinerary and gallery of press quotes. GregOsby.com includes downloadable MP3s of select live shows. Tim Berne’s ScrewgunRecords.com includes audio samples and lengthy Q&A transcripts with the label’s artists. (Full disclosure: I conducted some of these.) WyntonMarsalis.com features a multimedia scrapbook of concert video clips, audio files and bite-size trivia morsels. (His favorite number? 11. Favorite poet? Yeats.) Yet these are a few standout exceptions. Maintaining a site requires both technical skills and time, and most jazz musicians don’t have the resources for more than a cursory investment.

But the investment can pay off, as composer Maria Schneider will attest. Early this year, Schneider unveiled a new Web site powered by a company called ArtistShare. Through a range of subscription packages, visitors could download scores, music streams, video lectures and various notes about her upcoming studio recording. And while Schneider allows that the site maintenance is “pretty labor-intensive,” she adds, “It makes the business a creative process, too. I decided I wanted to record this new project and create this different, more multidimensional product. And through selling that, fund my record, basically.” Scheduled for release in July, the new disc will be available solely through MariaSchneider.com.

ArtistShare founder Brian Camelio is onto something when he writes that the answer to the problem of Internet piracy “is to market what cannot be pirated: the artist, the artist’s creation process, a fan’s love of an artist’s work.” In doing so, creative media can turn John Doe into an interactive partner. Jazz is a collective enterprise, and it’s time for a business model that acknowledges that fact. The “jazz community” can transcend geography to become a powerful, functional entity-but only when enough people rally behind the cause.