MEDIA BRANDS: Controversy over Grey Album could further turn young people away from record industry

The opening sounds just about right. George Harrison's guitar lets loose, laying down that familiar, urgent rhythm that makes While My Guitar Gently Weeps a rock classic. But after a few seconds, the vocals kick in, not the late Beatle's mournful wallowing, but the booming raps of Jay-Z. Listening to the union of two such potent sounds is an unnerving experience: Without the rapper's beats and Harrison's melancholy verses, the recording hangs in some in-between zone between two great artists, neither wholly one nor the other.

The opening sounds just about right. George Harrison's guitar lets loose, laying down that familiar, urgent rhythm that makes While My Guitar Gently Weeps a rock classic. But after a few seconds, the vocals kick in, not the late Beatle's mournful wallowing, but the booming raps of Jay-Z. Listening to the union of two such potent sounds is an unnerving experience: Without the rapper's beats and Harrison's melancholy verses, the recording hangs in some in-between zone between two great artists, neither wholly one nor the other.

This effect is what made the rancor surrounding the Grey Album, 26-year-old DJ Danger Mouse's merging of The Beatles' The White Album with the rapper's The Black Album, so misguided. It caused a legal firestorm last month when EMI, the record label that owns the rights to The White Album, demanded that stores stop selling the underground hit. In a PR counterpunch that landed the issue in media that otherwise wouldn't have paid any attention to it, a bunch of websites designated February 24 Grey Tuesday and encouraged people to download the recording even after it was pulled from shelves. At this stage, EMI's handling of the matter looks like a misstep. The publicity likely fueled interest in the Grey Album and drove people to get their hands on copies, which, in a time when CD burners are about as common as PCs, isn't that difficult. Moreover, it's hard to figure how Danger Mouse's recording, so different from the Beatles' album, could harm its sales or the band's reputation. So touchy was the label's stiff cease-and-desist mentality, it would be easy to chalk it up to an understandable paranoia that comes as result of the record industry's well-known war with downloading. Historically, however, EMI has kept a tight leash on its Beatles music, never allowing it to be sampled, and the reaction to the Grey Album is in keeping with that policy. In commercial uses, this makes perfect sense. After all, few music fans would want to see the Lennon/McCartney catalog as the soundtrack for every other TV commercial. But the Grey Album is not commercial. It's inarguably artistic, part of a DJ culture fond of remixing existing music, making it new and a culture growing in popularity. To attack an artist - which is essentially what this is - is to risk alienating the young people that labels need to court if they want younger generations to buy their wares. Perhaps the most telling communications strategy in this episode is that of Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella Records. The label took no action, and, while CEO Damon Dash said Danger Mouse should have gotten permission, Dash praised the record. In general, record labels could learn a lot from that relatively soft stance. It manages to not completely capitulate on the copyright issue while showing an understanding of a consumer base that is going to download music and burn CDs whether the labels like it or not. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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