Legal Love

Getting the cream for free

Ahhh, free pornography. I'm happily back on the grid and into the glaring free light of the digital world now that broadband Internet service has returned to my home office. Free to download 20-second sample video clips off a billion girlie sites, or pull them from others' computers with peer-to-peer (P2P) software, and keep abreast of Tara Reid and Bijou Philips' nip-slips in the privacy of my own abode.

And, of course, download music for free. Illegally, I'm sure, though I haven't consulted my attorney.

Maybe I should seek legal counsel -- the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is continuing to unleash lawsuits on file sharers who use P2P software like KaZaa and Grokster, another 753 of which were announced by the music industry's lobbyist organization earlier this year.

The RIAA also just announced a round of litigation against students who share copyrighted music on the specialized ultra-high-speed university computer network known as Internet2. Arizona State University utilizes Internet2, though it doesn't appear on the RIAA's list of universities where students are being sued for using the file-sharing software called "I2hub" to swap copyrighted recordings.

Personally, I'm not really worried about the RIAA targeting me -- I'm one of those greedy bastards who downloads others' files but doesn't share my own. I know, I know, it defeats the purpose of P2P networking. But thus far, the RIAA has only brought suits against people for what they share, not what they download from others. So fuck off, I'm only watching my own ass.

Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining the issue in a lawsuit brought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. against Grokster and Morpheus, two of the most popular file-sharing software manufacturers (Grokster also owns KaZaa). The issue is reminiscent of a 1984 Supreme Court decision that ruled that VCRs couldn't be litigated into oblivion just because the machines had the potential to facilitate copyright infringement. Similarly, I remember when CD burners were just released on the market, and the major labels got their panties in a bunch because albums could be reproduced so easily. Isn't this the same goddamn thing, except that now you have millions more friends to share musical libraries with?

I won't pretend to be a legal analyst, and it will likely be some time before the Supreme Court rules on the suit (lower courts have ruled for Grokster and its ilk). But really, I say screw the whole issue entirely, because three of the most impressive albums I've heard in the past few months are available for download for free -- every song -- off their label's Web site.

The label is Team Love (www.team-love.com), founded by Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and former Sony Music Publishing vice president Nate Krenkel, and distributed by Bright Eyes' label Saddle Creek. The notion of distributing your label's entire catalogue for free online is definitely an experiment; I'm not aware of another label that's attempted it.

The truly amazing thing about Team Love is that the artists and albums are so fucking good. So far, three disparate artists comprise the entirety of Team Love's releases -- the jangly pop collective Tilly and the Wall, blues wunderkind Willy Mason, and Omaha thug rhymer Mars Black. At least two more releases, by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and suburban white-boy rappers Team Rigge, are expected later this year.

Tilly and the Wall hit the scene first with its album Wild Like Children, a collection of songs that's sweet and innocent at first look, but a little dirtier and more disturbing once you delve into the lyrics. Lacking an actual drummer, Tilly and the Wall uses a tap dancer, Jamie Williams, as its percussionist, which is definitely gimmicky but pretty cute -- and, at the same time, effective.

I thought Tilly and the Wall were pretty cool as a near-novelty act, and even when they're singing about prostitutes or death, the tri-vocal harmonies and jaunty keyboard melodies bring a little sunshine out of my speakers. It was Team Love's second release, however, that really floored me.

Willy Mason, 19, is a Martha's Vineyard native who met Oberst pretty much by accident and was consequently lured to Team Love's roster. Mason's album, Where the Humans Eat, is a sparse, atavistic blues revival for a new generation, performed by a kid with an ageless voice and a tender strum. On the track "Oxygen," Mason sings, "I wanna speak louder than Ritalin for all the kids who think that they've got a disease. . . . Do you remember the forgotten America? Justice, equality, freedom to every race?" That's just one of 12 incredible songs on the album you can grab at team-love.com; together they comprise the most intriguing album I've heard in ages.

The latest release from Team Love is even more anachronistic: Omaha MC Mars Black's first album, Folks Music. Perhaps what's most surprising about Mars Black, considering Oberst owns half of his label, is that it's nothing that could be construed as "emo-rap." Black is straight thuggin', representing O-Town and recounting tough childhoods and neighborhoods on tracks like "Big Trouble in Little Omaha," "Hey Ma!" and "Fade to Black."

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