By Alvin Blanco
A war on hip-hop blog sites has been declared, sort of.
On November 26, the influential sites OnSmash.com, Dajaz1.com and RapGodfathers.com, found their domain names seized by the Department of Homeland Security and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). While initially there was confusion as to whether or not the sites were simply hacked, on Monday (November 29) the Department of Justice released a statement confirming that the aforementioned sites were a few of the 82 websites seized for selling counterfeit goods, which includes music, as part of a program called Operation In Our Sites v. 2.0.
"By seizing these domain names, we have disrupted the sale of thousands of counterfeit items, while also cutting off funds to those willing to exploit the ingenuity of others for their own personal gain," said United Stated Attorney General Holder in the DOJ’s statement.
Translation: The free and readily available MP3 gravy train may be coming to an end, soon.
"If this seizure is something that could take down some of the biggest websites and tastemakers in the music industry, the game will be changed beyond recognition," says Andreas Hale, Founder/Editor-In-Chief of TheWellVersed. "Where and how you listen to your music will change. To the new artists seeking exposure, the door will be slammed in your face. Some of the websites who existed before the music blog boom (AllHipHop, HipHopDX, Sohh, etc) will regain the audience they lost to the music blog sites. It's an interesting situation to say the least."
No one is questioning the illegality of offering copyrighted material for free download. More often than not, the music offered on sites like OnSmash or others like NahRight and 2DopeBoyz, is provided by artists and labels themselves.
"I don't know the extent of OnSmash's relationship with the people in the industry but the toughest part is knowing that their staff does have direct ties to various label employees, DJs and the like, all working to give the site the same content that has them in the line of fire," says John Gotty of TheSmokingSection. "It's a glaring example of the label’s lack of communication and the need for departments staffed with people who understand how to appease websites and suits.”
The winners right now in this debacle are the suits at record labels who might assume that fans will head to iTunes and Amazon for sanctioned MP3 releases. Still, rabid rap fans, particularly those with no intentions of dropping coin on just anything, always seem to figure out a new way to satiate their new music jones.
"I wonder if the labels actually care or if it's truly a dollars and cents situation, when sites have received cease and desist orders for sharing Kanye's G.O.O.D. Friday mp3s, which the whole world knows he's giving away as a promo, yet the label deems as valuable product that they have to recoup on," continues Gotty. "It's the equivalent of an artist announcing a free concert, bringing a packed crowd to a venue to enjoy the show, only to have those fans greeted by the label at the venue's exits and asked to pay for what they just saw."
While the RIAA, a constant thorn in the side of music blogs, has not been named as a responsible party for these actions, its Chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol released a statement saying “… authorities have now hung a ‘closed for business’ sign on some of the most notorious music websites that were havens for copyright theft.” Bainwol's words clearly puts his camp on the side of Homeland Security and ICE.
"Record labels are finally getting what they want," says Low Key of YouHeardThatNew. "But, this just furthers the gap in regards to communication between us and them. I sure didn't see any warning letters from these labels when they needed promo for their projects."
Labels could be hurting themselves in the long run since hip-hop blogs have become an essential part of marketing and promoting neophyte artists. Acts like Drake and Nicki Minaj cut their teeth on blogs before major labels entered the picture. Shutting down a viable outlet appears to be counterproductive, on multiple levels.
"It seems like we’re witnessing a new era in censorship—internet control," says Ivan Rott of HipHopIsRead. “I’ve been learning about COICA recently and I’m particular angry that some of the senators I’d supported, like Russ Feingold and Al Franken, voted in favor of this unconstitutional act. Rap blogs are just one of the many avenues through which the youth express their voice. Now our own government is silencing us. COICA and the work of ICE is an assault on first amendment rights. I’m not arguing that copyright infringement is not illegal. It is. But seizing control of privately-held domain names is horrifying, comparable to arrests without warrants.”
Ultimately, the Department of Justice is enforcing the law. But the question is, how did these particular hip-hop blogs reach the select list of domains to be seized? The fact that Homeland Security is attached to this development is the immediate head scratcher, especially in light of WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of top-secret documents. Is rap music a threat to national security, or is it that free music is a threat to the bottom line of the music business?
"This is the epitome of the gift and the curse," says Hale. "The gift has been to fans who enjoy finding new music and the artists who find their way around record label shenanigans to give their fans their music. The curse has been to the record labels who ‘own’ the music and have been crying foul for few years as they feel that money is coming right out of their pockets. This situation could blow over, but who really knows what is going to happen."
Ultimately, like DJ Drama's mixtape bust several years ago, this is a watershed in hip-hop Internet history. In 2007, the offices of the Aphilliates, its most prominent member being DJ Drama, were raided by the Feds when their mixtape business became a bit too profitable. Ironically, it was hip-hop blogs that picked up the slack, making those same mixtapes readily available for download. In order to survive, rap blogs must adapt.
"It won't directly affect our presentation because we tend to be diverse in our content, not relying on pirated or even questionable material as our primary draw," says Gotty. "We don't have the time or money to fight a potential lawsuit so we've avoided illegal material as much as possible and only post where an artist, manager or someone with a larger say delivers it to us. Once we receive a complaint, we avoid that artist or label's material and we haven't experienced any losses in visitors or traffic. Our readers understand that we aren't willing to trade our hard work and growth for a potential powder keg mp3.”
While TheSmokingSection chooses to pass on illicit MP3s, there are plenty of sites that don't. That is why seizing domains sites like OnSmash can be seen as the government sticking its finger in a couple of holes while there are still thousands of other leaks. RapGodfathers has already shifted over to a new domain. With the government willing to go to such measures, it may be a matter of time before MP3 music blogs go the way of Napster.
"If some of your fav blogs [SEIZE] to exist, in time, label controlled sites will rule the internet & feed you the same garbage you detest,” tweeted @thekidLEGEND of OnSmash.
In order to survive this threat to the rap blogosphere, tangible changes must be made. Moving servers overseas to avoid U.S. copyright gray areas is an option. But while a site like The Pirate Bay is still functioning to the delight of free downloaders, its owners are facing jail time in Sweden. OnSmash has started a #FreeOnSmash campaign on Twitter, asking artists who supported the site to e-mail and tweet their dismay over the situation. However, it will take legal action, which inevitably requires funds, to stop this from happening over and over again.
"Part of me holds a certain level of contempt for the '#freeOnSmash' movement because the whole idea is good-hearted, yet empty," explains Gotty. "I've seen numerous artists, DJs, other media types, PR people etc. all tweeting and writing about how OS should be freed. Instead, it should be ‘Support OnSmash’ because we all have resources — be they legal advice, larger platforms, web design, etc. — that could benefit OS more than Twitter updates.”
"The rap vote made history in 2008 but we’ve been mostly silent since then," adds Rott. "That’s got to change. Letting OnSmash fade away while thinking to ourselves ‘That’s okay, I’ve still got NahRight’ is an unacceptable approach. They may take those sites down as well!"
What do you think of the Department of Homeland Security and the ICE seizing OnSmash, Dajaz1 and RapGodfathers? What do you think the owners of the blogs and the rap community should do? Tweet us at @MTVRapFix or tell us in a comment below!