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<nettime> Crazy remixed-up kids
Ian Dickson on Wed, 12 Nov 2003 10:51:05 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Crazy remixed-up kids

This is an older but great piece about those three kids that are in court
in .au now for their involvement with MP3WMALand.com.

"DJ Gunz remembers that Ace was one of the better customers at Anthem
Records - those street mixes Ace posted on the internet were made from
records and CDs he bought legitimately. The ironies are not lost on Gunz,
who still receives promotional records every week from record companies
that are suing him."


Crazy remixed-up kids!
June 25 2003

One minute you're mixing CDs in your bedroom, the next, the federal police
are knocking on your door. And if you're a DJ, you can expect a visit,
too. Richard Guilliatt reports on the music industry's all-out war on

If DJ Ace ever abandons music - which is possible, given that the
multinational record companies had him arrested recently - he could
probably make a living as a stand-up comic. The self-styled "Pimp Daddy"  
of Sydney's hip-hop scene was once a perennial clown on late-night
internet chat sites, where he entertained fellow DJs by showing his flair
for sexual braggadocio, inventing fictitious episodes of The Jerry
Springer Show or uploading photos from his 19th birthday party at the
Mercure Hotel in Sydney - the party that featured a Spider-Man cake and a
fat-a-gram stripper who pinned Ace to the carpet while his friends laughed
riotously in the background.

Which is not to belittle Ace's DJ-ing skills, for his remixes of popular
rap and club tunes proliferated across the web, as did his mix CDs -
Blazin' Up, Club Ace and Spades. Like a lot of young DJs, Ace compiled
them on his home computer, in a bedroom at his parents' house in the
south-western suburbs of Sydney (because even a Pimp Daddy can have
trouble paying his own rent). He'd sample a song, pull it apart and put it
back together with different beats, new vocal lines or whacked-out samples
of dialogue, then send it out on the internet and invite comments. In the
virtual music community that Ace and his peers inhabit, it's the way you
show your skills; it's a scene in which guitar and drums have been
replaced by CD-ROM and Pro Tools, where even the lingo has its own
jump-cut rhythm in which gangsta slang is spliced with techie jargon.

"'Sup people!" Ace announced cheerfully at the beginning of this year.  
"My new CD, DJ Ace - Pimpology has been completed and will be available
for downloading on March 17 on two web servers, FTPs and MIRC channels.  
Details will be available on my website. In the meantime, visit the
website and vote for your favourite Pimpology cover design."

What DJ Ace surely never imagined was that the Australian federal police
were monitoring his online antics as part of Operation Mezn, an
investigation into music piracy launched by the record industry. And on
April 23, Ace's parents answered a knock on the door and found themselves
face-to-face with a contingent of cops armed with a search warrant. They
came into the house, took Ace's computer and arrested him, taking him to
police headquarters where he was charged with copyright violations for
which he could face five years in jail.

When Ace appeared in court at Sydney's Downing Centre on May 13, he was
plain old Tommy Le of Punchbowl, a clean-cut, spikey-haired, sober-looking
teenage student in a dark suit and tie, hands clasped in front of him as
if waiting for handcuffs. His co-defendants - Charles Kok Hau Ng and Peter
Tran, both 20-year-old information technology students - were similarly
attired. The trio have been accused of setting up an internet site,
Mp3WmaLand, which allegedly enabled the world's computer users to
illegally download $60 million worth of music.

With some hoopla, the music industry is promoting this as the first
criminal prosecution in the world for illegal internet song-swapping - a
signal of its determination to stamp out the scourge it claims threatens
the entire industry. The industry's anti-piracy lawyer, Michael Williams,
even drew a comparison between Mp3WmaLand and Osama bin Laden's terrorist

Those familiar with Le, Tran and Ng find such hyperbole risible, saying
that behind their grand web names - Pimp Daddy, Maestro and Webmaster -
are geeky young students with a passion for cool technology and music.  
Indeed, Charles Ng told us that Mp3WmaLand, which he created in his
bedroom, was little more than his own music collection stored in
cyberspace, adding that Tran and Le had little to do with it.

What's abundantly clear, though, is that the $20 billion global music
business is embarking on a risky new phase of its crusade against that
"21st-century piratical bazaar" known as the internet. Having failed to
outlaw file-sharing software, it has turned its wrath on the biggest users
of that software: teenagers. Suddenly, weirdly, the entertainment business
is teaming up with cops and conservative politicians to wage war on its
own customers.

Charles Ng suggested the impracticalities of this at the tail end of his
interview with federal police, after being grilled for two hours about the
contents of his computer and the 600-odd CDs taken from his bewildered
parents' house. "If they're going to bust everyone downloading copyrighted
material," Ng said, "then, I mean, you might as well bust half of

It's 11 o'clock on Saturday night at Daintree Cafe nightclub, in the
Darling Harbour complex near Sydney's CBD. The club booms to the sound of
hip-hop tunes mixed with the smoother R&B stylings of Mary J. Blige and
Jennifer Lopez, as DJ Demo deftly works the turntables up in the mixing
booth, headphone clamped to one ear. The young crowd is only just
building, so it's hard not to notice the middle-aged bloke leaning
self-consciously against the DJ booth, dressed in sports jacket and jeans,
with a shoulder bag slung over his shoulder. Shoulder bag?  Clearly, he's
not a Biggie Smalls fan. Demo leans down to see if he's all right, and the
bloke reaches into his bag, pulls out a manila envelope and thrusts it
into the DJ's hands. Inside, amid a raft of printed internet pages, is a
subpoena to appear in the Federal Court.

The undercover brotha who turned up at the Daintree last November was part
of Operation Seine, a four-month investigation by Australian record
companies into the allegedly nefarious world of nightclub DJ piracy. In
charge of the investigation was Michael Speck, a ginger-haired ex-cop who
now works full-time for the music business, helping to fight music piracy.
Speck is a stocky, balding, brisk sort of bloke who once worked with the
Drug Enforcement Agency and still has a fondness for police
operations-speak. Music piracy, he often reminds people, helps finance
organised crime and international terrorism, and fighting it is a 24-hour,
seven-day occupation.

Operation Seine, however, does not seem to have uncovered a major threat
to the nation's security. What it uncovered was a series of mix-CDs in
which DJs like Demo, Gunz, Pee Wee Ferris, Moto, Nik Fish and others mixed
popular club tunes into a seamless flow of dance music suitable for an
hour or so of recreational booty-shaking. After months of exhaustive
sleuthing - sending undercover operatives into nightclubs and record
shops, getting audio engineers to analyse and catalogue the contents of
the CDs, trawling the web, searching corporate records, serving subpoenas
- Speck was able to establish that some of the DJs were using songs by
major artists like Mary J. Blige and Ja Rule without permission.

As it turns out, he could probably have established this just by asking
them. DJ Gunz - aka 26-year-old Peter Papalii - can be found most weekdays
behind the counter of Anthem Records in Sydney. Gunz says there's barely a
DJ in Australia who hasn't remixed a popular tune or compiled his own
"street mix", because that's how DJs establish their reputation, and how
kids get to hear the music. "Part of the reason this music has been so
popular is because of the street mixes," he says one afternoon at the
shop. "There's no R&B or hip-hop radio stations, so there's no way for the
music to get heard. We are the radio."

True, some DJs crossed a line when they began selling their mix-CDs to
shops. But Gunz says the record companies created a void by failing to put
out decent mix-CDs themselves. Indeed, he and several other DJs had tried
to sign a legitimate deal with one of the companies now suing them but
were unable to agree on the song selection. "Their problem is that they
don't understand the music," he says. "They don't know the difference
between what's good and what's not."

What really baffles Gunz and his mates is that the same record companies
suing them in Australia are actively encouraging street-mix DJs in the US.
Many American record executives now scour street mixes for new talent or
send advance copies of songs to DJs to start a word-of-mouth buzz. "It's
the match that starts the fire," a Sony executive told Billboard magazine
in April. Indeed, the rapper 50 Cent, the most successful new hip-hop star
in the US, got a record deal after one of his street mixes fell into the
hands of fellow rapper Eminem. Today, 50 Cent's In Da Club is itself one
of the most bootlegged tracks on the club scene.

"If 50 Cent was a rapper in Australia," says one local club DJ
caustically, "he'd have been arrested rather than making the record
industry $50 million."

The confusion over street mixes shows how hazy piracy issues have become
in the digital era, when computers and samplers make any teenager a
potential megastar - or a potential pirate. The five entertainment
conglomerates who now run the music business reaped the riches of the
compact disc boom over the past 20 years, but while they were doling out
$150 million contracts to fading stars like Mariah Carey, few foresaw
their day of reckoning.

Once music went digital, it became another form of data that could be
sampled, copied, deconstructed and beamed along fibre-optic cables.  
Compress it into MP3 files and you can store thousands of songs on a
single home computer. Hook the computer to the phone line and you can send
those songs anywhere in the world - as the American teenager Shawn Fanning
showed when he invented Napster, the "file-sharing" program that ushered
in the copyright wars in 1999.

Now any kid in Bankstown or Dandenong can remix Jennifer Lopez's new
single and give it away over the internet, or compile a mix-CD for
friends. Is that piracy? The Australian record companies say it is. "No DJ
has the right to copy any commercial recording for their own use,"  says
Michael Williams.

Legally speaking, Williams is correct. In fact, anyone who has ever put
together a compilation tape has broken the law, which forbids duplication
of copyrighted material without the owner's permission. Of course, the
federal police have never prosecuted anyone for possession of a homemade
'70s disco mix, because it's recognised as harmless (albeit lacking in
taste). But in an age when entire record collections are accessible on the
internet, when CD burners and music software have made duplication and
manipulation of music ubiquitous, technology has exploded all the old

DJ Ace had his own website - the Pimp Factory - and his remixes and
street-mix compilations were available as downloads (complete with a range
of CD covers). He'd also prevailed on Charles Ng, his friend since early
high school, to make them available on Mp3WmaLand, an internet site Ng had
created as a multipurpose meeting place where tech-savvy kids could chat
and download a virtual library of songs and video clips.

Ng, who is studying information systems at university, was asleep on April
23 when a seven-strong contingent of feds turned up that morning at his
parents' house in Sydney's west, ordering everyone into a room and seizing
his computer (on which he was completing his final-year studies). "I was
like: 'Is this real? Is this happening?'" he recalls, adding that his
parents, who are Malaysian and speak little English, had no idea what was
going on. Ng co-operated fully, telling police he believed Mp3WmaLand
operated in a legal grey area - something he now contritely concedes he
may have got wrong.

Ng's lawyer, Chris Levingston, says it's likely his client will plead
guilty. But Levingston scoffs at the music industry's claim that $60
million worth of music was downloaded off Charles Ng's site, and says the
comparisons to Osama bin Laden are bizarre. "These guys are kids,"  says
Levingston. "On the internet they're the big monkeys who call themselves
Pimp Daddy, Webmaster and Maestro, but when it comes down to it, their
Adam's apples are bigger than their heads. They're unbelievably
unsophisticated and have no idea of the consequences of what they're
doing. Yet potentially, they can now be saddled with serious convictions.
The record companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars
pursuing these piracy cases, when what they should be doing is getting
their heads in order and actually releasing a product their customers

Levingston's barb goes to the heart of the music industry's most
questionable tactic - its stubborn attachment to the $30 compact disc.  
Instead of adapting to the new technology of downloadable music, the
industry declared war on it from the outset, scoring an early victory with
its successful lawsuit against Napster. But other file-sharing systems
have since proliferated across the internet, allowing millions of music
fans to swap billions of songs for nothing while lawyers argued
interminably over the legalities. Now CD sales are nosediving, forcing
massive lay-offs at the record companies.

In an industry where financial prudence traditionally meant buying your
cocaine in bulk, the shock runs deep. At the 2002 Grammy Awards, US record
industry chief Michael Greene called file-sharing "the most insidious
virus in our midst", as well as "pervasive", "out of control", "criminal"
and a "life and death" issue.

One problem for the record industry is that musicians themselves are
divided on the subject. While many say file-sharing is theft and
undermines the whole financial foundation of their work, others see it as
a means of reaching new listeners who wouldn't normally hear their work.
The New York musician Moby even uttered the ultimate blasphemy recently
when he said: "There is one really simple way for the record business to
save itself, [and] that is to start selling CDs for $5."

Nothing better illustrates the plight of the record companies than the
fact that their biggest nemesis operates from an office above a
supermarket in Sydney's northern suburbs. Sharman Networks owns the ninth
most popular site on the internet thanks to Kazaa, its file-sharing
software, which has been downloaded more than 230 million times and is
used by four million people a day. Sharman's chief, Kevin Bermeister, is
an Australian based in Los Angeles who almost never speaks to the media.
His chief offsider, the elusive Nikki Hemming, is based in Sydney but
would not speak to us. The company's strange structure - its technology
was developed in Holland, its servers are in Denmark, and its corporate
entities are in Vanuatu, Australia and the UK - has made it devilishly
difficult for the music business to pursue its case.

Now that their latest lawsuit against file-sharing software makers has
failed, the record companies find themselves trying to sell an
increasingly redundant product that their customers don't want, and having
those same customers hauled into court. It can hardly be a comfort that
some of the most enthusiastic backing for this strategy comes from
zero-tolerance conservatives like Texas Republican congressman John
Carter, who suggested that song-swapping would stop as soon as a few
college students were thrown in jail. Carter's comments reflect the
political undercurrents of the copyright war: the US government sees the
entertainment industry as a prized American asset and is pressuring its
allies to get tough on piracy. So after Tommy Le, Peter Tran and Charles
Ng were arrested in Sydney, the Australian music industry received lavish
praise from the Howard government's Attorney-General, Daryl Williams.

Back in Sydney, DJ Ace's website and street mixes have disappeared from
the internet, and his computer can legally be destroyed if he's found
guilty of copyright violations. DJ Gunz remembers that Ace was one of the
better customers at Anthem Records - those street mixes Ace posted on the
internet were made from records and CDs he bought legitimately.  The
ironies are not lost on Gunz, who still receives promotional records every
week from record companies that are suing him.

"I've been DJ-ing for 14 years; it's what I'm passionate about," he says.
"I love this job, being here in the shop surrounded by the music.  DJs are
going to put out mixes regardless of what the record companies do.
Nightclub promoters ask you for your demo, and any mix or demo you make is
a bootleg. So they're going to have to sue every single DJ in the country.
Get jukeboxes in every club - take it back to the '60s and '70s."

Michael Speck, meanwhile, says his undercover operations against DJs
continue, and that some are "awaiting criminal prosecution". If so, expect
more scenes like the one that played out before Judge Allsop in the
Federal Court in Sydney last December. As piles of affidavits and
submissions were tendered as part of the pirate CD case, the honourable
judge found himself scrutinising detailed testimony about the true
identity of DJ Chocolate Boy Wonder, and valiantly coping with
21st-century pop terminology.

"Does 'R&B' still mean what it meant some time ago?" the judge gently

"I think it has probably matured a little, your honour," said a lawyer for
the music industry. "It's probably something we wouldn't recognise now."

ian dickson                                  www.commkit.com
phone +44 (0) 1452 862637                    fax +44 (0) 1452 862670
PO Box 240, Gloucester, GL3 4YE, England

           "for building communities that work"

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