As a rule, rock stars have never shied away from taking up a political cause. But the advent of the Digital Age is giving musicians a host of new ways to mix both tech savvy and their rock star status to further an agenda.
Bono has lent his celebrity to a host of worthy causes, from world hunger to economic support for less developed nations. These days, the U2 lead singer is collaborating with charitable organizations to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa. One of his most recent efforts, called (PRODUCT)RED, sells a line of custom-designed clothing and gadgets including a Motorola Slvr phone, donating proceeds to The Global Fund to fight AIDS and other diseases.
Then there are the artists who have used digital versions of their music itself as a statement. Public Enemy's Chuck D posted his group's politically charged rap songs online for free download at a time when file-sharing first came under fire from the recording industry. And when DJ Danger Mouse mashed up the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album to create the Grey Album — and subsequently drew a cease-and-desist letter from record label EMI — music-activism group DownhillBattle.com organized a protest that put the compilation on 170 Web sites on Feb. 24, 2004.
Rock stars of all ages and genres are getting hip to the ways of tech and politics. Neil Young released his widely hailed Living With War album this year in digital format to Internet audiences a full week before it hit retail stores. Although Young was not the first to release his music in that sequence, making the politically charged anti-Bush Administration album available to anyone with an Internet connection was a way to boost both the album's sales and publicize the underlying message.
Coordinators of the SavetheInternet.com coalition back so-called "Net neutrality," or rules that would bar phone and cable companies from creating a multi-tiered fee structure on the Internet. They're hoping that participation of artists like Moby will help them spread the word. At least 10 other musicians and celebrities will soon add their voices to the plea, says Craig Aaron, a spokesman for FreePress.net, which is organizing the coalition.
"These are folks that have a loyal fan base that looks to the artist," he says. "It's an opportunity to reach out to a new audience that is not necessarily paying attention to the ins and outs of media policy" at the Federal Communications Commission.
So is this marriage of technology and politics on the part of musicians working out? Artists who back the free dissemination of music via the Web remain lone voices in the music industry. Meantime, the Net-neutrality backers have made little headway in Congress (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/8/06, "Web Titans' D.C. Blues").
Still, the influence these musicians can have with the public is undeniable. "For better or for worse, the mainstream media loves to write about celebrities," Aaron says. And the technologically advanced ways those celebrities try to bring their messages across.