How war made musicians embrace the Internet. Why R.E.M., Zack de la Rocha, Lenny Kravitz, the Beastie Boys, and others had no choice but to distribute their protest songs online

By Brian Hiatt
Updated March 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Zack de la Rocha: Niels Van Iperen/Retna

There’s finally a cease-fire in the music industry’s war against the Internet — but it’s taken a real armed conflict to achieve it. In recent weeks, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has spurred an unprecedented number of top-tier artists, from the Beastie Boys to John Mellencamp, to use the Net to put out their music. In each case, the artists rush-recorded an antiwar song — Lenny Kravitz’s gentle ”We Want Peace,” former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha’s fierce ”March of Death” — and brought it to the world online. ”There were discussions of what the most quick and efficient manner was to get this song out, and this was it,” says Steve Martin, spokesperson for the Beastie Boys, whose quickie rant ”World Gone Mad” helped kick off the minitrend.

Efficiency aside, the Internet may have been the only venue available to these artists, who also included R.E.M. and Green Day frontman Billie Joe. ”Pro-peace songs and antiwar songs just aren’t getting airplay,” says Jehmu Greene, executive director of Rock the Vote, whose website hosted Kravitz’s song. With their access to the airwaves blocked, and store-bought singles almost defunct, major artists may suddenly have understood why unknown bands have been so quick to let people download their music.

”That’s when digital distribution clicks for [major artists], and the light bulb goes off over their head,” says former Too Much Joy frontman Tim Quirk, now director of music programming for the online music-subscription service Rhapsody (, which hosts several of the protest songs. ”All of a sudden they understand the power of it. The reason they’re coming around to it is because they have a concrete need to use it.”

With their labels’ blessing (at least in most cases), each of the artists released their songs free of charge — perhaps because record companies saw little potential profit in the tracks. ”It’s obviously not a very commercial song,” Martin says of the Beasties’ minimally produced ”World.” ”It’s not something that was labored over to be hooky or an obvious single.” The Beasties, de la Rocha, and Green Day’s Joe even released their songs as MP3s, a format traditionally shunned by the music industry because of its lack of copy protection.

Artists and labels’ newfound comfort with the Internet may extend past the time-sensitive antiwar efforts. Madonna’s new single, ”American Life,” doesn’t address the Iraqi conflict (its video does), but her label has also put it online, again as an MP3, and in streaming form on Rhapsody and other subscription services. The download, however, costs $1.50 — a fee high enough to inspire protest songs of its own.