|Minister of Propaganda|
If the Big Apple can have “New York” and the Motor City can have “Detroit Rock City,” why shouldn’t Charm City have a rock anthem? That’s what guitarist Josh Cohen ’92 and his friends thought when they recorded “Baltimore” to launch their band, Fitehouse, in 1997. The song was part homage (“If you ask me how it goes, baby I’m livin’ it. And if you ask me how I know, Baltimore’s givin’ it”) and part publicity stunt.
They conducted surveys, lobbied government agencies, and sent out press releases, all to promote their song. They distributed CDs and sheet music in Baltimore schools. They even got a somewhat-qualified endorsement from Mayor Martin O’Malley, who said he “kind of” liked the song. But Fitehouse didn’t get the one thing it really needed: radio play.
Cohen and his bandmates don’t mind bad reviews (they’ve even made one critic’s put-down—“superannuated soul rock”—a tagline for one song), but they don’t like being ignored. “They should have at least played [the song] to say, ‘This is junk, why are they wasting our time?’ ” Cohen complains. He saw his experience as an example of a music industry under more and more central control, dominated by conglomerates that own both radio stations and record labels— including nominally independent ones—and that prosecute and sue kids for file sharing. So Fitehouse fought back. Cohen, who calls himself the group’s “minister of propaganda,” sent thousands of postcards and “manifestos” to editors and reporters around the country. Then the band produced—what else?— another anthem.
Their “Running Scared” is an anti–recording industry shout-along with lyrics that channel the ghosts of Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams. It was created under Fitehouse’s new licensing agreement, which requires bands to give listeners access to the raw tracks of their recordings so that people can go beyond passive listening and actually remix the sounds to create their own songs.
Cohen isn’t counting on a hit record anytime soon (the guys all have day jobs, and the band’s Web site, www.fitehouse.com, says they’re too busy with propaganda to play any gigs in the near future). But they are hoping to get people thinking about where music comes from, and where it’s heading. “Music’s not something that can be bought and sold,” Cohen argues. “It’s about taking sounds; combining, internalizing, and sharing them; making them a part of your community.” Fitehouse’s roots are in both hip-hop and hillbilly, he says. “Our base is college students, computer geeks, and intellectual freedom fighters. You have to find those niches.”
Jake Miller is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.