In mid-February, Alec Empire of the iconic digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot got a call from Sony. The company was creating a commercial for their new handheld game console, the Sony Vita, and they wanted to use the song Black Flags from ATR’s most recent album Is This Hyperreal? for the score.
It was a call so wrong, so profoundly ill-advised, that it could only end in epic internet lulz.
To begin with, Alec Empire has a history with Sony — he’d sued them for copyright infringement after another song was included in a Sony ad without permission, and he settled, still feeling ripped off. Part of his dissatisfaction was hearing his music in a commercial at all.
“It was this kind of situation… when you feel your whole work has been compromised. We are really and only about the political message,” said Empire in an IRC chat with Wired. “So when something like this happens it is damaging to our credibility and can’t really be repaired with paying some money.”
But there was more: the song Sony wanted, Black Flags, was originally written about Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. But the video was dedicated to Anonymous, who were mentioned in the song as well — the very collective that had mercilessly and repeatedly targeted in Sony in 2011.
Now Sony was back in Empire’s life — and asking this time. Empire knew at once what he wanted to do.
“I was actually on the phone and had to slow down my pulse and breathe… so the excitement wouldn’t be audible in my voice.”
Empire knew a participant in Anonymous, and got in touch with them about his idea. “Alec comes to me asking where to donate to support anons,” said the anon, picking up the story. “I remembered right around the time of the Paypal 14, and other raids on anon members, there were a team of lawyers devoted to defending anonymous members… I know a couple of the lawyers, so I asked them where the donate page was, (and) I handed the link to Alec.”
The moment the ad money came in, Empire sent all of it to Freeanons.org — a legal defense and support network for people arrested for participation in the collective. He announced it on his blog immediately, declaring “I did it only for my own amusement!” — the lulz hard at work.
Many in the community of Anonymous who had already contributed material for the Black Flags video cheered this announcement, and Empire and some anons started a dialogue. Sometimes Empire would interview anons, and sometimes they would interview him.
Wired sat down for a chat with both a cross section of participants in the Anonymous collective, and the digital hardcore rockstar. The wide ranging talk touched on internet freedom, the music industry, the future of Anonymous, Sony, Germany, and even living on the edge of self-destruction, as an artist or a hacker. While this transcript here has been edited for length, topicality, and clarity, the casual style of IRC, which often omits conventions of written language in favor of conversational speed, has been preserved.