[JPL] The RIAA Vs. The World

Jazz Promo Services jazzpromo at earthlink.net
Fri Oct 12 11:02:20 EDT 2007


The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing massive
multinational corporations with tentacles in every corner of the global
economy including the music business, has just won a lawsuit against a
mother of two who refused to be pushed around. Jamie Thomas¹ pockets were
not nearly deep enough to mount the kind of legal defense for the occasion,
but she rightly thought that paying an out-of-court settlement of several
thousand dollars for the ³crime² of sharing music online was ridiculous. So
she told the RIAA they¹d have to take her to court. They did, and they won.

The fact that one of these cases actually went to trial, the amount of money
involved, and the fact that the defendant could have been your neighbor, a
middle-aged single mother of two who was not selling anything, but was just
engaging in commonplace song-swapping via Kazaa¹s peer-to-peer network, has
made this case newsworthy. But what lies beneath it are the ever-growing
tens of thousands of people who have been spied upon, harassed and
threatened with lawsuits if they didn¹t pay the RIAA thousands of dollars
for sharing copywritten music in a way the RIAA, the US government, the
World Trade Organization, etc., deem inappropriate.

In spite of the RIAA¹s campaign to staunch the profit losses of it¹s
corporate members by waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against your
average everyday music fan, the numbers of legal and ³illegal² downloads
continue to rise rapidly. However, the industry¹s campaign is not just about
robbing working class American music fans of hundreds of millions of their
hard-earned dollars. The music industry is waging a war for the hearts and
minds of the people of the US and the world, spending tremendous amounts of
money on advertising campaigns to convince us of the rightness of their
cause and the wrongness of our actions.

The RIAA is both powerful and desperate. They are a multibillion-dollar
industry that has been ³suffering² financially for years, and they are up
against the very nature of the internet  that being peer-to-peer sharing of
information in whatever form (stories, songs, videos, etc.). The internet
has given rise to unprecedented levels of global cultural cross-pollination,
and it has led to a democratization of where our news, information, music,
etc., comes from that has not been seen since the days of the wandering
troubadors who went from town to town spreading the news of the day.

The RIAA is trying to use a combination of the law, financial largesse, and
encryption and other technologies to try to reassert their dominance over
global culture. But perhaps most importantly, they are trying to reassert
the moral virtue of their position, the rightness of their positions
vis-a-vis the concept of intellectual property and the notion that the fear
campaign they¹re engaged in somehow benefits society overall and artists in

The success of their campaign to convince us that the average person is
essentially part of a massive band of thieves can be easily seen. Look at
the comments section following an article about the recent lawsuit, for
example, and you will find people generally saying they thought Ms. Thomas
was wrong but that the amount of money involved with the lawsuit is
outrageous. You will find people admitting that they also download music
illegally, and they feel bad about it, but it¹s just too easy and the music
in the stores is too expensive.

Obviously the idea of anyone being financially bankrupted for the rest of
their lives because they shared some songs online is preposterous, and very
few people fail to see that. But the idea that Ms. Thomas did something
wrong is prevalent, even among her fellow ³thieves,² and I think it needs to
be challenged on various fronts.

³We¹re doing this for artists²

The RIAA represents artists about as effectively as the big pharmaceutical
companies represent sick people. I¹ll explain. The vast majority of
innovation in medicine comes from university campuses. The usual pattern is
Big Pharma then comes in and uses the research that¹s already been done to
then patent it and turn it into an obscenely profitable drug (especially if
it¹s good for treating a disease common among people in rich countries).
Then they say anybody else who makes cheap or free versions of the drug is
stealing, and by doing so we¹re stifling innovation and acting immorally.

Similarly, the vast majority of musical innovation happens on the streets by
people who are not being paid by anyone. The machine that is the music
industry then snatches a bit of that popular culture, sanitizes it, and then
sells it back to us at a premium. They create a superstar or two out of
cultural traditions of their choosing and to hell with the rest of them.
Sometimes the musicians they promote are really good, but that¹s not the
point. The point is that if the RIAA were truly interested in promoting good
artists, they¹d be doing lots of smaller record contracts with a wide
variety of artists representing a broad cross-section of musical traditions.
But as it is, if it were up to the RIAA we¹d be listening to the music of a
small handful of multimillionaire pop stars and the other 99.9% of musicians
would starve.

The overwhelming majority of great music in the US (and most certainly in
the rest of the world) is not supported by the RIAA. Rather, it is
marginalized as much as possible. ³Payola² is alive and well. The commercial
radio stations are paid to play RIAA artists and paid not to play anyone
else. A strategic, financial decision is made to promote a few styles of
formulaic anti-music, each style represented by a few antiseptic pop stars,
the lowest common denominator that can be created by the corporations behind
the curtain. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of great writers,
recording artists and performers are ignored, denied record contracts,
promotion, airplay, distribution, etc.

In short, the RIAA does their best to stifle art, at the expense of money.
They represent some artists, no doubt  a few very well-off ones, the few
(occasionally very talented) beneficiaries of their money-making schemes. In
the US, even the system through which royalties are distributed ends up
benefitting only the industry and a few pop stars. The comparatively little
airplay independent artists receive is measured by organizations like ASCAP
in such a way that it is largely ignored, and royalties we should be
receiving end up in the pockets of the industry.

³Downloads hurt CD sales of our artists²

OK, so the RIAA¹s claims to represent artists in general may be laughable,
but surely they have a point when they complain about the annually
decreasing CD sales of Coldplay and the Rolling Stones? Even if they are
just a cartel representing the interests of the few and trying to prevent
access or representation by the many, surely suing average music listeners
is at least some kind of response to their artists losing sales to these
free downloads?

The kind of logic that sees loss of CD sales for major label artists as a
direct response to being able to download their music online for free is
flawed. It assumes that people would be buying the CD¹s of these artists
were it not available for free. The reality, I¹d suggest, is very different
and also hard to measure with any degree of accuracy.

With the rise of the worldwide web has come an explosion of interest in an
ever-broadening array of music. People are downloading for free and paying
for new music from all over. When bigtime artists get loads of conventional
publicity and everybody can¹t avoid knowing that Janet Jackson has a new CD
out because this news is covering the sides of every bus in the city, many
people will go ahead and download tracks from her new CD if they can find
them on the web for free. But would they bother buying the CD in the
current, rich musical environment of the internet otherwise? Or would they
just move on and download other stuff from the independent artists they¹re
constantly discovering out there on the web instead?

I¹d suggest the latter, and I¹d further suggest that there is no reliable
way of knowing whether or not I¹m correct. If the major artists are losing
sales because of the availability of their songs for free on the web, I
couldn¹t care less. However, I think what is more the case is they are
losing sales to the internet itself, as a result of the blossoming of
grassroots musical culture that the internet is fostering.

³Giving away music hurts small artists²

This is an argument the RIAA is fond of putting forward. Sadly, many of my
colleagues, many other independent recording artists, believe it. They seem
to think that if the major artists are losing sales to the internet, it must
be happening to us, too. Either deliberately or through inaction, they don¹t
put their music up on the web for free download. Fans of theirs, it often
seems, respect this and don¹t put up the music either (sometimes). I¹m
convinced this is all born out of confusion, and these artists are shooting
themselves in the foot.

What¹s good for GM is definitely not what¹s good for the guy in Iowa City
making electric cars out of his garage. I constantly run into people who
assume that I must be losing CD sales and suffering financially as a result
of the fact that I put up all of my music on the web for free download.
Sometimes they are artists who think I¹m something of a scab. Other times
they¹re fans who appreciate the free music but are concerned for my
financial well-being.

Principles aside for the moment, on a purely practical level, the reality is
that many independent artists, most definitely including myself, have
benefitted from the phenomenon of the free MP3. Like others, the fact that
I¹m making a living at all at music ‹ unlike the overwhelming majority of
musicians  is largely attributable to the internet, and specifically to free

It¹s not simple, and it¹s fairly easy to hypothesize one thing or another
and back it up with selective information. But overall, my experience has
been that I sold a few thousand CD¹s a year before the internet, and have
continued to sell a few thousand CD¹s a year after the internet. Gig offers
and fans in far-off places have multiplied, however, and in so many of these
cases it¹s clear that they first heard my music on the internet, usually
because someone they knew guided them to my website.

Every year, over 100,000 songs are downloaded for free from my website, and
many more from many other websites where they are hosted in one form or
another. This represents many times what CD sales could possibly have been
for me without a major record contract, previous to the internet. My
conclusion is that the free download phenomenon behaves more like radio
airplay that I never would have had otherwise. And it¹s international
airplay that has led me to tours in countries around the world and gigs in
remote corners of the US that resulted directly from someone telling someone
else about songs of mine they could find online for free.

The reality, pop stars aside, is that the overwhelming majority of musicians
who are able to make a living from their music make it from performing. For
DIY musicians who are not having their tours booked by Sony BMG¹s booking
agencies, the most valuable resource are fans, especially the ones who are
well-organized and enthusiastic enough that they want to organize a gig for
us somewhere. Through fans like this, we can cobble together another tour.
This process has been helped immensely by the ³viral marketing,² the buzz
that can happen when music people like is freely available on the web.

I¹m sure that there are many people who would have bought my latest CD if
they weren¹t able to download it for free. Of this there is no doubt. But to
think that this is therefore how the free download phenomenon works in
general is extremely simplistic. For every person who downloads the songs
instead of buying the CD, I¹d guess there are 100 who hear the music on the
web for the first time, who would probably never have heard it otherwise.
For every 100 people who hear the music for free, say one of them will buy a
CD to support the artist. For every 1,000, maybe one will organize a paying
gig. This may not cause a big rise in CD sales, but ultimately it doesn¹t
hurt them, either, and what it does for sure is dramatically increase the
overall audience of independent artists around the world.

³But people are stealing private property on those P2P networks²

There are many ways to try to compensate artists for original work,
scientists for ground-breaking research, inventors for great new inventions,
etc. There is no single, sacred way to do this. There are many ways to
support art and artists in society and reward them for their work. Paying
royalties based on airplay, downloads and/or CD sales is one way among many.

If royalties are going to be a primary way artists are compensated, there
are many ways to do this, too. With CD sales, according to the current
system, the songwriter gets something like 7 cents per song per CD sold in
the stores. With radio airplay, the onus on paying the royalties that may
eventually get to some of the artists is on the radio stations, and the
radio stations are usually supported by corporate advertisers.

If the RIAA really thought their artists could compete with the rest of the
world¹s artists on a relatively open playing field, they¹d probably be
busily trying to create some kind of web-based infrastructure where
corporate advertising would pay some kind of royalties for their artists. If
this infrastructure existed, people would drift towards it as the path of
least resistance, compared to finding music on P2P networks.

The problem is, the RIAA doesn¹t control the internet the way they control
the commercial radio airwaves, and they know that the musical tastes of the
people are broadening, and threatening their pop star system, threatening
their profit margins. They can¹t keep out the competition, so they¹re trying
hard to control the environment in a way that¹s most beneficial to their
corporate interests ‹ screw everybody else. Screw independent artists and
screw the public at large.

I don¹t know if anybody can predict these things with certainty, but it
seems to me the basic nature of the internet will ultimately triumph over
the narrow interests of the music industry. The music industry will not
cease to exist by any means, but it will shrink somewhat, and will have to
give way to the flourishing grassroots music scene which the internet has

It seems to me that the most relevant question in terms of the efforts of
the RIAA is, at what cost to society at large? How far will they go to
maintain this broken system, to maintain the inequities of their star-making

And another crucial question: why should a system be allowed to continue
that massively rewards a few artists for their ³original² records full of
³original² songs, while leaving destitute the masses of musicians and others
who created the cultural seas in which these ³original² artists swim?

Musicians, as a whole, represent some of the richest people in the society
and many of the poorest. The music industry¹s system, in conceptual terms
and in practical terms, is broken. It represents the interests of the
monopolies against the interests of the rest of the world¹s people,
cultures, musical traditions and musical innovations.

To my fellow musicians I say put all your music up for free download, help
your careers and screw the music industry. To music fans I say keep on
downloading, don¹t feel bad about it ‹ and try not to get caught.

­ David Rovics is a musician. He can be reached at: DRovics at aol.com

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