Raw Sue-age

Let us not squander the gift of mass lawsuits against average Joes: Fuck the RIAA!

Last Monday, Sept. 8, the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that represents the Big 5 major labels -- BMG, EMI-Capitol, Vivendi-Universal, Sony, and AOL Time Warner -- announced it had filed lawsuits against 261 file-sharers who, it claims, are egregious offenders, i.e., those who have shared with the general public a thousand or more copyrighted recordings. In addition to the suits, the RIAA also announced its "Clean Slate Program," an amnesty plan offered to anyone who is not currently being sued or who is not currently under investigation.

"Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation," said RIAA President Cary Sherman in his official statement. "But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action. We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue destroying the livelihoods of artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers, and everyone in the music industry."

So far, the RIAA has reached one settlement as a result of the suits. The "egregious offender" is a 12-year-old girl living in a New York City housing project whose parents will pay the RIAA $2,000 for her crimes. (A radio station in Rochester, N.Y., and a handful of other companies have offered to pay the two grand.) Also worth noting: A California resident, Eric Parke, has filed suit against the RIAA in Marin Superior Court, alleging, according to the New York Times, that the Clean Slate Program is "designed to induce members of the general public ... to incriminate themselves and provide the RIAA and others with actionable admissions of wrongdoing under penalty of perjury."

"We actually think it's a shamnesty," echoes Gwen Heinze, a staff lawyer with the San Francisco­based Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that successfully defended the P2P network Morpheus in its landmark case against the RIAA. "The RIAA doesn't actually own copyrights. It's a trade organization. Its members are the legal entities that own the copyright of recorded music. So you could enter into a deal with the RIAA, but it wouldn't necessarily protect you. You could still be sued by one of its member labels. ... The general point is you don't get peace of mind if you sign this."

While there are many cards still to be played in this hand (the RIAA has reportedly subpoenaed 1,600 Internet service providers in its search for names; it has alluded to hundreds more lawsuits it plans to file; as of press time, file-sharing on P2P networks had gone up in the week since the suits were filed), there are a few things I'm pretty sure of:

1) The war against the media conglomerates, if it wasn't already, is officially under way;

2) Stealing music is stealing music, so we're all gonna have to get over the idea of getting it for free, but

3) Fuck the RIAA.

Sure, we all want artists to get the respect and compensation they deserve, but believe me, the RIAA is not fighting on behalf of music artists. It's fighting on behalf of five of the biggest media conglomerates in the world, and the reason we're in this mess in the first place is because -- well, yes, it's because stealing is fun, but it's also because people have no reverence for commercial music and the entities that purvey it. And why should they? The major labels treat artists as interchangeable, disposable products.

Here's how the typical major-label recording contract is set up: The company signs star-struck hopefuls so intent on grabbing the brass ring they'll accept any terms handed to them. Those terms typically involve the label advancing an artist money -- note that this is a loan the artist is expected to pay back -- to record his major-label debut, an album for which the label will bring in a veteran producer who will, usually, take the act's sound and stuff it into one of a number of focus-group-tested formulas.

"We did get put with a big producer who tried to cookie-cutter us in some ways, which I think every band that gets signed does," says Ross Grant, guitarist for the roots-rock band Pseudopod, which signed to Interscope Records (which is owned by Vivendi-Universal) in October of 2001. The reason you may not have heard of Pseudopod, which hails from Danville, is because Interscope didn't feel the record was worth promoting.

See, even if the band manages to bring the album in on time and under budget -- a rarity -- the record label may decide not to release it, let alone promote it. If, however, a label's promo machine is put into play -- if the thinly veiled payola system that determines what goes on today's commercial radio stations is navigated, if all those wheat-pasted posters are put up around town (the expenses, by the way, for these and other promotions are billed to the artist) -- then the act's album just might have a chance of making some money. And then the act just might be able to pay back the huge costs it has incurred in finally getting the LP to you, the consumer -- that is, after it pays its various managers, booking agents, tour promoters, etc.

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