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.

"Every penny the record label spends on you, you ultimately have to pay back," says Grant. "People don't realize it, but some bands that have sold like 2 million records don't even recoup their losses. I have friends in bands who have sold in the millions and still haven't recouped on their record deal."

Add this to the peril of shady lawyers and managers, and you can see why countless big names -- TLC, Billy Joel, MC Hammer, and the list goes on -- often wind up slumming it after prolific careers. And those are the ones who do make it. These days, the occasional Britney Spears or Eminem or Blink 182 will finance the cultivation of dozens of other acts. When 98 percent of them fail to sell, they will be dropped like bricks all the way to the bottom of the pop-cultural ocean, their careers ruined after the label has determined them economically unviable.

But if the music business is fucked up and in need of a makeover, the only thing that will happen if we file-sharers don't get our shit together is that the RIAA will eventually win in court. For, at the very least, the RIAA has a legion of lawyers, whereas most of us have little more than a DSL connection, a bong, and a few conspiracy theories.

"[File-sharers] like to say, 'I'm in a crusade against the music industry.' And it's like, 'No you're not, you just want a free song,'" says Grant. "And the labels are the same way. They're like, 'We're protecting artists.' And it's like, 'No you're not, you just want to make money.'"

There are an estimated 60 million people who use P2P networks. As the EFF points out, that's more people than voted for President Bush. But if all of us act like looters during an electrical blackout, we're not helping our cause. The RIAA has given us a gift with these lawsuits: Revolutions always begin when the ruling majority rounds up the leaders of the insurrection. It seems that this one will be no different (even if those leaders are only 12 years old). If we act responsibly, if we work toward creating and supporting P2P networks that allow us to discover new music for ourselves and pay the artists who create it -- thus circumventing the corporation-controlled labels and distribution outlets -- then perhaps the members of the RIAA will be the first casualties in a long-overdue war against corporate music monopolies.

Who would have thought that all these years later, that cryptic Smiths song would finally make sense: "Shoplifters of the world/ Unite and take over!"


Visit www.eff.org for some great resources, including: "How Not to Get Sued by the RIAA"; a database to find out if you've been subpoenaed by the RIAA; and "Making P2P pay artists." Check it out.

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