But Is It Good For the Musicians?

The recording industry, collectively represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), like any industry in our capitalist economy has always been all about maximizing profit. And while making money is obviously not a bad thing, the RIAA tagline – “Representing Music “ – positively oozes irony: legendary tales of artist exploitation and abuse at the hands of venal, unscrupulous record labels are as countless as they are egregious. For decades, the real money in recording was being made by parasitic corporations and only incidentally by the creative artists who did all the actual work. But as the power of the “suits” continues to decline in the brave new world of digital media, the immortal words of Janet Jackson echo in paraphrase: what have they done for us lately? Are their efforts helping or hindering the ability of musicians to make a living?


It’s no secret that the RIAA has historically fought tooth and nail against technological developments in sound reproduction. They sabotaged DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in the late 1980’s through a variety of lobbying efforts, attempting to limit its viability for fear that high quality digital reproduction would diminish record sales. But the PC industry managed to bypass those efforts, and digital sound reproduction proliferated on the Web. By the mid-1990’s, Napster had become a household name and the RIAA (and individual major labels) were in a panic, suing just about anything with peer-to-peer capacity and a pulse.  And in 1999, the “work made for hire” legislative sleight of hand stripped many artists of their copyrights by congressional fiat; it took the formation of Recording Artist’s Coalition and an ensuing fight to repeal that copyright larceny – which had been slipped into the legislation by an RIAA mole.


So you’ll forgive my skepticism as I read on their website about the RIAA’s various efforts to “represent music,” which include a program for educators (grades 3-8) called “Music Rules!” to “help lay the foundation for respecting all forms of intellectual property, especially music recordings.” This is not without merit: sadly, we are raising an entire generation who – through free streaming and file sharing – have never paid a dime for music and think it is always free. Always. Music has no monetary value to them. And there needs to be a sea change in this attitude: if we demonstrate that something has value by paying for it (and we do), then we must accord that respect to music, an essential and critical foundation of our culture. On this the RIAA and I are in agreement. But if the RIAA thinks that teaching “intellectual property” rights to a room full of nine years olds is going to foster this respect, I respectfully disagree. I believe their lobbying efforts would be better spent pressuring streaming services to go to an all-subscription model, making all that “free” music no longer free and forcing those who regularly (and many exclusively) avail themselves of these services to shift their mindset about what all that amazing music is really worth. Paying a modest monthly fee for access to literally hundreds of thousands of the world’s greatest works of art? Sounds like a fair deal to me.