Digital rights and music is a complex topic. Most people prefer to download a song and then copy it an infinite number of times perfectly onto any device they own. Other prefer to download songs without paying for them and copy them an infinite number of times onto any device they own. The RIAA dislikes both of these practices. Through the use of heavy-handed, reactionary legal responses, the RIAA managed to turn itself into the villain of the record industry.
It was not always this way. The RIAA was created in the 1950s as an industry standards group. Just as accountants conform to the standards set forth by the AICPA and attorneys give deference to opinions published by the American Bar Association, so does the music industry listen to the RIAA. The RIAA set the fidelity standards for cassettes, CDs, and recorded music. These technical suggestions became industry standards and generally provided the consumer with a higher quality product.
In addition, the RIAA acts as an arbiter of monetary success. When you see a record going platinum or gold, that’s because the record met certain criteria created by the RIAA.
Unfortunately, the RIAA was caught flatfooted by the Internet. Their response to peer to peer sharing sites, such as Napster, ruined their image in a large swath of the public eye. The media ran stories of grandmothers and children receiving cease and desist orders for sharing their favorite songs on websites. Others ran stories of college students being hit with six figure law suits for downloading songs online. That was wrong.
Then again, stealing is wrong. Artists deserve to be paid for their work and talent. Downloading music for free was illegal. A heavy-handed response on the part of the RIAA to peer to peer file sharing does not excuse rampant theft. Downloading music for free is no different than stealing from the store. Just because you do it behind six proxies makes you a smarter thief, but a thief nonetheless.
The 1950s were a different time. Musicians ran many of the record labels. Now, Warner Brothers, Emi, Sony, and Universal are all run by businessman with various specialties in technical aspects of managing large entities. In other words, the artists no longer control the establishment. This is a natural growth of nearly any industry. You saw the same thing happen to the car companies during the 20th century. At first engineers were in charge. Over the years the companies merged with each other via sophisticated corporate moves to the point that the only people who could control them had MBAs from Ivy League schools. The cars took a backseat to greater corporate interests.
The music industry is generally run by larger interests than just the music. As such, the RIAA morphed in tandem with the industry. What was once the quality assurance guard dogs is now the attack hound of the greater corporate interests. These corporate interests have millions of dollars invested in maintaining the current status quo. As such, the major record labels lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to innovation via musicians’ digital rights.
In that light, the best way to encourage innovation with major record labels would be to convince them that they will secure more profits by investing in better digital rights management platforms. To a certain extent we’re already seeing this happen via iTunes, Spotify, and similar distribution platforms. When you add Pandora to the mix, you can see the landscape changing for the better.
The RIAA’s problem is perception. They are not evil. They’ve made mistakes but their problem is not that they exist. Artists deserve to be paid. It cannot be stressed enough that artists have historically been screwed harder than any other class of society. Perhaps suing college students for downloading the White Album was not the best way to ensure that artists continue to get paid. But that college student should not have been stealing in the first place. A nuanced, measured response in proportion to the harm done would have done wonders for the RIAA’s perception.
That all being said, do we really need a watchdog in this industry? Earlier we referenced the AICPA and American Bar Association. Those people handle your money and your freedom. Perhaps we should encourage national and statewide standards of excellence for fields of that degree of importance. Are we really ready to say that our rock and roll deserves the same degree of bureaucratic scrutiny as our doctors, accountants, and lawyers?
Everyone is a star on YouTube. People release material all day long on the Internet. Most of it is trash. Some of it is great. The great rises to the top. The trash (generally) stays where it belongs. The point of the RIAA was to protect people from getting screwed by record labels content with producing low quality content. Today’s aspiring sound engineer can create professional quality content with a small investment of money and time reading free research materials.
In other words, there’s really no reason to protect the consumers anymore. The concept of a record going platinum is a quaint, useless concept that delivers zero value for most consumers of music. Given the rapid increase in musical selection for people via the Internet, it’s entirely possible that children today will never ever purchase a gold or platinum album.
So, is the RIAA evil? Probably not. They’re just useless.