RIAA, Radio and Hurting your Customers

Shortly after 9/11, we began seeing those anti-drug PSAs for which the message was “Drug money funds terrorism.” While I’m not using the all-purpose terror rhetoric to label the RIAA, it’s time to apply the same type of thinking to them. When you buy major label music, what does your money fund? In part, it pays the lawyers for these ongoing lawsuits against file traders, the same ones that recently included a septagenerian that doesn’t own a computer .

It’s Christmas time, which means compiling the Christmas lists for the family. Usually, I’m easy to shop for. It is nothing for me to bat out a list of dozens of CDs, books and comics I want. I started to compile the list and then I realized that I just plain don’t want my mother spending her money in ways that will go to the RIAA. Although what I most want is the box set reissue of the early Flaming Lips albums, I’m not asking for it because it is a Restless Records release, an RIAA member (once an indie label, they were bought by BMG.) As I thought about it, I realized that I so vehemently want to keep my money out of RIAA hands that I am willing to buy it as an import, at a premium, if I can keep the money away from the RIAA. Talk about brand disloyalty! I’m willing to spend signifanctly more money and incur significantly more trouble in order to avoid being a customer of member labels. Usually, companies do not work so hard to alienate me, and if this organization is going to try so hard, the least I can do is let them.

This prompted me to think further down this line. One of the most disturbing things about the whole situation is that major labels are willing to do two things simultaneously – spend lots of money to get music played on commercial radio where it will be heard for free and spend lots of money to oppose their customers trading the files, where it will be heard for free. It seems to me that the real impetus behind the rise of file sharing is not the desire of customers to avoid paying, it is to experience more music than they can on commercial radio. The rise of file sharing occurs because of the failures of commercial radio, as stations conglomerate and play lists shrink and choices get fewer and fewer. With a few national programmers deciding what all the stations in the country will play, we are losing the “regional hit” that used to be important in bringing out new acts. Music fans want to hear more different music than they are allowed to, and neither radio nor the major labels understand that and provide that. File sharing allows the Big Media Machine to blame the misdeeds of the customers for the drop in music sales. In fact, far more credible is the notion that sales are dropping because playlists are shrinking and listeners are exposed to less music outside the big few. Big Machine Media in the form of major labels and major media conglomerates go hand in hand in this process, each helping to lower the costs by lowering diversity, streamlining their ability to take in cash by reducing our choices. It is telling that the best album I’ve heard in a while is the freely downloadable Two Zombies Later from Comfort Stand.

In my work with WREK I was amazed to find some of the diversity that used to exist in the major labels of 30 or 40 years ago. Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, these were included in major label catalogs. Now it is about ever common denominators, ignoring the small and midlist artists, and collecting all the eggs into a few blockbuster baskets. As the alternative outlets in the media shrink and the choices disappear, we are given ever less challenging and less interesting “product”. The RIAA effectively bullied internet radio into submission with their onerous fee structure, stifling one of the emerging best ways for customers and music fans to find new and interesting music. The labels that used to finance the riskier, low selling but artisticly interesting albums with the proceeds from the hits have decided it is better to skip the risks and pocket that cash. They want us to hear only what they choose to provide us, to kill our alternative outlets, to sue us when we leave their boundaries of control. Enough, I say.

Effectively immediately, I secede from this system. I will purchase no more major label music until their policies of harrassing the same people from whom they make their money changes. I will not listen to any more Clear Channel radio stations. I’ve been seriously considering making an attempt to organize a formal, time limited boycott of the RIAA, say for the month of February. Coinciding with the boycott would be an effort to promote the works of artists on labels not in the RIAA, ala the RIAA Radar. I’m tired of being bullied by the same companies that I give my disposable income. They have worked very hard to make me sever ties with them, and finally I’m doing it.