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NEARLY A DECADE after it was originally written in response to the Recording Industry Association of America's illegal-revenue-driven attack on the rights of individuals -- specifically recorded music purchasers -- the following Skinny Column remains as timely as ever.
Napster was then the target of the RIAA's corporate government sanctioned attack on individual rights, but the battle has subsequently shifted to other electronic vehicles of Fair Use -- Grokster, LimeWire, BitTorrent, FrostWire, etc.
Here's why the RIAA -- and the corporate parasites that fund it -- deserve to lose. That's not going to happen, though, until the corporate lackeys are removed from judgeships all over America, which makes me think of something my dad said to me once.
I was going on about how Henry George's "single tax" was a great idea, and he replied, "well sure it's a great idea, but it would take a revolution to put it over, and if you had a revolution, you sure wouldn't stop there."
Sara Hickman's predicament, as depicted in this photo by Keri Bray from the sleeve of Hickman's first Elektra CD, "Equal Scary People" in 1989.
Turns out, MP3 file sharing is the solution to Hickman's problem -- and Ella Fitzgerald's and Danny Gatton's and a lot of other people's too.
I FEEL bad for Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Hickman and Danny Gatton.
The RIAA's recent fusillade of law suits against individual Americans for non-commercially sharing their music files has already hurt Ella, Sara and Danny.
Take Ella, for instance. She's one of the great voices of the 20th century, but the record companies that support the RIAA haven't done much to promote Ella's music lately. The result? She gets little radio airplay and almost nobody under 50 knows who she is. That's what the RIAA has done for this giant of the industry.
Here's what one former MP3 file sharer did for Ella. He downloaded Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald's incendiary live version of "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and shared it with a couple friends who had never even heard Ella Fitzgerald sing before. One of them was so impressed that she went out and bought an Ella CD. That commercial CD sale would never have happened if wasn't for MP3 file sharing.
The RIAA doesn't understand this at all, but I think most people can see that the "evil" file sharer here wasn't stealing from Ella. He wasn't taking money out of her or the record companies' pockets. He was putting money IN their pockets by promoting Ella, and giving her the very best sort of promotion you can get -- word-of-mouth recommendation from one person to another. That's not going to happen any more for Ella, though, thanks to the RIAA.
That's bad enough for a major star, but for an artist like Sara Hickman it's potentially disastrous. You may never have heard of Sara Hickman, but she's a marvelous singer/songwriter from Texas. Sara Hickman gets zero radio airplay around here, and they don't even have a bin for her at the local record store. But I know a guy who stumbled on her song "Last Night Was A Big Rain" through MP3 file sharing and eventually went out and bought SIX of her CDs. Those commercial CD sales would never have happened if it wasn't for MP3 file sharing.
Clearly this is bad, or so the RIAA keeps claiming. To the RIAA, the Sara Hickman files that my friend shared on the Internet represented sales lost to MP3 file sharing, but the exact opposite was really true. The Sara Hickman files were actually evidence of how MP3 file sharing GENERATES commercial CD sales. My friend loved Sara Hickman and he wanted to turn as many people on to her as he could (in other words, get as many people as possible to buy her CDs and go to her concerts). That sort of happy synergy won't be happening any more for Sara, thanks to the RIAA.
GUYS LIKE the late guitarist Danny Gatton really lose, though. If the RIAA had waited another week or so before filing its initial 261 law suits, Danny Gatton's estate would have probably gotten some CD sales locally as a result of MP3 file sharing.
A friend of mine had just stumbled across Danny's wonderfully manic, Les Paul-esque live version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" on a MP3 search for something else. He never would have found in the first place if it wasn't for MP3 file sharing because Danny Gatton gets even less air play on radio stations around here than Sara Hickman, which is to say stone cold zero through the conventional apparatus for music promotion controlled by the RIAA and its member corporations.
My friend intended to share "Sweet Georgia Brown" with a guy he knows who plays a Les Paul Custom and was an obvious candidate to go out and buy a bunch of Danny Gatton CDs. But that won't be happening either, thanks to the RIAA. No MP3 file sharing, no commercial sales.
Eventually, I hope the musicians and artists realize that the RIAA is actually attacking their livelihood -- their fans, sometimes their very best fans -- and especially alienating the young listeners the industry badly need to attract and hold for the next 50 years.
Certainly, the vast majority of musicians and artists (who receive little promotional help from their labels) benefit from MP3 file sharing since it allows them to be heard when the RIAA won't buy them ads in Rolling Stone or even get their CDs in the record stores.
WHEN YOU boil it down, what the RIAA is doing hurts everyone but the lawyers. First of all, music consumers lose their traditional right to non-commercially share their music by whatever technology they chose. I have enjoyed this right all my life, and I personally do not appreciate being called a thief by a corporation at the very moment that corporation is stealing my rights.
Secondly, the RIAA's actions hurt most recording artists. The RIAA tries to claim the moral high ground, but the fact is the RIAA's contentions are based on a bald faced lie -- namely that MP3 file sharing inevitably subtracts from commercial CD sales. This simply is not true. In many cases -- such as the ones mentioned above -- MP3 file sharing actually generates commercial CD sales.
None of which would matter, of course, if the United States government wasn't controlled by ultra right-wing extremists and Christian fascists. The automatic subpoena power included in the Republican Congress' Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a travesty of justice, plain and simple (minded) -- just what we've come to expect from the uber Republican, George W. Bush.
THE REAL PROBLEM with MP3 file sharing is that it requires the music industry to innovate. Changing technology and consuming habits are forcing the industry to change, and that's very, very hard for the suits at Sony, etc. to do. Their first impulse is simply call their lawyers and sue somebody, in this case their own customers.
The music industry and the RIAA need to think longer and harder, though, and come up with a better idea, an idea that takes advantage of the new technology and makes money by adding new value, instead to trying to protect an outdated franchise by trashing the traditional rights of Americans citizens.
In the meantime, I think I'll go ride my mountain bike. There are lots of things to do besides listen to music.
-- Bruce Brown
Special thanks to Tim Johnson, who originated the idea of "The Skinny" column in the late, lamented Every Other Weekly and Bellingham Weekly.