Gizmodo is calling for a boycott of the RIAA in March.

Gizmodo is declaring the month of March Boycott the RIAA month. We want to get the word out to as many people as humanly possible that we can all send a message by refusing to buy any album put out by an RIAA label.

I support the boycott, and if you’re an independent musician or producer, I think you should too. Not, however, because of the gut reaction you have to the promise of “sticking it to the RIAA.”

Thanks to the lawsuits, most music consumers now treat it as self-evident that the RIAA is a band of thugs. As a result, campaigns like Gizmodo’s appeal to us viscerally. But this reaction to the “RIAA is evil” bogeyman can distract us from what, for indie artists, are the real issues: The current music business climate, and our flawed copyright laws.

As musicians, producers, and engineers, even if only amateurs, we are part of the music industry, and as such we have a stake in the RIAA’s actions not shared by casual consumers. We also have a greater say than consumers in the industry’s direction, and when we pin the problems of the music industry neatly on the RIAA, as most consumers do, we’re apt to overlook the importance of the real issues and our need to have informed opinions about them.

Common Misconceptions

Gizmodo aims to send the message that we won’t put up with the RIAA’s “unethical practices” any longer. In calling for the boycott, they make a common mistake, one that’s inevitably repeated in every discussion about the RIAA:

The RIAA has the power to shift public policy and to alter the direction of technology and the Internet for one reason and one reason alone: it’s totally loaded… They get their money from us, the consumers

Let me dispel this and some other oft-repeated myths.

Myth: The RIAA makes money off CD sales
The comments following the Gizmodo article above are littered with this sentiment, but it’s off the mark. The RIAA is a trade group, and is funded by their members, and by government. Their members obviously make money off CD sales, but nothing you do at the cash register affects the RIAA directly. In fact, as CD sales decline, the big labels have incentive to increase their funding of the RIAA.

Myth: You stick it to the RIAA when you pirate music
The RIAA has risen in prominence over the last 10 years precisely because of illegal downloading. If you support the practice, you’re furthering the RIAA’s raison d’être.

Myth: The RIAA uses illegal tactics
Their copyright enforcement strategy might seem unethical, but it’s legal. And even though they’ve had their hand slapped for over-stepping their bounds, the simple fact is that current law allows the RIAA to sue music fans.

Myth: The RIAA is evil
“Evil” implies an intent to cause harm. The RIAA has no such intent (and I question whether an organization can have intent in any meaningful way.) Rather, they operate with a mandate, to “foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes their members’ creative and financial vitality.”

Whether or not they succeed at this task is open for debate. Personally, I think they’re one of the most successful lobby groups ever. This article from the P2P Weblog sums up my feelings: The RIAA has completely re-framed the P2P debate in terms favourable to their members’ business needs, making “piracy” and “downloading” synonymous for many people.

Regardless of their success though, “evil” is meaningless in this context. Yet the idea comes up in every discussion on the RIAA. Gizmodo and other copyfighters even encourage it, I suspect because it serves their purposes to have us believe we’re fighting a single, powerful enemy. People are easier to motivate when we have a simple cause to rally around.

But in this case, the cause isn’t so simple.

The Real Issues

As an independent artist, especially if you plan to sell your music, you should understand the two issues that have given rise to the RIAA’s lawsuits.

Music business reality
Opinion on the big music labels ranges from “the record labels don’t get it,” to “the labels are dinosaurs.” Rarely do we see an understanding of the labels’ position that accounts for their business realities.

Here’s how it works: The major labels who fund the RIAA are publicly traded companies. This means they have a responsibility to their shareholders to remain profitable. The U.S. government, too, is responsible to American corporations, primarily to ensure that the country and its laws allow corporations to remain profitable. P2P networks posed a threat to the labels’ profitability, and they charged the RIAA with (arguably the most responsible) counteraction: Change the law.

Was this the best response? It’s debatable, but whether or not they made a wise decision, that they chose a legal response does not make the labels evil. Nor does it make them dinosaurs. This is 21st-century capitalism: Corporations lobby government for business-friendly legislation.

That brings us to the second issue.

Current copyright law
The DMCA is, by most accounts, bad legislation. Just as the U.S. government has a responsibility to ensure businesses can succeed, they also must represent the rights of their constituents. The RIAA’s lawsuits illustrate clearly that the DMCA does not balance the needs of business with the rights of the people they serve.

But I’ll reiterate: The RIAA uses faulty law to further their cause, but that doesn’t make them evil. They could defer to Ice-T on the issue: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. So long as the law allows record labels to sue downloaders, and business realities dictate that they protect their existing business model, can we really expect them to behave differently?

What can you do?

While rewriting copyright law and retooling the entire music industry probably aren’t on any of our career paths, you may still play a bigger role than you realize.

As an artist, when you release a recording, you contribute to the music industry and its future. By virtue of your participation in it, the music industry becomes your industry. Whether you release via an established label, or distribute the music yourself, the decisions you make will affect your success and the success of the industry.

I would argue, then, that as musicians it’s our responsibility to make good decisions about the music industry. (And boycotting the RIAA “because they’re evil” is not one of them.) Making good decisions depends on keeping yourself informed. In two ways, as it relates to the current discussion:

Understand the business: Courtney Love’s anti-industry rant in Salon is required reading for anyone who still thinks of rock stardom as a path to riches. Even if you don’t intend to sign with a label, you’ll make better decisions if you understand how the industry works. And especially if you sign with a label, you should know their stance on suing your fans.

Understand the law: Some of the best sources for (mostly) unbiased information are:

And for a Canadian perspective, I can’t recommend Michael Geist’s blog enough.

In addition to keeping yourself apprised of the issues, you might also involve your fans. By explaining your position to others, you increase awareness of the real issues that we face. (Feel free to adopt my approach. The music and text on my album site are Creative Commons-licensed.)

What about the boycott?

So is Gizmodo misguided in boycotting the RIAA?

Yes and no.

As I implied above, copyfighters like Gizmodo have us fighting a proxy: “RIAA” is shorthand for the host of issues that really need addressing. To the general music-consuming public, this might be an unimportant distinction. But independent musicians and producers have the power to shape the future of our music industry, and it’s important that we do so with an informed perspective.

That said, I don’t like the idea of suing my fans, and I want to send this message to the corporations who endorse the RIAA’s legal tactics. The boycott is unlikely to affect the RIAA financially, as Gizmodo hopes, but it does have potential to raise awareness in the industry. So I support it.

I hope my fellow indie artists and producers will reach a similar conclusion. Don’t support the boycott just because you believe the RIAA is evil or unethical. Rather, recognize that our industry, and the legal environment that supports it, needs help.

In short, boycott RIAA labels in March, but know why you’re doing it.

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