More on the RIAA

Eric left a comment on my previous post that prompted a lengthy response. I’ve decided to post my response as a post on its own.

Beware what you wish for.

With new media distribution comes new media tangles. The mix-tape freedom that we enjoyed when we were teens is being threatened by new business models. This new lawsuit isn’t designed to protect DRM — it’s designed to protect revenue streams. Amazon is great, but the RIAA members make money from Amazon. They don’t want us burning CDs because that keeps us from spending money at Amazon.

The problem is that the music publishers are important. Radiohead’s pay-as-you-wish music strategy was successful because they were able to capitalize on a large, distributed network of fans — fans that were acquired in large part due to the efforts of the music companies that Radiohead has now forsaken.

I don’t cry for the publishers; they made plenty of money off Radiohead. But your local garage band — no matter how good they are — can’t match Radiohead’s success. The music companies provide artists with distribution and, even more important, promotion.

Amazon, iTunes, Rhapsody — those are all distribution channels that feed into the RIAA revenue stream, and the RIAA will defend its revenue stream. The internet has changed the method of distribution, but it hasn’t (yet) eliminated the need for promotion.

I expect, over-time, the terms of publishing contracts with artists will change very little. I expect that artists will receive — on average — a greater percentage of revenue, but less revenue over all. As with book (and film) publishing, we’ll see more massive blockbuster hits accounting for a greater percentage of overall profits, while at the same time we’ll see more and more product being delivered to the consumer.

The question is how we monetize that product. If music follows the publishing industry, we’ll see big bands subsidizing the promotion of smaller bands, which may not be such a bad thing. Internet distribution will increase, as will internet promotion. But music companies will remain players so long as they can continue to help match an artist with his audience. The opening, as I see it, is for an association of musicians to band together and create an “artist-owned” promotional agency. With the costs of production declining, musicians would record and produce their own material, and then submit that material to the agency who would act as a marketing and promotional firm, as well as a clearinghouse for distribution. (Sounds like a money-maker to me! Who’s with me?)

But in the near term, I think a lot depend on political will. Copyright law needs amending, and it will certainly be amended during the next administration. But how will it be amended? Politicians being what they are, it will be amended in ways favorable to the RIAA. Regardless of who wins the election.