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Defending families, and defeating corporate music
by Holmes Wilson
Email: hw at downhillbattle dot org
18 Oct 2003
Modified: 20 Oct 2003
The "big 5" record labels have controlled music for decades. "Peer-to-peer" filesharing could break their monopoly grip, but they're fighting back with merciless lawsuits against families with children. Musicians and fans are organizing to defend these families, and rescue our music culture from corporate control.
When an association of the 5 largest record labels, the RIAA, sued 261 music sharers, the press was ready. Journalists knew the suits were coming--it was only a question of when, and who. But for the targets of the lawsuits (the vast majority families with children) there was nothing inevitable about it. Imagine getting hit with a lawsuit for more than the value of your home because your kids went to the wrong webpage and downloaded the wrong program.
My role in this started a month ago, when my site was contacted by a programmer who, appalled by the story of Brianna LaHara, wanted to collect donations for people who'd been sued. We worked out a simple, "peer-to-peer" Defense Fund that could go up quickly without any legal hassle or red tape, and we started calling people who'd been targetted. The first phone calls were a shock: until then I'd thought about the lawsuits in only intellectual or strategic terms (is this a good move for the major labels or not, etc.) but on the phone these were real people with tough, complex lives:
My husband and I both work full time to make ends meet. We have 4 children … We are middle class and live from paycheck to paycheck. We are good, honest people. This lawsuit has devastated us.
Musicians and independent labels are speaking out against the RIAA lawsuits, and one independent musician is even donating proceeds from his CD sales to the Defense Fund. An opportunity exists to stop future lawsuits, and the defeat of the 5 corporations that control popular music could be the easiest anti-corporate victory ever.
By using a peer-to-peer contribution system, we were able to avoid legal hurdles and red tape, and ensure that all donations went directly to the people who had been sued. Each recipient can set up his or her own PayPal account, and our site can track the amount of money each person received. Whoever has received the least money so far is at the front of the line, so donations distribute evenly over time, and we don't have to touch the money. This peer-to-peer, no-middleman approach seemed like the perfect response to major label middlemen. The hard part was contacting the families who'd been sued and getting them signed on.
At first it may be difficult to appreciate how completely adrift these families were. Almost none had heard of the EFF (an organization like the ACLU, but for the internet), and most didn't even have email addresses. Many were singled out as "major downloaders" simply because they didn't know how the software worked: people who use Kazaa frequently don't keep all their music in their shared folder (especially since news of the impending lawsuits began circulating) but most of these people didn't know what a "shared folder" was. It seemed that the RIAA's criteria had selected for people who didn't know that much about computers, and who didn't understand how filesharing software worked.
The vast majority of those sued were families with young children. Even if their parents aren't computer literate, any 13-year-old with a screen name will learn to use popular filesharing software like Kazaa from a friend in a matter of minutes. One father who'd been sued was angry at his son, but couldn't honestly blame him: "He said 'dad it was just a website' so I asked him to take me to it. And he was right, it was just a normal website and it didn't say anything about it being illegal." Not only does it not say anything about being illegal, Kazaa's site had 5 colored hearts across the top and looks like a toy.
The RIAA's criteria also singled out people who love music. Several of the people we talked to were musicians, and many owned hundreds of CDs. One man John, who is signed up on the fund, is a professional gig musician in Chicago. We couldn't contact him at first because he was playing guitar that night, and every night that week. A woman who signed on to the fund told us about her family's interest in music,
We have three daughters, ages 20, 18, and 12, all whom are musically talented .... our eldest daughter is majoring in Vocal Performance at ______ University.... collectively we own over 500 CDs. Many of the downloaded songs are actually singles from various CDs we own ... the girls enjoy creating their own mixes.
Many musicians oppose the lawsuits, and some are joining to help those who've been sued and to fight the RIAA and the major labels. Independent musician Scott Andrew LePera is donating proceeds from his new CD to families sued by the major labels. He's selling his folk-pop record "Where I've Been" through his website for $5. The CD has 6 songs to play on a CD player plus two whole albums in MP3 and Ogg format, all released under a Creative Commons license. If his fans think they're getting more than their money's worth, they can "tip" him by paying more than $5. This month's tips will go to the Defense Fund, and he's raised about $240 so far.
Even major label musicians are speaking out against the suits. Musicians like Moby, Bob Weir (from the Grateful Dead), and Gregg Rollie (Santana and Journey) sounded off to the San Francisco Chronicle against the lawsuits and the major labels' business practices. "For the artists, my ass," said David Draiman of the band Disturbed, "I didn't ask them to protect me, and I don't want their protection."
The punk-rock and pop-punk label GoKart Records is fighting back against the RIAA lawsuits by making several of their new releases available as free downloads. In an interview with O'Reilly OpenP2P, GoKart's founder Greg Ross says that what the major labels really hate about filesharing is not lost sales, but lost control: "with few exceptions ... the access to fans is controlled by the five major labels. But they can't control what people download. All they can try to do is control people's access to downloads, or scare them so they won't."
It's becoming clearer and clearer that the major record labels are NOT legitimate businesses who make money and benefit their clients by providing a valuable service. They're monopolistic middlemen who work together to rip off both musicians and fans. They've been successfully sued twice for price-fixing. A CD which cost $500,000 to make sells for about the same at the store as a DVD for a movie which cost $150 million to make. Musicians have to sell 500,000 albums before they see their first artist royalty dollar. But the price-fixing lawsuits and anti- payola legislation have failed to reign in the industry, just as the Microsoft anti-trust suit failed to reign in Microsoft's monopoly. Government can only do so much against entrenched monopolies, but filesharing puts the power to depose these obsolete businesses into consumers hands: decentralized "peer-to-peer" sharing of music has the power to finally break up the major label cartel, and this could be the easiest anti-corporate campaign ever fought: major label sales have declined 10% a year for the past three years. With such steep declines, it's completely realistic to aim for the *complete* decorporatization of music within the next 5 years. And as the majors decline, independent, DIY music only gets stronger. (See Independents Day in the Christian Science Monitor.
Meanwhile, hundreds of families and individuals are suffering needlessly as part of the major labels' scare campaign:
Our second daughter is a nursing student at ____ University. As you can imagine, the tuition bills for educating her and her sister are tremendous. We are hardly in a position to pay the price to the recording industry as their sacrificial lamb.
So far, the Peer-to-Peer Legal Defense Fund has raised over $1300 for 12 families and individuals, but it will take a lot more money to make a significant dent in these people’s legal fees and settlement costs. You can contribute here, and you can choose who receives your donation by clicking on “full recipient list” (if, for example, you want your donation to go to someone who is fighting the lawsuit.)
And remember, make sure your friends and family stop buying major label CDs; this could be the easiest anti-corporate victory ever.
The following are some other great resources:
Four of the five major record labels have corporate ties to military contractors, in this graphic by Godspeed You Black Emperor
RIAA Radar - Make sure the music you pay for is RIAA safe.
Downhill Battle - Music activism site (we started the Defense Fund)
Flyering campaign - Get the word out that it's not okay to buy major label CDs
StopRIAAlaawsuits - An open coalition of sites that will call for a one-week boycott of major label CDs when the next round of RIAA lawsuits are filed
The Problem with Music - Famous rock producer Steve Albini’s famous critique of the music industry.
Weed - Share an artist's files freely, listen 3 times for free, then pay $1 to unlock. Artists get half and filesharers even get a cut. Uses Microsoft DRM (Digital Rights Management) , but clever enough to deserve a chance.