Don't Sever a High-Tech
Lifeline for Musicians
The Recording Industry Assn. of America
recently won a court ruling that effectively will cut off the recording
artists it represents from new listeners.
In RIAA vs. Verizon, the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia ruled that anyone suspected of downloading so-called
"infringing" files on the Internet -- usually an MP3 of a song -- could
be sued. No evidence is required. An accuser fills out a form for a
court clerk and the machinery is set in motion.
The record companies say this decision will mean more money for
musicians, but they have it backward. The downloaded music they're
shutting off actually creates sales by exposing artists to new fans.
If this ruling stands, many smaller musicians will be hurt financially,
and many will be pushed out of the music business altogether.
I've been a recording artist for nearly 40 years, with top-selling
songs such as "Society's Child," "At Seventeen" and "Jesse." Six months
ago, I began offering free downloads of my songs on my Web site.
Thousands of people have downloaded my music since then -- and they're
not trying to steal. They're just looking for music they can no longer
find on the tight playlists of their local radio stations.
That's how many artists gain new listeners these days -- through the
After I first posted downloadable music, my merchandise sales went up
300%. They're still double what they were before the MP3s went online.
I'm not going to make a fortune selling these extra recordings, but it
does add up to a few thousand dollars a year. That's a welcome bit of
additional income for me and for the vast majority of artists who don't
sell as many records as Nelly and Ja Rule.
The Internet means exposure, and these days, unless you're in the Top
40, you're not getting on the radio. The Internet is the only outlet
for many artists to be heard by an audience bigger than whoever shows
up at a local coffeehouse. The Internet allows people like me to gain
new fans; if only 10% of those downloading my music buy my records or
come to my shows, I've just gained enough fans to fill Carnegie Hall
With the court's decision, the RIAA didn't just defeat Verizon, the
Internet service provider that the RIAA sued. It damaged the viability
of recording artists who don't conform to the mainstream musical tastes
of the moment.
Do you like '50s-style acoustic folk? Big band music? European synth?
If the decision stands, you'll have to rely on word of mouth to find it
-- not the Internet. Because if you get hold of an "infringing" file,
you may find yourself on the receiving end of a record company lawsuit
too expensive for any individual to fight.
The entertainment industry has a long history of trying to shut down
new technology. Most often, it has imagined that new products and
services threatened industry sales. It's been proved wrong time and
time again; it fought home video tooth and nail, but videotapes and
rentals now bring in more money than movie releases. Music history is
littered with record industry campaigns against reel-to-reel home tape
recorders, cassettes, minidiscs, music videos and MTV.
Verizon is appealing the decision, and it is vital that the judge's
ruling be overturned.
The RIAA says it is doing all this to make more money for me and other
artists like me, but don't be fooled. Many musicians would lose money,
many fans would be denied a universe of new choices and the
possibilities of Internet music would be cut off before the revolution
Janis Ian is a singer, songwriter and recording artist with nine Grammy
nominations. Web site: www.JanisIan.com.