RIAA Still Doesn't Get It: Hopes SOPA Opposition Was A 'One-Time Experience'

from the you-don't-know-what-you're-up-against dept

In a previous post, I looked at the first part of Andrew Keen's interview with RIAA CEO Cary Sherman. In the second half of the interview, Sherman fields some audience questions collected on Twitter, and his answers further expose the serious problems with his understanding of what's happening in music, what happened with SOPA, and what's happening to his industry.

The first question directly challenges Sherman over his NYTimes op-ed in which he claimed the massive opposition to SOPA/PIPA was somehow undemocratic, asking him if he really thinks an informed populace is a bad thing. But Sherman is still convinced that it was all a misinformation campaign by Google (though he avoids using the name):

I obviously think that an informed electorate is a great thing. The question is whether they were really informed or whether they were being misinformed. That was the point of the op-ed: that there was a lot of misinformation about the bill that was being circulated, and that was accepted by readers online in terms of "if it comes from these sources it must be true." I know that a lot of members of Congress who had worked very hard on the legislation were very frustrated that they couldn't get out their side of the story, that this legislation was not what it was represented to be. So my op-ed was not intended to really raise questions about whether the legislation was good or bad, but that everybody has a responsibility to be accurate and really factual about what the legislation provides. Otherwise those platforms can be used in ways that aren't engaging the electorate in a good way, but rather in an anti-democratic way.
Sorry, but Cary Sherman is not allowed to accuse others of misinformation—not unless he's going into comedy. In the first half of the interview, and in his op-ed, Sherman attempts constant deception. He talks about the dangers of counterfeit products to play up the unrelated issue of copyright infringement; he presents laughably incomplete data; he insists there was "No Duty To Monitor" in SOPA/PIPA, ignoring the fact that where there was no "duty" there was extreme liability incentive; he claims that Anonymous' DDOS attacks are the "real" censorship in a blatant misuse of the term—the list goes on and on. And can we just pause for a moment to marvel at the sheer insanity of the claim that Congress "couldn't get their side of the story" heard? Congress? The folks who keep multiple 24-hour cable channels fed with stories at every second of every week of every month? They couldn't "get their side of the story" out? Now that's misinformation. Sherman is a misinformation artist, and he'd even be a good one if he wasn't also so naïve, as the rest of his response demonstrates:
Hopefully that was a one time experience that came from a lot of different things coming together, where a lot of different people came to the conclusion that this was a terrible piece of legislation. I think Congress got that message loud and clear. But in the future, think of how that could be abused for bad purposes. I think all of us have an interest in making sure that we hold ourselves on the internet to the same high standards that we've tried to hold ourselves in the offline world, whether it's newspapers or broadcast journalism or whatever. There ought to be clarity and integrity with respect to the facts.

That's right: he hopes millions of people actively participating in the democratic process with the help of online tools was a one-time experience. Putting aside the fact that it makes you question his values, this statement demonstrates that he's a fool. His industry has pushed and pushed for decades, eroding freedoms and locking up culture through deals negotiated in back rooms, and they finally reached the breaking point. The world woke up, and Sherman thinks he can just wait for them to fall asleep again.

He also still can't get it through his head that the internet is not separate, and that media is just people communicating. Newspapers and broadcast news are no more or less perfect than online news, and only the most oblivious commentators truly believe they are paragons of journalistic ideals that can serve as an example to newcomers. Besides, plenty of traditional sources were opposed to SOPA/PIPA as well.

On the topic of newspapers, the next question asks Sherman for his thoughts on their approach online. He notes that many have yet to find the advertising dollars they hoped for, and says it's "interesting" (wink wink) that so many are moving towards paywalls. I won't respond to that, because Mike said it all last week: let 'em.

Another reader asks what he thinks of online services that let artists go directly to fans:

You know, I have nothing with cutting out the middleman. I think that if an artist wants to go it alone, go it without a middleman, that is the artist's choice. And for some artists it can work very well. It hasn't happened that way: most artists who have been more majorly successful have had the help of a label, it could be an indie label or a major label. What they provide is the marketing and promotion that is so clearly necessary to distinguish yourself in this day and age. In 2010 you had 75,000 new albums released. 70,000 of them, that's 94%, sold less than 1000 copies. That isn't much to make a commercial career out of. It's hard to see how you could make a career as a musician when you're selling less than 1000 copies of your recording, unless all you're really doing is live gigs and you're making a few extra bucks by selling some recordings.

It's a muddled response, because the numbers he presents are from SoundScan and do not include the very direct-to-fan services he's supposed to be talking about. More importantly, it shows how limited his thinking is: other than live shows, he ignores every single artist revenue stream, even the traditional ones like licensing. Mere number of albums sold is not enough information to decide if an artist can build a career, and it never has been. Sherman continues, rightly recognizing that there are still very important roles for middlemen services today, but failing to realize that his industry is not the only player:

The point is that for some artists who want to go it alone, that's great, many of the artists that we see are great at making music, they're great at performing, but business is not what they want to do, promotion is not what they want to do. There are some obvious exceptions to that, but that's what record companies do, that's what managers do. They're all intermediaries in a way, but they are intermediaries that grow the audience, that improve the demand for that artist's creative work.

What he ignores is that the traditional record label model is not the only way to offer these services. Increasingly, it's the worst way: even in the first part of the interview he admitted that labels are no longer benefiting artists the way they used to. Artists who eschew labels may have to do some of the legwork of promotions and business, but the tools are all there for them. They can use Bandcamp. They can use TuneCore. They can use Topspin. They can use Bandzoogle. They don't need label help to find a distributor and build a website and launch a merch store—they can do it all in a few clicks. Good middlemen are enablers, while record labels still want to be all-powerful gatekeepers, as Sherman makes disgustingly clear:

There's no doubt that there's going to be a continuing role for record companies. That role may change over time, but the more you've got online capability for anyone with a guitar and a little bit of recording equipment to get online and try to become a musician, the more you need specialists to designate and separate the wheat from the chaff, who is worth listening to, who is worth promoting and marketing. That's what record companies have traditionally done. They have been the talent scouts and then they have put their financial and human resources into actually marketing and promoting that talent and helping to shape it. How many artist pages are there on MySpace right now? Who can figure out who to listen to? So having a curation function that record companies perform is becoming more important, not less.

I hope Sherman has fun separating the wheat from the chaff on MySpace (sigh) while the rest of the world leaves him in its dust. The astonishing arrogance of his statements just underline the problem: the recording industry sees itself as the arbiter of culture, and isn't willing to give up even a shred of control. The internet has enabled countless new curation models, from the ease of setting up a music blog to the algorithmic possibilities of recommendation engines to the ongoing social curation of Facebook and Twitter—we don't need executives to "designate" who is worth listening to based on ROI projections. Promotion takes only a fraction of the "financial and human resources" that it once did, and artists are increasingly unwilling to sign over their entire careers for something they can do themselves.

The next question is about ways to enforce intellectual property rights without damaging innovation and creativity, and Sherman calls for balance (as long as that balance is completely in his favor):

It's finding that sweet spot between protecting content and creators and creativity, and ensuring that you're not losing the benefits of innovation in technology, that is a difficult thing to do. There are ways that it can be done that aren't now being taken advantage of. YouTube for example, anything goes up there, but once it's taken down they have a mechanism, a filter to make sure that it doesn't go back up. Why aren't other websites doing that? Why, when other websites are being told that particular content is illegally being posted, don't they take more aggressive measures to prevent it from being put up there, or being put back up there? There are now technologies available that make it really easy to identify copyrighted content in a way where it can be protected but all the other benefits of the technology would be available. So there are ways for the technology to be used to actually improve the situation for creators and maintain technological innovation, we just need more of a will to see it done.

If it's "really easy" to identify infringing material, why did Viacom sue YouTube over 100 videos they themselves uploaded? How did Rumblefish accidentally claim ownership of birdsong? Why have the feds been seizing domains over label-authorized material? Why did Universal Music declare 50 Cent's own website to be a rogue site? It's only "easy" if you don't care about legitimate material getting caught in the crossfire—and indeed, even Sherman's own wording notes that it's only easy to identify "copyrighted" content, not infringing content.

There is some more discussion, covering Sherman's shock that the streaming services his industry has fought at every turn are not suddenly making him rich—but it's all pretty routine. Sherman closes out the interview with a statement that would have sounded optimistic and forward-thinking ten years ago, but today sounds like an obsolete industry playing catch-up, pretending to embrace something they have fought for years, and fantasizing that they can exert control over something that is happening without and despite them:

I think that one of the things we've learned is that it's not likely to be one big thing, it's likely to be a lot of little things, it could be thousands of little things. There are so many niches in the music market in the way that people want music and the way that people use music and in the type of people who use it, that we think that there are going to have to be a lot of different models to try and monetize many different ways in which content is delivered to consumers. And we're actually optimistic that over time we're going to be finding a lot of those models and they're going to add up to a viable revenue stream for the industry.

"Over time"? Sorry, guy-who-just-noticed-MySpace: time's up.

Filed Under: cary sherman, misinformation, pipa, sopa
Companies: riaa


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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 6 Mar 2012 @ 6:56pm

    In his defense of the RIAA as being a gatekeeper and judge of talent I keep remembering that it was a RIAA member in England (BFI is the British Equivalent?) who said the Beatles had no future because the day of guitar groups was over. (EMI if I remember correctly.)

    So forgive me if I wonder, for a moment, how many other artists RIAA member companies have missed, how many we have missed before the Web trotted itself out.

    And, OMG, Sherman the progressive face of the RIAA? If that's progressive then the RIAA is in worse trouble than I thought.

    I'll close with the observation the Keen couldn't have sucked up to Sherman any harder and not crawled onto Sherman's lap with his tail wagging.

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