Diablog: RIAA Calling

Did the opening riff of "Layla" just leap out of your cell phone?

Yep. Hello? Yes, I ordered a pizza. Yes, that's the address. Yes, shaved truffles, not canned mushrooms. I have my standards. Thank you. Goodbye.

Eric Clapton must be making a fortune on that ringtone.

He'll be making less if the RIAA gets its way.

You mean the Recording Industry Antichrist of America?

I stand corrected.

What are they up to now?

They want to cut royalties to music publishers, citing ringtones and other new technologies. It says so right here in The Hollywood Reporter. This is what the RIAA told the federal judges who run the U.S. Copyright Office's royalty panel: "While record companies and music publishers were able to agree on royalty rates during that 25-year period [1981-2006], the assumptions on which those decisions were based have changed beyond recognition.... Mechanical royalties currently are out of whack with historical and international rates.... We hope the judges will restore the proper balance by reducing the rate and moving to a more flexible percentage rate structure so that record companies can continue to create the sound recordings that drive revenues for music publishers."

So the lobbying arm of the music industry wants the government to cut payments to the people who write music?

Yes. The RIAA says people who write music make too much money.

Funny, that's something no songwriter has never said to me: "I make too much money. What a burden." But the RIAA also says record companies need the bucks so they "can continue to create the sound recordings that drive revenues for music publishers." So there.

Actually, musicians do that.

Sure, they make the music, but who pays for the studio?

The musicians do. Seriously. They sign contracts that give them advances and promise them royalties. Then, if the recording makes money, the advance and the cost of the recording are deducted from royalties, even though the record company usually owns the phonographic copyright.

So the musicians pay for their recordings but don't get to own them.

Exactly. The record companies also make a whole bunch of other deductions from royalties, of which my favorite is the one for "breakage." Before downloads there were CDs. Before CDs there were LPs and 45s. Before LPs and 45s there were unbreakable 78s. And before unbreakable 78s there were breakable 78s, made of shellac. Some of them broke on the way from the pressing plant to the record store, so the labels made the artists pay for that too. They still do, even though shellac is a thing of the distant past. And where outrageous contracts leave off, it's safe to say that, ahem, creative accounting takes over.

Ah, you make me nostalgic for the early days of Napster, when we downloaded our brains out. Then we resumed buying CDs because we didn't want to cheat our friends with the golden throats and callused fingertips. Gosh, we just dropped a bundle at Tower's going-out-of-business sale. Now you tell me not much of our money is getting to the musicians we love and respect. It sort of makes me want to sit around in a wi-fi cafe with a loaded laptop and no firewall. What can you do about people like the RIAA?

Expose them. Devastate them with mockery. Break their favorite coffee mugs. Substitute M&Ms for their blood-pressure medication.

I think you're getting a little worked up here. Keep going.

Hide their reading glasses. Hire hackers to move the decimal points on their cable bills. Bind them, gag them, tickle them, and dump them in front of the vice president's office with "terrorist" tattooed on their foreheads. They'll never be heard from again.

Should we torture them first?

Only if they have law degrees.

That's right. We wouldn't want to over-do it, would we? You know, as much fun as this is, your economic analysis is kind of one-sided. Sure, some music executives are ethically challenged. But for every recording that sells, they finance several others that go nowhere and never recoup their initial outlay. They also spot talent and jumpstart careers for people whose names you'd never have heard otherwise. And they spend a lot of money on the kind of advertising and promotion that few young artists could afford on their own. They turn unknown bands into successful brands. You've got to give them that.

Sure. But an industry that goes to such great lengths to stiff artists is bad for artists and listeners alike. When truly talented and original people get tired of working for companies that lie and cheat and swindle, they find something else to do for a living, and you can literally hear the results: Popular music has never been so dreary. Artists need new ways to make money, and yes, that includes ringtones.

What was that noise? Have you programmed "America the Beautiful" as an alternate ringtone?

No, that was the doorbell.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.

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