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Archive for November, 2003

The FTAA and the RIAA

Monday, November 17th, 2003

TOMORROW WE’LL BE DRIVING from Worcester to Miami to represent
Battle in this week’s actions
against the Free Trade Area of the Americas
(FTAA). Trade arrangements like NAFTA, the FTAA, and the WTO have the
long term goal of removing trade barriers like tariffs and subsidies.
That’s reasonable: tariffs and subsidies are often just a huge waste of
everybody’s money (see Bush’s
steel tariff
). Most importantly, developing countries desperately
need access to American and European agricultural markets.

The problem is that rich countries know poor countries need trade
agreements more than they do, and so they cash in. To the U.S. and
“negotiation” means ignoring poor countries’ priorities (like phasing out
American and European farm subsidies) and forcing their own priorities
(like intellectual property and government procurement) down poor
countries’ throats. This is pretty much what they did at the last WTO
ministerial in Cancun, except developing countries weren’t havin’ it. (read

The other problem is that, because nobody working on trade negotiation is
actually elected or subject to any meaningful public scrutiny, these
treaties quickly become a grab bag of assorted industry wet dreams. Like
this one:

“One option proposed for Article 4.1 of
the intellectual property rights chapter in the Free Trade Area of the
Americas (FTAA) Treaty would mandate that countries must send
noncommercial infringers such as Peer2-Peer (P2P) file-sharers to

According to this report by IP Justice, an intellectual property watchdog group,
all signatory countries would have to make p2p filesharing a felony by
2005. And that’s not all: here’s a Top Ten of
restrictive, pro-monopoly provisions that the FTAA would force on America
and every country in the hemisphere except Cuba. “Free trade” or industry

You decide.

And to put things in perspective: while the FTAA’s IP provisions mean jail
sentences for filesharers, they could literally be death sentences for
millions of HIV positive men and women around the world. Brazil is under
lots of pressure to sign the FTAA. Brazil is also the leading
manufacturer of generic AIDS drugs. They have a strong pharmacutical
industry, and they’ve taken the reasonable position that the health of
their people is more important than staying buddies with the parmacutical lobby (must be because
they’re not getting campaign contributions). To simplify things a bit, Brazil is the reason why
many very poor countries are able to afford AIDS drugs, and if they sign
the FTAA, this will no longer be the case (lite,

). Provisions in the FTAA might even make it harder to legally
produce generic drugs after the name-brand patents expire. The income
stream from sales in America, Europe, and Japan is more than enough to
sustain R&D into new and better drugs, but the drug companies, like every
other corporation, prefers less competition and more money.

So, if millions of babies are going to be born HIV positive because we
recognize corporations’ “right” to “own” an idea regardless of
implications to the public good, you might ask what the hell we’re doing
trying to take down Ja Rule and Brittney Spears. Well read this comment
from a PhrMA (the drug industry lobby) representative quoted in the Miami
Herald article referenced above:

Basically, they [Doctors
Without Borders
, an international medical society that has won the
Nobel Peace Prize] don’t want intellectual property,” says Grayson, who
works for the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of
America. “But intellectual property, whether it’s music or drugs or
movies, recognizes the rights of the ones who created the property.”

Music, drugs, and movies.
There are those who see “intellectual property” as a conditional and
temporary monopoly intended to support the arts and create incentives for
scientists and inventors. Then there are those who see “intellectual
property” as a sacred right to control ideas and information as if it was
gold or oil, and they should be allowed to control it even if it means
millions of kids will be born with AIDS, for example. PhrMA, the MPAA,
and the RIAA know which side they’re on. Do you?

On the college action front, kids at Penn State are already raising hell
about how their college is forcing them all to pay for Napster
subscriptions. We helped them get some press for it:
check out this article in CNET.
Look for more news on this soon. If anybody wants help organizing on
their campus against out of control intellectual property laws, let us
know. Also, p2pnet is back up.

Rescuing Music Diversity

Friday, November 14th, 2003

AS THE BIG FIVE RECORDS LABELS lose money, they’re cutting jobs and cutting acts instead of restructuring their bloated business models. Seeing this, many observers are concerned that we’re in for even less mainstream music diversity (if that seems possible) as the major labels focus exclusively on the big hit-makers that generate most of their income. People who genuinely care about music and culture are urgently asking “How can we save the music industry??” But this question overlooks the root of the diversity problem and how close we are to a solution.

For years, the major labels have been stuck in a vicious cycle: as per album costs increase, the record companies need more and more sales to make back their investment on an album. When a new act doesn’t cover those costs (selling less than 500,000 copies or so), they get dropped. The label then needs to make up that loss with their next artist, so the already absurdly high threshold for “success” rises again, making it even more difficult for a new act to break even. The majors were able to support this habit when sales were increasing every year, but without that growth, something’s got to give. Of course, the majors are taking the most regressive way out, cutting acts.

But, it’s not their only option. If the major labels wanted to progressively adapt to the new technology and business environment, there are several ways to cut costs and restructure. First, they could dramatically reduce recording expenses by taking advantage of the recent order-of-magnitude reductions in the cost of producing professional quality recordings. Second, if they had the guts and will, they could end pay-for-play radio right now, saving millions in promotion ever year. Most significantly, the major labels could slash executive salaries and virtually eliminate their A&R (artist development) operations. The primary reason that CDs are so expensive and artists get so thoroughly shafted is that the Big 5 fail to make back their investment on the vast majority of new acts, pulling the plug after having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to identify and ‘develop’ them. But the internet creates a number of opportunities for tracking and predicting the popularity of potential new artists, making the current guess-and-fail model unnecessary.

Anything that lowers the major labels’ costs means they can make money with fewer sales per album and can therefore sign more artists and offer more diversity. But, as we said above, the majors are going in the opposite direction: bigger bets on fewer artists, less diversity, less new music. Above all, those of us that care about diversity in pop music need to remember that the major labels artificially created the diversity problem in the first place by paying radio to play their songs, which forces independent music to the margins.

Moving forward doesn’t mean helping the corporate music industry stay alive, it means putting the majors out of their misery as soon as possible. If the major labels continue their downward plunge, in just a year or two we’ll reach a point when they can’t afford to maintain their exclusive control of radio and distribution. The result will be an explosion of diversity in mainstream music as the marketplace finally opens up to independent music. It’s within reach and it’s worth fighting for.

Interview: Greg Ross, Go Kart Records

Thursday, November 6th, 2003

FROM OUR NEW INTERVIEW with Greg Ross, the head of Go-Kart Records, an independent punk label. On how the major labels control access to new music:

“Radio is controlled through payola (known in its modern form as “consultants”), the print media is controlled through quid-pro-quo agreements (advertisements bought in exchange for coverage and vice-versa), retail is controlled by co-op dollars (which also includes in-store play for videos), and they even buy their artists way on to opening slots on tours. In large part, the major labels (as well as indie labels that aspire to be just like the majors) have even co-opted the traditionally “DIY” network and infrastructure that is the backbone of punk rock and independent music as we know it. So, with very few exceptions, the five major labels control the fans’ access to new music. No one can control what people download, though! All they can try to do is control the fans’ access to downloadable music, or scare them outright.”

This guy is on point. And how could we not interview a label that’s giving away music and publicly criticizing the RIAA? Read the interview.

Christmas Showdown

Wednesday, November 5th, 2003

THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON could be a defining moment for the music industry. Everyone will be paying close attention to whether the major record labels have succeeded in boosting sales with their vicious campaign of subpoenas and lawsuits. Actually, even calling them lawsuits is being generous since it’s clear at this point that virtually none of these cases will ever go to court. Threats and extortion is probably more accurate– how would you describe a situation where someone has to pay $3,000 immediately or risk losing their home and life savings?

Anyway, last time we were at the mall (handing out boycott flyers, of course) we noticed that the DVD aisles of Best Buy were packed with people. So were the video games aisles, computers, electronics, and just about everything else…except CDs. It actually was pretty remarkable and rather satisfying to see the CD section almost completely abandoned. Needless to say, Downhill Battle is going to be launching some campaigns for the holiday season to help people to do the right thing by continuing to not buy major label music. Besides, you know the last thing their kids want this year is CDs, so it’s a service to parents as well as the public good.

Jon Newton and Bill Evans have launched the new site that we mentioned last week: the International Music Industry Reform Association, IMIRA.org. Bill Evans previously founded boycott-RIAA.com and with this new site he’s pointing to the need for positive change in the industry as well as work to break the current RIAA monopoly.

New flyer from Ad-kress exposes the corporate music industry’s central fallacy: buying major label CDs is good for music and musicians. In fact, buying major label music is the only way to ensure that the music industry continues to exploit musicians and erode the public domain.