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Don't Sever a High-Tech Lifeline for Musicians

February 02, 2003|Janis Ian

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 Internet.

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 twice over.

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 even begins.

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Janis Ian is a singer, songwriter and recording artist with nine Grammy nominations. Web site: www.JanisIan.com.

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