RIAA in Several Battles

The US music industry is fighting a war on several fronts—industrial piracy in foreign countries, casual piracy in the States, unhappiness among consumers, and disagreements with artists (see related story).

On March 19, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lashed out at industrial piracy in China, a phenomenon that it claims costs it $600 million a year. Efforts to persuade Chinese authorities to crack down on pirates have yielded few results, RIAA chairman and CEO Hilary Rosen told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington.

"Piracy in China for all categories of copyrighted materials exceeds 90%; in the music sector, piracy hovers at approximately 95%," Rosen stated. "The Chinese government has itself expressed dismay at these levels of piracy—levels that it does not challenge. And it has not organized itself, either from a legal or practical standpoint, to do anything meaningful about it . . . . Present Chinese policy operates to effectively grant illegal enterprises far greater access to consumers than legitimate companies. The problem is that the profits are so high and the deterrence is so low. Given the lack of criminal prosecutions and the fact that enforcement manpower and resources devoted to combat piracy are clearly inadequate, the authorities are, in reality, fighting a losing battle."

Rosen encouraged lawmakers to find ways to bring pressure on the Chinese government. Present policies must be "reversed through the significant liberalization of China's restrictive regime, so that, at a minimum, legitimate ventures can operate with at least the same level of access to consumers as pirates," she added, noting that the country's thriving black market is sustained by Chinese barriers to US imports.

On March 12, the recording industry issued warnings to about 300 US companies, telling them that Internet addresses assigned to them were used to offer songs on online file-sharing networks. In letters addressed to the companies, the RIAA listed pirated music files and asked employers to crack down on workers' use of peer-to-peer networks. Included were warnings that continued file-sharing activity could "expose your employees and your company to significant legal damages," up to $150,000 per infringed work. Some industry observers stated that the letters could serve as precursors to legal action if the targeted companies don't make some effort to contain the epidemic.

On March 17, in a keynote speech at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers' (NARM) annual convention in Orlando, the RIAA's Rosen asked record companies and music retailers to work together to find "business solutions" for the faltering music market. She said that a three-pronged effort might work wonders to revive the music industry—including business strategies, public education, and targeted enforcement, such as the recent crackdown on sales of pirated recordings at flea markets and convenience stores. Educational efforts hailed by Rosen included anti-piracy public service announcements by Clear Channel radio stations, and TV ads produced by the Music Coalition. She also praised innovative marketing, such as bonus DVDs bundled with music CDs, as great ways to bring consumers back into retail stores. She told convention attendees that the music industry "always bounces back" from recessions because its future is "deeply rooted in our culture's appreciation of music as part of our daily lives." This year, NARM presented Rosen with the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award. Rosen is in her last year as head of the music industry trade organization.

Part of the industry's malaise may be its misuse of recording technology in the attempt to make every pop recording sound louder than the last one. That is the view of Rip Rowan, editor of the professional recording site www.ProRec.com. In a lengthy piece originally published in September 2002, Rowan analyzes the ever-shrinking dynamic range on recordings made by Rush, one of his favorite rock bands. Echoing observations made about Carlos Santana's monster hit Supernatural by our own John Atkinson in his December 1999 As We See It, Rowan notes that excessive use of peak limiting serves only to squash all the life out of a good performance. Narrowing the dynamic range of a recording may make it the "loudest one in the CD changer," but paradoxically quieter on the radio, because broadcasters' limiters will squash it further. The music industry's obsession with loudness could be contributing to the blurred distinction between CDs and low-resolution MP3s—why should consumers be expected to pay good money for discs that don't sound any better than low-bit-rate files crimped from the Internet?

Compact discs have an enormous possible dynamic range, yet many rock recordings vary only from loud to louder. In one 10-second sample from Rush's recent Vapor Trails, Rowan counted 110 clipped peaks, compared to only five each in Counterparts and Roll the Bones, the band's two previous albums. Such misuse of technology threatens to destroy the high-fidelity potential—and marketability—of CD the same way it destroyed FM radio. Once a true source of high-quality sound, FM radio today is mostly a sea of tightly compressed noise, the ultimate result of programmers' efforts to be the loudest station on the dial.