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RIAA, SOPA, PIPA the PMRC and Frank Zappa? Have we learned anything?

Posted by mandyf on March 12, 2012

“Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.” – Frank Zappa

SOPA and PIPA are not in the public eye right now as intensely as they recently were, but does that mean the issue is settled? If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that it repeats itself over and over and that those who fail to learn from it are condemned to repeat it. It couldn’t get much more cliche than that, but it also can’t get much more accurate. It is my belief that right now, RIAA is ecstatic at the way the buzz has died down on the Hill and everyone is apparently back to business as usual – and why wouldn’t they be – it worked for them in the past. RIAA has danced this dance before.

To RIAA, this may as well have been a Jolly Roger

In 1985, RIAA was pushing hard to get a piece of legislation through called the “Blank Tape Tax” that had their lobbyists wining and dining the Washington elite overtime. Their feeling was that PIRACY was cutting so deeply into their profit margin that they couldn’t support their industry unless it was stopped. They proposed to levy a tax of $1 on blank cassettes to help offset what they characterized as the rampant theft of their product and then to redistribute the money collected to the artists them self as compensation. Through creative accounting, they showed how this would keep their costs down by not having to extend sweeter deals than they claimed were currently necessary to sign top musicians to a label. It was theoretically possible in the way that an elephant can dangle over a cliff anchored in place only by a daisy.

The artists weren’t aware of what was going on for the most part, and RIAA didn’t want them aware. If they knew what was happening, for them, then they may have actually demanded the money should the bill ever pass. Like almost anything involving money though, the musicians would never really see much if any of that money. RIAA needed their cut, the production companies needed their cut as they needed to pay for a whole new departments to account for the money and then “distribute it” and Washington wanted their cut as it was a tax after all.

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa was not only a musician, he was one of the few musicians at the time to have his own major independent label that was actually making millions annually. Once he became privy to the scheme and understood it had little if anything to do with taking care of the artists, he blew the whistle on it. Zappa went directly to a firm working on the case and implored them to re-think it all. Zappa was well known enough to command an audience and well educated and spoken enough to go head to head with any pundit on Sunday roundtable news shows. RIAA believed the jig was up.

Then came the PMRC, a group of Washington wives including then spouse to Sen. Al Gore, Tipper Gore. They were appalled at the lyrics they heard in music like “Darling Nikki” by Prince and “Sugar Walls” by Sheena Easton. RIAA had the diversion they needed, and the chance to kill two birds with one stone. The PMRC wanted warning labels on any album that contained profanity, references to sex, the occult or anything they deemed “dangerous” which was one tremendously broad blanket. RIAA had asked many labels to persuade their artists to voluntarily label albums in this manner in the past, not because they cared about “protecting” the youth of the world, but rather because studies showed it would raise sales which meant more money for them. The thinking was, kids will want what they can’t have even more and always find ways to get around buying restrictions.

No artists voluntarily labeled their albums as such, but RIAA kept pushing for it. Now with the PMRC pushing it, they had the pressure they felt they needed to get it done. At the same time, the more steam the PMRC picked up, the less anyone paid attention to the blank tape tax. For RIAA, this was a win-win scenario.

Dee Snider

Skipping ahead, the PMRC was humiliated at the hearings over labeling. Although major artists at the time like Prince and Madonna were requested to appear, none accepted – except for two people. John Denver appeared, and they considered him to be an ally as a wholesome folk singer. Dee Snider, Twisted Sister frontman, appeared and they considered that good as well because they thought he was an idiot they could shred under questioning. Frank Zappa of course appeared at his own will, and was pivotal to it all as he was the one artist that refused to let the issue die. Snider, to their surprise was not a drugged out psychopath but rather a very eloquent, well informed witness that had answers to all their questions and constantly made the panel look foolish. After the hearing, Snider said; “They viewed me as just another dunderheaded rocker, and they would bring me in, make me look like a fool, and I would help their cause. They did not know that I could construct a sentence and speak English fluently.”

Frank Zappa turned the tables on the panel and presented them with questions they could not answer in any rational manner. Zappa deconstructed their entire argument in a matter of a few minutes leaving Senators flustered and unsure of how they got carpet bombed so badly by a guy that created music none of them could seem to understand. John Denver was the surprise in it all however. He pointed out how his song “Rocky Mountain High” had been banned by numerous radio stations who believed it was about getting stoned. If anything, he should have been the witness they didn’t request appear as he had been censored more times than Zappa and Snider combined. In the end though, RIAA got their warning labels which meant that suddenly the sales of heavy metal albums, which were the primary target of labeling, suddenly went through the roof. The Blank tape tax however died as unconstitutional, but it did briefly pass in other nations.


What does any of this have to do with SOPA and PIPA you’re wondering. Once again, RIAA is claiming the demise of the industry. Blank tapes are no longer a piracy threat, but they claim the Internet is. The Internet is their new boogeyman – not too unlike it was when they got involved in taking down Napster. Yes, it is all about money for them, but it is encouraging legislation that will stifle the freedom of people to make choices, be creative and ultimately do more harm than good. RIAA has proved very successful at throwing around millions to change the way we can interact with forms of media beyond music. Consider these other initiatives RIAA has put their weight behind over the years you likely never knew about retrieved from Phillip Greenspun.

  • 1989: DAT Bill introduced and sent to Senate Commerce Committee. Bill would hobble consumer DAT units and prevent them from making copies of copies (the SCMS system).
  • spring 1990: Senate committee holds hearings on DAT Bill. Because the bill is “controversial”, CSPAN is there to cover the event and the proceedings are broadcast several times. Testimony by Philip Greenspun and songwriter’s expert to committee that SCMS system was easy to bypass helped kill the bill in committee. Mostly the bill died because record companies were lukewarm; they really wanted a tax that would be paid to them.
  • 1991: Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz. and member of the Keating Five) introduces Audio Home Recording Act of 1991, which provides for the SCMS system PLUS new taxes: initially 3% on media and 2% on digital audio recorders. A new government bureaucracy would be created to collect the tax from media and recorder makers and then pay it back to record companies (40%), music publishers (17%), and artists (the remainder). The bill also creates seven new legal causes of action (predicates for a lawsuit).
  • spring 1992: hearings held by DeConcini. MTV is the only news organization to cover the event (CSPAN does not show up because the bill is not “controversial”). Most of the witnesses are people who will collect money from the tax and almost all are in favor. The only serious negative testimony comes from Philip Greenspun.
  • summer 1992: the bill passes the Senate by “unanimous consent.” What this means is that at midnight, when the chamber is nearly empty, a Senator stands up and asks “does anyone object to this bill.” If nobody does, the bill is passed. This is how most new taxes and special breaks for the well-connected get through Congress. No vote, no CSPAN coverage, no news coverage. The bill passes the House in similar fashion.
  • November 1992: one day before he is voted out of office by the American people, George “No New Taxes” Bush signs the bill creating a new kind of tax, two new taxes, a new bureaucracy, and seven new legal causes of action.

In October 1998, RIAA filed a lawsuit in the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco claiming the Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 player violated the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act.

December 7, 1999, RIAA sues Napster in federal court in San Francisco alleging copyright infringement.

In 1999, Mitch Glazier, a Congressional staff attorney, inserted, without public notice or comment, language into the “technical corrections” section of copyright legislation, which classified most music recordings as “works made for hire,” which effectively stripped artists of their copyright interests and transferred those interests to their record labels.Shortly afterwards, Glazier was hired as Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Legislative Counsel for the RIAA, which vigorously defended the change. The provision led to the formation of the Recording Artists’ Coalition, which finally achieved a repeal of the change.

In 2003, RIAA sued college student developers of LAN search engines Phynd and Flatlan, describing them as “a sophisticated network designed to enable widespread music thievery.”

RIAA has also filed suit in 2006 to enjoin digital XM Satellite Radio for enabling subscribers from playing songs recorded from its satellite broadcasts along with several Internet radio stations.

On December 21, 2006,  RIAA filed a lawsuit against Russian website AllOfMP3.com for $1.65 trillion ($1,650,000,000,000) which was reached by multiplying 11 million songs with statutory damages of $150,000 per song. The ruling came down in favor of AllOfMP3.com

On October 12, 2007, RIAA sued Usenet.com seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the company from “aiding, encouraging, enabling, inducing, causing, materially contributing to, or otherwise facilitating” copyright infringement.

On April 28, 2008, RIAA member labels sued Project Playlist, a web music search site, based on the claim that the majority of the sound recordings in the site’s index of links infringe copyright law.

RIAA is an organization that has largely grown to do little more than support itself. It is a parasite organization living off of artists acting as hosts. IF RIAA had their way, the only way anyone could have music is in a format that could not be transferred to another medium. No copying an album to tape, no transferring a download from your PC to an MP3 – everything would be a distinct format requiring multiple purchases of the same song/album over and over – even ringtones which they also control.

Artists deserve just compensation for what they create. It’s hard to argue that the artists this is all aimed to “protect” are artists that could actually do okay under the current format of music distribution. Justin Bieber was able to drop a half million on a birthday party – I think the current system is working out okay for him. I don’t think Selena Gomez is worried about paying for her next meal – or next 10,000 meals.  Is theft and piracy wrong – of course it is. However, supporting legislation which is created to serve one master at the expense of millions in a manner that opens the door to blatant abuse without any effective system of checks and balances is irresponsible.

Just watch RIAA work – while we’re all focusing on the next iSomething, baseball season opening, or getting ready to hit the beach, RIAA will still be hard at work trying to make SOPA happen under a new name – and next time they will be sure to have a diversion to keep us busy with. Timing and presentation are everything, and again, if history teaches us anything, it has taught us RIAA never gives up. Anti-piracy bills will not go away, and if we don’t remain vigilant we will all pay the price for it which will be a far heavier price than many of us are willing to admit is possible.

“The ladies’ shame must be shared by the bosses at the major labels who, through the RIAA, chose to bargain away the rights of composers, performers, and retailers in order to pass H.R. 2911, The Blank Tape Tax: A private tax levied by an industry on consumers for the benefit of a select group within that industry.

Is this a consumer issue? You bet it is. PMRC spokesperson, Kandy Stroud, announced to millions of fascinated viewers on last Friday’s ABC Nightline debate that Senator Gore, a man she described as “A friend of the music industry,” is co-sponsor of something she referred to as “anti-piracy legislation”. Is this the same tax bill with a nicer name?

The major record labels need to have H.R. 2911 whiz through a few committees before anybody smells a rat. One of them is chaired by Senator Thurmond. Is it a coincidence that Mrs. Thurmond is affiliated with the PMRC?” -Frank Zappa 9/19/85 Statement to Congress

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2 Responses to “RIAA, SOPA, PIPA the PMRC and Frank Zappa? Have we learned anything?”

  1. Again I’m in awe of your knowledge base. I find myself going back and forth on artists and royalties. Artists (singers, authors and so on) have put a lot of time into perfecting their craft and deserve compensation. But how much? One of the frustrations I have in publishing professionally (I still have to make a penny on my recent effort in ebooks) is that you get a very low % of the selling cost (around 3-5%…though, after publishing a lot for one company I’m up to about 12%). The point is that there are costs involved…and companies need to make a profit and the artists deserve compensation. But I think things have got out of hand in that consumers are paying more and more and the money is going to someone other than the artist. This is why I’m trying my hand out with ebooks…I can keep the price down and still make some money (if I ever sell a book, that is).

    As with everything else, this issue seems to be multi-faceted and needs a multi-faceted answer.

    If you want to be the FIRST to buy one of my books (bringing Dr. Phil’s life strategies to the elementary school child) please go to http://Dr-Rhia.com The first books (Animal Tales: The Journey Begins) is FREE.

  2. txwikinger said

    Reblogged this on txwikinger's blog.

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