12 Ways to Boycott the RIAA

The Recording Industry Antichrist of America, as I like to call it, is officially out of control. Its let’s-sue-the-downloaders campaign is the most perverse marketing campaign in history. Rather than adjust its product and marketing to fit a new era, the music industry is instead using its trade association to bully consumers in a mistaken belief that this will transform file-sharing freeloaders into smiley-face customers. Consider the following tidbits:

  • More than 20,000 people have fallen victim to RIAA lawsuits according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That is an epidemic.

  • When the single mother fought and won, the RIAA turned around and sued her kids.

  • Unwitting (or otherwise) operators of open wi-fi connections are also in the gunsights.

Enough already.   This might be hard to believe, but once the RIAA was one of the music industry’s good guys. It was formed to promulgate technical standards. Many LPs in my library from the 1950s and ’60s refer to “the RIAA curve,” an equalization curve intended to make sure your phono cartridge delivers what the recording engineer intended you to hear.

The RIAA’s degeneration into a corporate bully is both sad and self-defeating. Warring against consumers has not reversed declining CD sales or replaced eroding revenues with legal downloads. It has merely turned off a new generation of consumers, possibly forever.

Let me add that I think file sharing is wrong. Indeed, I’m the music industry’s model citizen—I buy CDs, and lots of them, and before that I bought LPs, and lots of them. I think people who sell counterfeit CDs and DVDs are scumbags and they should go to jail. But even I am alarmed at the sheer scope of the RIAA’s campaign and the way it’s spreading like a pool of blood around a slashed and battered corpse.

So I’m not buying any major-label product this month. Oh, I’m still buying CDs, but I’m exercising my passion for music by purchasing stuff from independent labels. This is but one of the tactics suggested by the good people at Gizmodo in their Boycott the RIAA in March campaign. If you need to know whether a prospective purchase is from EMI, Sony BMG, Universal, or Warner—the four mega-labels and therefore the the RIAA’s most influential members—here’s a handy blacklist of releases from RIAA Radar.

And following is a more comprehensive list of suggestions. They fall into two basic categories: circumvention and alternatives. In other words, you may work around the boycott to get the stuff you want. Or you may go further, making longterm changes in your music-loving habits and extending the boycott indefinitely.

Step One: Circumvention Buy used CDs: They don’t show up in sales figures and therefore don’t help the record companies, statistically or otherwise. You’re not limited to flea markets. The majority of in-print CD titles (and quite a few out-of-print titles) are sold secondhand. Two good places to start are the third-party merchants on Amazon—look for the “used and new” and “order it used!” links—and on half.com, which is basically Ebay with fixed prices instead of auctions. Read merchant ratings carefully. Look for five-star ratings of 98 percent or better, never order from anyone lower than 96 percent or worse, and pay the most attention to negative ratings awarded in the previous 90 days. I have bought hundreds of CDs and books this way, saved a bushel of money, and so far have returned only one item, followed by a quick refund.  

Get into vinyl: As a variation of the above, you might not only starve the beast, but nourish your ears with higher-quality sound at the same time. It helps if you have a friend or relative with a large collection in good condition from which to borrow. Or if you live near a great used-record store. In addition, many new vinyl releases (from, say, the Arctic Monkeys) are from independent labels and therefore kosher.

Borrow, don’t buy: The time-honored sneaker net is a good way to elude RIAA pursuers. Is ripping a borrowed CD legal? Some would argue that it fits the definition of fair use. The RIAA, of course, demurs. But if that bothers you, just listen to the disc and return it. Even the RIAA would not prosecute you for that.  

Form a buying club: Variation of the above. If three people get together to buy and share (and rip) CDs, they’ve cut their CD expenditures by two-thirds. If 10 people do it, they’ve reduced their outlay by 90 percent. Of course, your friends would have to share your tastes in music. But even just two people with a common passion can cut Goliath’s meal rations in half.  

Enjoy free downloads: Check out free trial subscriptions from the likes of eMusic. Download “free tickles” from DGMLive and other artist-operated sites.  

Exploit the analog hole: Is that hot new single getting airplay? You can record from the analog outputs of any FM or satellite radio, as long as you don’t mind the former’s hiss or the latter’s extreme digital compression. Television is another source. The stuff will probably sound OK on your cell phone, if not your iPod. On your main system, it may not sound so good, but it’ll tide you over till the boycott ends.  

Step Two: Alternatives Buy indie-label CDs: Not all music labels are evil. Good people marketing good music deserve your support. Use RIAA Radar for screening, or browsing, or viewing Amazon’s indie top 100.

Buy indie downloads: No need to give up downloading altogether. Put your money into legal downloads from labels not tainted by RIAA membership. Artist-run sites are a good place to start, of course, especially if you want to avoid DRM, but you can also find indie downloads on iTunes. Again, RIAA Radar is a valuable resource.  

Buy merchandise, not CDs or downloads: Even if your favorite band does business with a major label, it may also have a website with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like. So if you feel bad about the used CDs or the buying club, there are still ways to put money directly into the pockets of the musicians you love. And you should do it.  

Buy concert tickets: The best way to support musicians is to see them live. They’re probably making more money on the road than they are from twisted record-company contracts paying stingy royalties. As a pleasant bonus, you’ll get to hear how well they can really play. And the live sound, however debased, may actually be an improvement over recordings with squashed dynamic range.

Learn to play: A Fender Stratocaster (OK, Starcaster) starter package sells for as little as $199. The real thing starts at $399. You can hold in your hands what Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and Richard Thompson have held in theirs. Go for it. Live your dream.

Explore other media: No matter how music-addicted you are, it’s healthy to have a balanced media diet. Rent a movie (the MPAA isn’t nearly as abusive as the RIAA). Play a videogame. Or do what I started doing last night after 30 years of procrastination—reading my yellowed copy of Vanity Fair. The novel, not the magazine. In the first chapter, the anti-heroine Becky Sharp is presented with a book upon leaving a stuffy girl’s school. As her coach pulls away, she throws the book back over the gate. Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for boycotting the RIAA? I’m looking forward to the next 800 pages of this. Thackeray rocks!

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, audio editor of Home Theater Magazine, and tastemaster of happypig100.com.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.