RIAA Chiefs Look Ahead to a Changing Washington, Call On Twitch to 'Get the Licenses'

Michele Ballantyne Mitch Glazier RIAA
Greg Kahn

Michele Ballantyne, left, and Mitch Glazier photographed on October 29, 2020 at RIAA in Washington, DC.

What’s on the music industry trade organization's legislative list in 2021? "Trade, trade and trade," says CEO Mitch Glazier.

Days before the presidential election, workers outside the RIAA's new office in downtown Washington, D.C., were busy boarding up storefronts preparing for possible unrest. But the trade organization's leaders — chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier and COO Michele Ballantyne — were calm and optimistic.

"It has been a very bizarre election," says Glazier, sitting opposite Ballantyne on a cream-colored sectional sofa. "Emotions are high, but we are well positioned as an industry." As the 2018 passage of the Music Modernization Act proved, copyright is one of the few issues that can bring together politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The RIAA's planned move to a new, open concept headquarters, with an event space that can be set up as a theater, was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic — the staffers' boxes have moved, but the employees haven't. Since March, Glazier, Ballantyne and their colleagues have been meeting with legislators and Capitol Hill staffers over Zoom rather than walking the halls of Congress. In that time, they have lobbied to make sure that the CARES Act would contain language necessary to provide relief for the music business; led a music industry effort to support police reform legislation, which passed in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate; and worked with California legislators to amend gig economy law to allow exemptions for independent music professionals.

Greg Kahn
In Ballantyne’s office, a plaque (left) commemorating the signing of the Music Modernization Act, which became law on Oct. 11, 2018. “It sits in a place of honor in my George Michael celebration zone,” she says. “He was one of my all-time favorites growing up.”

"We complement each other in almost every way — style, experience and background," says Glazier, a Republican who served as chief counsel for intellectual property to the Judiciary Committee prior to arriving at the RIAA in 2000. (Ballantyne, a Democrat, worked in the Clinton administration as special counsel to then-White House Chief of Staff John Podesta before coming to the RIAA in 2004.) "We want an organization with lots of perspectives because that's how the industry is going to succeed."

What do you expect from a Biden presidency? 

MICHELE BALLANTYNE: Vice President [Joe] Biden and Sen. [Kamala] Harris have always been very good on our issues. [Biden served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees copyright.] The first hundred days will likely be focused on addressing the larger issues — social justice, the economy, foreign policy — so I'm not sure how much time they will devote to music. The one thing I can say is that, in the Obama administration, there were records of Google executives visiting the West Wing every week. Biden has shown that he has a different perspective on some of the tech issues and of being more open to hearing from us.

What's on your legislative wish list?

MITCH GLAZIER: Trade, trade and trade. This is a global business, and we want to make sure that when our artists' work is released globally we have the highest standards around the world in copyright protection. Sometimes the best way to achieve that is a strong trade agreement. The other issue is what we call "platform accountability": That means having the platforms understand that they're not just tech companies — they are music distribution companies that need to be part of the music family in a way that respects artists.

BALLANTYNE: We also have to pay attention to how our colleagues in the rest of the business are doing. Being supportive of the Save Our Stages Act [which would provide $10 billion in relief for independent venues] and making sure that there's appropriate support for performers, musicians and everyone involved in the live business who's suffering.

Greg Kahn
Some of Ballantyne’s “ever-growing” collection of Funko Pop! figures. (She likes “badass lady superheroes,” Black superheroes and Prince.)

A perennial issue is legislation that would require terrestrial radio stations to pay royalties to use recordings. Do you think this Congress might be more open to that? 

GLAZIER: They will be much more receptive because every two years the demographic in Congress goes down by five or 10 years. The people entering Congress now are not people for whom music means radio and CDs. I think radio, which is still fairly ubiquitous, will have a less prominent role in policymaking as digital rises and members' ages go down.

BALLANTYNE: We're going to get there. Just not as quickly as we'd hoped.

The RIAA and 17 other music business trade organizations recently signed a letter criticizing the way Twitch allows users to stream music. Isn't there something to be said for giving music away for free in order to get business in return?

GLAZIER: As long as that's the choice of the creator, that's fine. What's not fine is Twitch saying, "We're not going to make sure that the songwriter's paid if you use a recording; you have to go take care of that... I mean, we're just Amazon." That's crazy. Twitch should do what any digital service does: Clear the rights, get the licenses, and create a platform that people can use knowing that they're not going to face a lawsuit from another creator.

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A bluetooth boombox that ASCAP gave to Glazier. “I can stream a new release,” he says, “and think about playing my INXS cassette thousands of times in the ’80s.”

Right now, you're dealing with the use of major label music on Twitch by sending takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Would your members consider suing Twitch?

GLAZIER: They could, if there's no compliance. The first thing that you do with any emerging platform is send notices to enforce your rights. That's where we are right now. If they don't comply, you might be forced to enforce your rights through litigation. That's never our first choice.

Livestreaming is only going to get more competitive, and Twitch could limit its ability to grow because it's using the DMCA as its business model. I use Pandora as an example: For years, Pandora just used the U.S. compulsory license [for noninteractive "internet radio"]. And Spotify, Apple and Amazon grew up around them — all with global licenses and global businesses — and then Pandora realized they had been hampering themselves and got the licenses.

You've talked about how the DMCA needs to be updated so content that's taken down stays down. Do you think Congress will address that? 

GLAZIER: We've already started engaging with Congress. The question is, what's the best way to fix it? There are three options: One, the ecosystem gets together voluntarily ... two, the government creates a standard for protection without a change in legislation; three, if those don't work, Congress goes in to amend the statute. We would encourage them to be behavioral and not technology-specific, to not allow technology to leapfrog the law in two months.

BALLANTYNE: So the other piece of this is that there's going to be a lot of turnover in the Congress, right? That means we got to go in and meet the people and educate them and bring them up to speed on everything. These issues can be kind of arcane. And, and since we can't really go and lobby them, we have got to get on Zooms with the staffers… you know, walk the halls, so to speak virtually now.

Greg Kahn
“This paperweight has been on my desk since I started at RIAA during the rise of Napster,” says Glazier. “It serves as a reminder about how to win for the whole industry.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote some very important copyright decisions. What will be the impact of her absence from the Supreme Court?

GLAZIER It may change who writes copyright opinions because Justice Ginsburg was an expert, and there was deference to her on a lot of copyright issues. And now one of the biggest copyright cases in decades, Google v. Oracle, is before the court. It will have an effect on that case, and on cases going forward, but we don't know what it will be.

BALLANTYNE: If you're asking, is her absence going to be felt? Yes, because she understood the issues more than some of the others. I don't know who's going to take up that mantle at this time.

There are so many tools available that let artists release and sell music online. How do you make the case that they still need major labels?

GLAZIER: That's one of our missions: to help people understand why major labels are more important than ever. We usually just start out with a very obvious example, which is that every day 40,000 tracks are put on digital music services. So how do you break through? You need a marketing team, a promotion team, a team that has global relationships. Artists have never had more choices, and there are all of these opportunities, but they're choosing to go with major labels because of what they offer. A million streams is not a career.

BALLANTYNE: And collaboration opportunities: Who's going to set you up with the right people? It may seem like it's easy, but it's not. We bring the expertise. You're not going to just say, "Hi, Spotify, here I am." You need someone to help you navigate that.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020 issue of Billboard.