The RIAA has gone platinum. The recorded-music business trade organization — which awards gold and platinum certifications, among other functions — celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, and the traditional gift to mark that milestone just happens to be platinum.
Like the industry itself, the RIAA has changed a lot over the years. Founded in 1952, it started as a New York-based organization that developed and promoted the “RIAA Equalization Curve,” an industry standard for the recording and playing of records that let them hold more music and improved sound quality. Although the RIAA has become associated with lobbying for legislation to protect the interests of its member labels, the organization didn’t even move to Washington, D.C., until 1986. By then, it had already played a role in the debate over the Copyright Act of 1976, which shaped the media business for decades to follow.
By the 1990s, the RIAA had become a force in national politics, litigating and lobbying to protect the interests of labels as the recording business grew. The organization played a major role in pushing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, especially the provision that makes it illegal to circumvent, or distribute a method to circumvent, copyright protection. It was also better prepared for the digital revolution than it gets credit for: By the early ’90s, the RIAA was already lobbying for the bill that became the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995, which created a strong legal foundation for labels to license recordings to streaming services, even though terrestrial radio stations use them for free. More recently, it joined the rest of the industry to push the Music Modernization Act — which got labels expanded copyright protection for older recordings and favorably changed the way satellite radio royalty rates are set.
“We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Do we have the rights in place?’ ” says RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier, who spoke about the organization’s history, as well as what its future holds. “You have to get the rights in place, and then you have to get enforcement of those rights in place, and finally, you have to allow some time to pass for these businesses to mature.”
Congratulations on your platinum anniversary. What do you think is the RIAA’s biggest accomplishment?
The biggest milestone — and it took years to get there — is the law that’s boringly called the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995. The RIAA got together and said, “What if someday there’s a — they called it a ‘celestial jukebox’ — and anyone, instead of buying a record, could just push a button and listen to any song. Do we have the rights necessary for that?’ ” Imagine thinking in 1989, when [the efforts to pass the law] started, about what would come to pass in the year 2010. And there was no giant lobbying force on the other side to prevent it from happening.
There hardly was another side at that time.
We realized that we didn’t have a performance right in the digital world — or even in the terrestrial world [which is why traditional radio stations don’t pay for their use of recordings]. So we got the right of digital performance on which the entire streaming economy is based today. If we didn’t have that, there would be no streaming industry — and that’s 85% of our income [in the recording business]. So the RIAA is basically responsible for establishing the right on which the entire industry is now based.
Fast-forward a few years, and the industry was spiraling down with the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing. The RIAA sued Napster and Grokster, but it also threatened to sue peer-to-peer service users, which sparked a backlash. How do you look back on that now?
Like we were doing emergency room medicine. Almost every day we were on Capitol Hill showing policymakers how easy it was for anyone to get music for free and how these companies were making hundreds of millions of dollars by, in our view, using consumers as stooges while they reaped the benefits. The RIAA’s role was, “How do you get people to understand it’s illegal?” On one hand, you had to hold these giant corporations liable, and on the other hand, you had to go after people who are engaging in piracy so there’s an understanding that if they get caught, they will suffer consequences. We had to get into the public consciousness or we would lose the entire industry.
You think people didn’t understand that?
The internet was still fairly new, and especially for folks in the 18- to 24-year-old range, sitting in your dorm room and taking music from someone else’s computer didn’t feel like walking into a store and shoplifting. That’s why taking it to the Supreme Court and getting that 9-0 opinion [in 2005 in MGM Studios v. Grokster] was incredibly important. Our first choice was never to sue individuals, but there was a court case [against Verizon] where the [internet service providers] prevented us from getting the name of the infringer, so we had to sue [an ISP address] as a “John Doe” and we couldn’t send a settlement letter. Before that point, we had been sending letters [to users]. We wanted there to be consequences — enough to sting, but not enough to bankrupt anybody. Then, by the time we found out who it was, they were already a defendant in a lawsuit. Those lawsuits were difficult, and we will never repeat them. But we had to get over that so we could stop the bleeding and start rebuilding.
And one could argue that these policies you pushed for helped establish an environment in which streaming could succeed.
What preceded the  Digital Millennium Copyright Act that people never really focus on was something called the NET [No Electronic Theft] Act. At the time, there were bulletin boards on the internet and people were posting music on them. The NET Act established that as a criminal activity.
The ISPs came to Congress and said, “We need protection from being held liable for things that are passing over our network that we have no knowledge or control over.” Congress agreed but said they have a responsibility to help. And the DMCA created the notice-and-takedown system. Unfortunately, in the 20 years that followed, the courts interpreted the DMCA in such a narrow way that creators really didn’t get an effective way of taking their stuff off the internet.
The bipartisan SMART [Strengthening Measures To Advance Rights Technologies] Copyright Act was recently introduced in the Senate to address this.
The SMART Copyright Act basically recognizes that the cooperation Congress wanted — platforms and creators getting together to develop ways to protect copyright online — didn’t happen. So now Congress is trying to create incentives to fix the interpretation failures of the DMCA. What is realistic is Congress figuring out how to enforce voluntary cooperation because there are incentives on both sides that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Freezing a solution into law is going to be less flexible than private solutions that can evolve. But if we don’t get our act together — and I think our companies are already there — Congress is going to do what they did with the felony streaming law [the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act, which makes it a felony to make available streams of copyrighted material without a license]. They’re going to say, “Sorry, you didn’t do it so we’re going to have to.”
Not long ago, it felt like the RIAA was the bad guy and technology companies could do no wrong. That has changed. How does that feel?
It’s gratifying to feel like we were ahead of the curve. One thing we got right from the very beginning is that music is part of American culture — it’s not just a business. When we talk to policymakers, we ask them, “What song played at your wedding? How about your prom or when your child was born?” And we say that is why it’s important to protect this industry. If you don’t balance the interests of creators with those of platforms, not only are you going to lose American culture, but there’s going to be nothing to drive the very platforms that are trying to squelch creators’ rights.
Right now streaming seems to be driving a boom for labels, while some artists and songwriters say they’re splitting pennies.
With the entire music ecosystem, if it doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work for anyone. There are two pieces here. There’s the market piece, which is now based on consumption rather than sales, and that’s going to take time to level out — both for artists and songwriters and for record labels and publishers. On the market side, the record companies have done the right thing by licensing everybody. On the policy side, we are completely committed to making sure we advance policies that help the entire ecosystem. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to agree on everything, but we’re 90% together.
One area where labels and artists are not aligned is the proposed change to the state of the California “seven-year statute,” which currently allows labels to sue artists for damages if they leave after seven years but before delivering the number of albums for which they’re under contract. The FAIR [Free Artists From Industry Restrictions] Act, which would change that, passed the California State Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee but then got pulled from the arts and entertainment committee.
This is one of those issues that has a lot of nuance. The record companies take incredibly seriously their role in helping new artists develop careers in the streaming age, which is difficult to do because there are 60,000 tracks uploaded every day. It’s about where that revenue goes — to artists who already have a lot of leverage versus being able to be used for the next generation.
Some big-name artists and executives — including Don Henley and Irving Azoff — see this differently.
They have achieved a level of success where their focus may not be the same as ours. We are focused on making sure we can reinvest a giant percentage of what we earn back into discovering artists rather than shifting it from the 99% to the 1%. So far, this bill has been mostly supported by that 1%. It’s not that we don’t appreciate and respect them, but in this case, we think what they are asking for will be a reverse Robin Hood for the revenue of the industry.
Trade organizations usually steer clear of divisive issues, but the RIAA advocated for police reform. Why did it take a stand on this?
There’s a new generation of people in the industry who have the expectation that the RIAA will support what they see as crucial. And we have the connections, the infrastructure and the ability to reach policymakers, so we were able to be that connective tissue. It wasn’t just us — it was a coalition. But one of the coolest moments was when the governor of California was signing the police reform bill and the lead [legislative] sponsor thanked the RIAA at the ceremony. We will always be an organization that’s committed to bipartisanship and making sure policymakers, no matter where they stand ideologically, will support music. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for what our industry feels is right when it comes to a compelling issue.
The RIAA represents three major labels of very different sizes. Are their interests still aligned?
They are. I wondered when I first became CEO whether that would become more complicated, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that consistently on policy, content protection, data collection, participating in revenue numbers for the whole industry, they really do come together pretty seamlessly. At the RIAA, the three majors are equal — it doesn’t matter what your market share is. Nobody’s voice gets drowned out.
What are your goals for the next year?
We’re constantly asking ourselves, “Do we have the rights in place?” And then, “How quickly can we put together enforcement mechanisms for those rights?” Here’s a recent example: Artist managers came to us when HitPiece started putting out [non-fungible tokens] for auction that included the name and likeness of their artists, and some of their music, and said, “You’ve got to get this down.” And in 24 hours, we pulled together a legal analysis and were able to nip in the bud these new services that could have violated the rights of artists for new revenue streams. It sends a signal right away that when a new platform comes out, it’s either going to get licensed or we’re going to come after them.
The RIAA’s Greatest Hits
The Recording Industry trade organization engages in any number of activities — from setting technical standards to awarding gold and platinum certifications. But its focus is lobbying and litigating to protect the interests of labels. Here are some of the biggest scores of its 70-year run.
Sound Recording Act Of 1971
For decades, recordings were only protected by state statutes. This law, which the RIAA pushed, offered federal protection to recordings made after the following year.
Copyright Act Of 1976
The most important copyright law in the latter half of the 20th century codified fair use, extended the term of protection and eliminated the need to register works with the U.S. Copyright Office (although rights holders still need to do so in order to be eligible for statutory damages). The RIAA played a significant role in the debate.
‘Parental Advisory’ Label, 1985
Faced with the threatening prospect of legal regulation, the RIAA worked with the National Parent Teacher Association and the Parents Music Resource Center to develop a label that identified music that could be inappropriate for children.
Digital Performance Right In Sound Recordings Act Of 1995
Traditional radio stations pay royalties to publishers and songwriters, but not labels or artists. Recording rights holders do get paid by satellite radio, cable TV music channels and online streaming services — including Spotify and Apple Music — because of this law, for which the RIAA lobbied. (Without it, labels would have to make the case that services were making copies of the music they offered — a complicated prospect.) The “sleeper hit” that changed the music business.
MGM Studios v. Grokster, 2005
A 2001 appeals court decision held that Napster could be found liable for secondary copyright infringement, but the second generation of file-sharing services had been designed differently. This unanimous Supreme Court decision, in a case brought by the music and film industries, held that Grokster and Streamcast, the company behind the Morpheus software, could also be held liable. At the time, the result wasn’t obvious — Grokster had won in both a district and an appeals court — but this decision helped make the world safe for streaming.
Music Modernization Act, 2018
Think of this as the music industry’s “posse cut” since several sectors of the business worked together to push it forward. It changed the way mechanical royalties are collected and distributed, adjusted some rate-setting standards and — most important for labels and artists — gave federal copyright protection to recordings made before 1972.