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The Beatdown

A NARAS board gets the 411 on the RIAA.

John Doe had better watch his back. He's become public enemy number two, second only to Osama.

Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America further clogged the already overburdened justice system by filing another 725 lawsuits against J-to-the-Dizzo, that nefarious and elusive digital gangsta. By God, if the RIAA ever smokes this cat out of his hole, he's going to have some 'splaining to do. Among other things, doesn't he know that P2P file-sharing is so three years ago?

Back in January 2004, when the RIAA -- which represents the country's major record labels -- first unveiled its attack on our boy Johnny, I posited that if the organization "spent as much time working out a viable resolution as it has spent filing frivolous lawsuits, the digital revolution might actually be profitable." Now, almost eighteen months later, the RIAA has filed well over a thousand suits -- and the popularity of digital music has increased tenfold.

These days, the odds of finding someone who doesn't own at least an iPod are about as good as encountering a virgin in a whorehouse. Podcasts are becoming de rigueur. Last month, Krash Club, which occupies the space in the Icehouse that once held Sevilla and, very briefly, Chrome, introduced a new night called MP3J, when club-goers get to control the playlist for thirty minutes at a time via their iPods. Last week, KYCY (KYOURADIO) debuted with programming fashioned entirely from listeners' podcasts. The San Francisco station is the first of its kind in the country, but it won't be the last. Digital music is here to stay, and there's no way the major labels can continue to ignore the elephant in the living room.

In February 2004, just a month after the RIAA embarked on its digital manhunt, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences -- the institution that produces the Grammys each year -- launched a site dedicated to "addressing the critical issues of downloading and file-swapping affecting the well-being of music and its makers." Intended primarily as an information resource, whatsthedownload.com. also served as a sounding board for young music fans, encouraging discussion among end-users. From the start, NARAS's non-punitive, pro-active approach to dealing with the downloading phenomenon generated a tremendous response, and it quickly became apparent that the next step was face-to-face interaction between the artists and the fans. So NARAS formed the What's the Download Interactive Advisory Board, comprising a dozen twenty-something music consumers from across the country.

"My ultimate mission was to provide a venue where, for the first time, music fans and music makers are talking," says Ron Roecker, the academy's vice president of communications. "No one has ever done that. People have either sided one way or the other, and then done really heavy-handed things -- you know, lawsuits, lobbying and things like that. No one has really said, 'What is the issue? What do you want? Music makers: What do you want to tell music fans? Music fans: What do you want to tell the music makers? And also, what do you want to tell the labels?'"

Roecker recognizes that while NARAS can get people talking, resolution won't come easy. "We'd never kid ourselves into thinking that we're going to change the world overnight," he says. "It really is a behavioral change, which takes lots and lots of time. And I want it to be real. I don't want it to be forced. I don't want it to be a bunch of middle-aged people saying, 'This is what a twenty-year-old thinks.'"

On a whim, Andy Guerrero, who fronts Bop Skizzum, entered the online contest to get a seat on the academy's advisory board -- and won. In February, NARAS flew the boardmembers to California, where they attended the Grammys ceremony and joined in round-table talks on downloading with Kanye West, Mark McGrath and musicians from Earth, Wind & Fire. "We had a really good discussion," Guerrero remembers. "It was only about an hour, but all the kids on this board are awesome. It was just kind of like, 'Here's what we think.'

"I think, eventually, the goal of all of us on the board is to get people's attention," he continues. "You know, 'Get us a meeting with the heads of the record labels. Get us a meeting with the president of iTunes, or whatever, just so they can get our input and see what a lot of people are thinking about file sharing. There's this great technology and we're all just trying to figure out how to use it, to make sure the artist is getting supported and that it's working out well for everyone. The RIAA is like, 'Oh, let's scare everybody. If we scare people, the technology will go away.' It's like telling people not to have sex."

And we know how well that works. Rather than preaching the RIAA's kind of abstinence -- complete with legal punishment for sinners -- NARAS believes in education, working toward a happy outcome for all parties. "We represent the music makers," Roecker explains. "So not only do we represent the artists, we represent the engineer, the producer, the songwriter and the person writing the liner notes -- everyone in the creative process. They [the RIAA] represent the labels."

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