NEW YORK–No one hooted or jeered when Cary Sherman took the stage today at the Personal Democracy Forum 2012 (PDF).
That’s worth noting because Sherman is CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group of the top four recording companies, and because the PDF crowd was full of politically minded techies that — it’s safe to say — feel some antipathy for the RIAA. Okay, some of these people downright hate the RIAA. All you have to do is go to the user comments of any RIAA-related story on CNET or Ars Technica or Torrentfreak to see the degree of animosity.
We are into the second decade since Napster gave birth to file sharing. In the aftermath, the RIAA waged an antipiracy campaign that included suing individual users and the forced closures of popular Web sites, including Limewire. The RIAA appears ready to offer an olive branch to music fans. There’s no doubt that the recent attempt by the music and film sectors to pass antipiracy bills in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, only to see them defeated, helped them decide to do some bridge building.
One reason the PDF audience may have received Sherman relatively warmly was a request from PDF organizers for people to be on their best behavior. A conference moderator suggested that Sherman deserved some credit for “walking into the lion’s den.”
Something else that may have contributed to the civility may have been due to Sherman. He was entertaining. He poked fun at himself and his organization. Most importantly, he was direct about his group’s history and goals.
Sherman started his presentation by showing a well-known photo of a roll of toilet paper with “RIAA” written on it. “We’re not even sure that this is two ply,” Sherman told the crowd.
A technical glitch stalled his slide show and he quipped: “I hope this isn’t a conspiracy.”
With Sherman stranded on stage for a few moments, some in the crowd couldn’t help themselves: “Sing a song,” one woman shouted. Sherman didn’t miss a beat. He said he played piano as a child and may have made a name for himself on the bar mitzvah circuit.
Jokes aside, Sherman’s main message was that the RIAA is evolving and that the music industry the advice offered by the tech sector for years. RIAA critics repeatedly told the organization to evolve and adopt new technologies and business models. They said that the RIAA should abandon litigation and hobbling music with Digital Rights Management software. According to Sherman, the RIAA has done all of that and more.
He said Spotify and Rhapsody offers unlimited streaming music. YouTube and Vevo provide free on-demand music videos. Pandora, the free and popular Web radio service, continues to increase its folliwng. As for enforcement, Sherman said DRM is dead and reminded the audience that the RIAA abandoned its litigation campaign years ago.
He didn’t gloss over the RIAA’s more recent antipiracy efforts. The music labels have negotiated agreements with some of the country’s largest ISPs to help combat illegal file sharing. He said is group is working with advertisers, ISPs, credit card companies and others to marginalize sites that traffic in pirated music.
There was murmuring in the crowd when Sherman said the music industry is now half the size it was in 1999, the period leading up to the emergence of file sharing. “Illegal downloading has hurt us,” Sherman said. He conceded that piracy was likely not to blame for all of the damage but he said there’s no disputing that it contributed.
Sherman also offered a new statistic. He said there are 41 percent fewer people describing themselves as musicians now then there were in 1999. This caused some in the crowd to snicker.
Later, after Sherman finished, John Perry Barlow addressed the crowd via Skype and disputed that statistic. Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for Internet users and tech companies and a longtime critic of the RIAA, said he believes that more people are earning a living from music than ever because they don’t have to deal with the labels.
That comment stirred some in the audience to applaud. He added that the top labels are some of the new models are still trying to manufacture scarcity around music to help boost the value. “It won’t work,” he said.
Sherman is a good speaker and showed plenty of guts, but he has plenty of work to do if he wants to win over techies.
Said one person who posted a question via Twitter during the presentation: “Your talk makes the RIAA sound reasonable and well considered,” the questioner wrote. “Why do you think the RIAA is so vilified?”
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