Cary Sherman, The RIAA, And Their Failure To Change The Culture of File-Sharing

It’s not hard to imagine why the RIAA is one of the most loathed, criticized and beleaguered industry trade groups of the last decade. Cary Sherman is the president of their board of directors and has worked there for 13 years; he is, more or less, the public face of the organization, known most famously for suing everyone and their grandmother. Asked in a recent interview for his perspective on how effective their transition in strategy from ligation as a business model to pressuring ISP’s be more accountable for their users has been, Sherman replied:

image from images.pcworld.com "The time had come to shift over to a strategy that would be more effective. The lawsuits were obviously controversial in the media, but the reality was that most people had no idea that what they were doing was illegal at the time of those lawsuits… We did everything to look at how to begin to change the culture of using illegal P2P. We realized that 1) none of the messages resonated, and 2) most people had no idea that what they were doing was illegal, let alone thought it was wrong. That completely flipped overnight when we started the lawsuits. It made an enormous impression… we think it had a tremendous impact by very clearly searing in the minds of the public that maybe getting all of this stuff for free isn’t legal after all." (Read the rest.)

Why Culture Is Hard To Change:

In effect, what Sherman admits is that the RIAA and their anti-piracy efforts failed to change the culture of file-sharing, because, assumptions, the deepest level of culture, are unconscious, non-confrontable and non-debatable. Another reason that the culture of file-sharing is hard to change is because it’s deeply engrained into the lives of the young and the digital, among others, and the behavioral norms are well learned; therefore society must unlearn the old norms before they can learn new ones. "Culture isn't just an agglomeration of individual behaviors; it is a collectively held set of norms and assumptions," tech-evangalist Clay Shirky writes in his latest book Cognitive Surplus. According to Colonel Andy Nodine:

image from reason.com "individuals generally make their decisions about how they are going to behave based on certain widely accepted norms of behavior and conceptions of self-interests, which can be identified and defined as the essence of the culture… you can’t change the culture using any process based on central control or hierarchical  authority. There is no individual or even collections of individuals… who have enough control or authority over enough of the population to mandate cultural change… you can't mandate cultural change…" (Reference.)

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  1. Well played, Kyle! The situation with RIAA and digital downloading is somewhat of a double-edged sword, and I like that you have introduced the idea of digital entertainment as culture. It IS our culture, and even as someone who has built a career in the recording industry, I have hundreds of songs I didn’t pay for. I’m a product of Generation Y and digital file-sharers.
    One thing to note about RIAA’s inability to control and/or mandate cultural change: a good majority of my friends and colleagues are artists – professional musicians – and they give their music away for free. In fact, when asked about whether it bothers them to know that people are getting their music for free when they work so hard to create it (and spend thousands of dollars recording and duplicating it), every friend of mine replies, “If people are listening to it, that’s great with me”.
    Thanks again for your insight!

  2. Young people are quite able to deal with the distinction between “illegal” and “wrong.” Consider underaged drinking. Everyone knows it’s illegal: that’s what the fake IDs are for.
    Most of what the RIAA has done is convince young people to get craftier about their music swapping. LAN parties, anyone?
    To repeat my mantra, the future of music is all pirate, all criminal, all the time.

  3. Man – such a stellar post.
    #1 – I think that consumers have felt shafted by the music industry for a long time. Paying more and more money for fewer songs and less of a quality buying experience (from vinyl to CD’s with few if any liner notes?!). This is especially true for Gen Y who barely remember cassette tapes, let alone buying records (with some exceptions – see: vinyl’s recent popularity).
    #2 – When Napster hit, consumers finally had a way to express this frustration – they just stopped buying music!
    #3 – When the RIAA started suing, it helped perpetuate “the man is trying to keep us down!” mantra that consumers were feeling, and if anything, helped SPUR the downloading of music just to “stick it to the RIAA”. It didn’t change the culture, and I honestly think that most people knew that downloading music was illegal.
    I worked on a semester-long project on this very topic in college, and honestly, we didn’t see a lot of success in changing viewpoints/download habits. The message that was continually delivered was “I don’t have the $$ to spend $15 on a CD for stuff I can download for free. Yes, I would buy music if it was cheaper, but right now there’s no great alternative.” Regarding the RIAA? They were pretty much universally despised among the people we spoke with (college kids).
    Oh – and this was right when iTunes was starting to sell a good variety of music, hence the lack of alternatives.
    Community Manager | Radian6

  4. I had the pleasure to meet Cary Sherman. He is quite a sharp and intelligent executive. I believe the RIAA was destined to get the bad reputation it has received over the years because the music industry was the first to feel the impact of piracy.
    That said, hindsight is 20-20. While lawsuits did not solve piracy, they were successful in planting the seeds in the minds of downloaders that illegal sharing/downloading of music is wrong and hurts the music community. Artists should be the ones who make the decision whether distribution of their music should be free or not or what their pricing should be. Unfortunately Pandora’s Box has been opened and it is obvious that the strategy going forth should be about creating new opportunities and revenue streams, using technology as a ally.
    I was fortunate enough to attend the Bandwidth Conference. As Rich Bengloff from A2IM said “you still need a label to help rise above the glut.” Had some discussions with The Orchard’s Brad Navin about pricing, free music and piracy. He noted that an undisclosed band’s album price decrease from $9.99 to $7.99 resulted to a 1000% increase in sales. Price elasticity at its greatest.
    I believe someone needs to protect the interests of the major labels and piracy. If the RIAA does, then who will stand up for intellectual property rights? Record labels are just as important as ever before because they have the infrastructure that is needed to go beyond the DIY model. You want to build the best business, you have the best team, each member an expert in their corresponding field.
    One thing that is nearly impossible to change is culture. I believe the music industry should look into tapping financial resources originating from the ISPs who have piggypacked piracy for their gain as well as terrestrial radio. If digital radio is paying, why shouldn’t terrestrial? I believe the RIAA and the music industry should focus on a fight that they can win and make financial gains. While getting a slice of the pie from the ISPs is warranted, the bigger challenge is the division of that pie amongst the music, movie, TV, software industries. Difficult task.
    I believe it is the responsibility of the music industry, musicians and others who want to have a career in music to evangelize that music does have a value and it is not “like water.” Where the RIAA needs help in is the very nature of educating the masses. Is it too late? Depends if we all get together and assist in the education process. It wont eradicate piracy but it could make a difference that matters,
    Constantine Roussos

  5. “Where the RIAA needs help in is the very nature of educating the masses…”
    Oh, I was educated, all right. I was educated that it has become a moral necessity to avoid buying new major label releases. You’d be amazed at the hoops I go through to avoid giving money to the majors — I even write off favorite indie bands when they sign to the majors. (I’m talking about you, Carolina Chocolate Drops!) But, promo and used copies are always available if you dig long enough, and if you can’t live without it. But, surprisingly, most of the time you can live without it. When I think about buying that new Renee Fleming album, then I just think about Jammie Thomas, and eventually the urge to buy goes away.
    Signed, a former $200/month customer.

  6. I rarely buy. I’m pretty disgusted with the whole RIAA nonsense and with how the image companies like masterfile, getty and others are suing those who use images on their mom and pop blogs/websites. Biting the hand that feeds you isn’t a good idea.
    Now, I support the local band and my images are from my graphic artists friends. You couldn’t catch me close to one of those sites

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