In what at first glance appears to be a David vs. Goliath story, the Recording Industry Association of America launched an assault against websites that stream music, including those that are not music sites at all.
ReelRadio.Com, a site in existence since 1996 -- and as a lover of radio’s rich history, THE reason I wanted a faster modem in those early days of the commercial internet -- received an ominous-sounding letter June 7. In it the RIAA stated that:
• The service fails to comply with certain requirements
• In order to continue operating under its statutory license, the site must remedy the violations.
Now keep in mind that ReelRadio is most certainly not a music service. No one in their right mind would use the site as a way to download music ... most of the recordings are made on old cassettes or reels taping an hour or so of old AM top-40 stations ... low-fidelity with DJs talking over the start and the end of a song.
ReelRadio is a living library. A place for radio geeks like me to hear historical recordings on demand. There is absolutely no way for sites such as this to follow what the RIAA requires and be beneficial in any way to the public. In essence, following the requirements means that the site is unusable for the vast majority of people.
What rules? Such as the requirement for “archived recordings” to be over five hours in length and available for no more than two weeks. Or having a service that displays text information on the song title, album and artist for each song played, as it plays. ReelRadio files are generally less than an hour, and they chose RealAudio as the file system because of its ease of use in the early days and the difficulty in copying files.
And yes, ReelRadio has been paying the required fees for streaming music for as long as I can remember.
Obviously the RIAA doesn’t get it ... that ReelRadio and similar sites are not music sites at all. Ironically, I’ve probably spent quite a bit on music heard on these recordings ... songs I hadn’t heard on today’s radio in years. To require that the recordings be available as the RIAA desires would be the equivalent of going to an art museum and not being able to see most of the paintings ... just a few that the curator is able to show, for a limited time only.
Clearly, the action of the RIAA, as spelled out in that letter, denies the public a chance to hear an audio art form, and denies the chance to hear and important part of broadcast history.
Or maybe not. I contacted Jonathan Lamy, RIAA executive VP in charge of communications to essentially tear his head off for this action. In my mind I was ready to write a column blasting the RIAA and imploring everyone to stop buying any music. To his credit, Lamy responded -- calmly -- that the intent of the RIAA is not exactly as was imagined.
“We’re trying to offer consumers a guide to licensed services,” Lamy told me. “We want to list all services that have licenses. That’s good for everyone right? It shows they are legit.”
Lamy says that the original letter was not a legal threat. “We’re trying to offer consumers a guide to licensed services. We want to list all services that have licenses.” That listing references a website at WhyMusicMatters.com. “We aren’t trying to stop Reel from offering unscoped airchecks,” he insists. He sent me a copy of a followup email as proof.
I’m not sure I believe him yet, but I’m willing -- for now -- to give the benefit of the doubt. I’ve read the original letter, though, and it does sound like a real threat. Whether the RIAA intended to scare or not, WhyMusicMatters.com was not listed on that letter, so I understand the fear on the part of ReelRadio to continue as usual ... even though I can state unequivocally that members of Reelradio like me would detest the way the site would have to work to gain compliance.
If I take Lamy at his word, though, it would appear that things can and should be worked out. I am hoping that cool heads prevail, that common sense and reasoning come through, and sites like ReelRadio will be able to continue to exist as they were.
It’s a win-win for all ... the sites, the public, and the RIAA and associated artists who gain from exposure to music that may not have been heard on the radio -- if at all -- in decades.
And if an agreement can’t be reached? I’ll certainly have a scathing followup ...