The RIAA Breaks Up the Brand

Marketers strive to induce people to buy their products or services. Creating a positive impression is a primary goal, but it’s not marketing’s first imperative.

The cardinal rule of marketing? Don’t make ’em hate you.

It’s a lesson the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) desperately needs to learn. Its members are suffering from declining revenues, which they attribute to widespread P2P file sharing. Having tried everything (except seriously reconsidering their business model’s viability), the organization now seems determined to scale new heights in the practice of enraging and alienating customers. RIAA members (including AOL Time Warner, Vivendi Universal, Sony, Bertelsmann, and EMI), which control about 90 percent of audio recordings in the U.S., recently announced plans to sue, more or less at random, hundreds (if not thousands) of file-sharing music fans.

Those fans, the RIAA’s core customers, are infuriated. They’re venting that fury — where else? — online. My purpose isn’t to contribute to the debate on file-sharing legality or morality. Rather, let’s look at what results when a major industry goes on the offensive against an enormous, Web-literate customer base, sparking an online backlash.

How many customers? An estimated 63 million Americans have downloaded MP3s on file-swapping services. That’s one quarter of the U.S. population, folks. The quantity of violators is roughly equivalent to the number of albums the Rolling Stones have sold in a 30-year career.

Let’s be generous and say 60 million downloaders still had a positive impression of the music business brand, despite the RIAA’s apparent compulsion to outdo itself in the PR debacle department since the Internet’s inception. Prior to the latest threat, blunders include:

  • Shutting down Napster (you can’t buy that kind of publicity — file-sharing skyrocketed)

  • Suing/strong-arming online music startups in the boom years to squelch innovation and maintain industry dominance
  • Being branded a cartel by the U.S. Department of Justice
  • Disabling CDs from playing on PCs
  • Being found guilty by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of colluding to artificially inflate prices and overcharging Americans $480 million for CDs
  • Drafting legislation to empower the organization to hack computers storing bootleg MP3s and destroy data
  • Sending dozens of erroneous cease-and-desist letters to individuals not hosting illegal MP3s on their drives (good thing the destroy-data thing didn’t happen)

I could go on, but you get the idea. We can assume some people’s attachment to the brand may have survived all that, but the RIAA seems determined to keep the course.

The organization is not coping well with change. The RIAA’s message to the online community, its bread and butter, is the labels are big, mean, and afraid. It’s saying: “We Are Big Business.” Perfectly correct. It is. Problem is, telling that to a youth-culture audience is analogous to a perfume maker reminding romance-and-seduction aspirants its product is manufactured in sterile labs by white-coated scientists, not culled from dew-kissed fields in Grasse, France, or concocted by delirious cupids.

That message betrays the RIAA’s principal product’s brand. It betrays the youth-oriented values of popular music. Sex and drugs are part of rock and roll (and rap). The package includes rebellion and an antiauthoritarian attitude. From Sun Records to Death Row Records, popular music represents values far removed from the boardrooms of corporations that manufacture and distribute it. The BMGs and EMIs of the world have traditionally kept their corporate brands a healthy distance from their audience — the teens and young adults with hormonal imperatives that steer them toward rebellious, irreverent, anything-but-corporate role models.

The Face Behind the Mask

Time will tell if the RIAA suffers more from bursting its own bubble than P2P downloads. The online backlash is huge and unrelenting. Many accounts claim file-sharing surged the week the RIAA announced it planned to sue random downloaders. Anti-RIAA sites such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) Let the Music Play, and the well-conceived Boycott-RIAA.com are faring better in traffic and popularity than the organization’s own MusicUnited.org site (found practically by accident).

Bulletin boards bulge with calls for RIAA boycotts, literal CD burnings, and pledges from people who claim not to download songs (or even own computers) to stop buying music. They’re lashing out against artists such as Madonna who endorse the RIAA’s position. There’s even a support network. Jesse Jordan, a 19-year-old student sued by the RIAA for copyright infringement, raised his $12,000 settlement (plus $5.67 extra) via PayPal donations from over 900 sympathizers.

Music fans have adopted a stance secretly shared by many in the music establishment. “Remember,” a major-label marketing executive emailed me, “every time you download a song, you’re depriving a senior vice president his expense-account dinner.” (He was steamed because he had to take down a Hendrix poster to comply with an our-artists-only policy).

I spoke with another industry insider, an intellectual property attorney who’s represented musicians from James Brown, the Beatles, and the Stones to Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and the Wu-Tang Clan (but who doesn’t use a computer). “Everyone may drive automobiles,” he remarked, “but nothing’s to stop you from running a blacksmith shop. Of course, you’ll probably just stand inside and watch the cars go by.”

Far worse than being behind the times, the RIAA is betraying the brand. In doing so, it makes every file sharer feel that much closer to being a rock star.

Rebecca is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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