MEDIA ROUNDUP: RIAA dispute is music to media ears

Illegal file sharing of music is not only a hot topic, it's challenging for journalists, who must report on it without appearing as if they support the activity.

Illegal file sharing of music is not only a hot topic, it's challenging for journalists, who must report on it without appearing as if they support the activity.

When the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently filed lawsuits against consumers accused of illegally downloading music from the internet, the story was huge. It triggered not only major news coverage, but also a flood of analyses and op-ed pieces that rivaled the attention that a major foreign-policy initiative receives. Online music distribution may have started as a kind of grassroots movement among young rock fans, but in a few short years it has turned into the defining issue for the record industry. And each legal and business twist and turn in what has been a lengthy battle that pits the major labels against many of their most avid listeners, has been closely monitored by business, technology, legal, lifestyle, and entertainment reporters. "When you think about it, it's pretty amazing the amount of press this is getting," says Marc Morgenstern, CEO of Overpeer, one of the companies that has risen to help the labels in both battling illegal file sharing and finding ways to convert those who take part in such activity into paying customers. Coverage is everywhere In the past year, Overpeer has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Wired, and others, all with no outside PR help. "It shows that pop culture is just a very powerful subject matter for the media," Morgenstern notes. "It's one of the hottest things we have ever talked about on TechTV," adds Scott Warren, TechTV's senior producer. "Every time a story hits, we get huge spikes on our website and in our viewership." In many ways, online music distribution is two distinct stories. The coverage of legitimate ventures, such as Apple's iTunes and the upcoming relaunch of Napster, tend to be straightforward business/technology stories. But the entire issue of illegal peer-to-peer file sharing, initially popularized by Napster and now flourishing on networks such as Kazaa, is another issue entirely, and puts the media in an interesting position. Many outlets, especially those focusing on news-you-can-use, service-oriented journalism, now have to walk a fine line, educating consumers about the existence of many file-sharing services while taking pains to appear that they are not condoning what amounts to the theft of intellectual property. Compounding the issue is the fact that the young demographic that many of these publications covet has a far more benign view of the moral issues surrounding sharing music online. "I would definitely say that the publications that cater to a younger audience understand that their readers, by and large, don't see file-sharing as something that's wrong," says Will Doherty, media relations director for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Look at Rolling Stone's coverage versus the [Los Angeles] Times' coverage." Equal time to both sides Many PR people say the media has thus far done a pretty good job of objectively covering all angles of the online music debate. "For a long time, the general slant in the coverage was toward the industry position," says Doherty. "But now as the media has become aware of other points of view, the articles have become more balanced. There have definitely been articles on the campaign by the RIAA, but there's also coverage of the backlash. The New York Post just did a story on a 12-year-old who's become a victim of the RIAA's campaign." Given the fact that online music distribution, both legal and illegal, has been an issue since the rise of the original Napster in the 1990s, most reporters now have a firm grasp of at least the basics of the debate. As far as PR tools, TechTV's Warren says online music distribution remains so hot that most reporters and producers are eager to hear from any company or organization who can contribute to the debate. "We're trying to stay ahead of the curve of both the issues and the technology surrounding online music," he says. "About the only way to do that is if people come to us and tell us what they're working on. E-mail is probably the best way to go, but I'll take a phone call, product sample, any way you can do it. I'd love to see that stuff because it's so hard to dig up and find all these small companies." ----- Pitching...cell phones
  • Strike while the iron is hot. The media is rabid about the entire debate over online music, so if you have a client even peripherally involved in the issue, pitch them now.
  • Stay away from how-to stories. Most outlets remain skittish about writing step-by-step instructions about accessing file shares online.
  • Note the demographic split. Teens and twenty-somethings don't see anything morally wrong with file-sharing, but their parents do. As such, make sure to tweak your pitches accordingly.

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