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RIAA targets indie musicians and rappers

The Recording Industry Association of America has recently begun to target underground musicians, arguing that selling CD-Rs constitute manufacturing and making money from pirated material. The story exposes the RIAA's tactic, provides court documents, and implications...
At about 1:30 p.m. on June 8, a squad of NYPD officials, private investigators and attorneys busted into Kim's Video and Music, located on St. Marks Place in the East Village—intent on locking up employees whom they believed were selling and manufacturing pirated CDs. Officers sporting bulletproof vests immediately began ushering startled customers out of the store. The remaining officials got down to the business of drilling the store employees. They lined them up and ordered them to identify the store's managers on duty that day. The cops wanted the managers in handcuffs.

Police ushered the managers out of the store, placed them in separate police cruisers and drove to Manhattan Central Booking. There the managers were put in holding cells, where they would spend the next 36 hours.

Chuck Bettis, a Kim's manager, was one of those arrested. He described the scene in a widely disseminated e-mail sent out upon his June 10 release: "So we got put into a pen w/ a bunch of other dudes. The cells were packed constantly, filled w/ 30 or so people at a time, having 10 bullpens down there, body heat made things harder in the dank cells."

Police had in mind to charge Bettis and the other employees with felony trademark fraud, a criminal offense that could carry jail time. Bettis says that police never told him on what charge he was being held. "I only found out what I was initially charged with during my arraignment," Bettis explains, "where I saw on paper what I [was] charged for."

The bust on the chic flagship store was a joint operation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Counterfeit Division of the NYPD's 6th Precinct aimed at stamping out music piracy and trademark violations. After arresting the store managers, investigators searched the store. Court records indicate they confiscated an alleged pirated stash amounting to 56 DVDs, 471 CDs ("containing recordings of music by Mariah Carey, Bizarre, Faith Evans, Puff Daddy, R. Kelly, 50 Cent, and other popular recording artists") and nine computers. RIAA reports allege the search turned up nine CD-R burners, but, as Bettis points out, virtually all computers these days come with built-in CD-R copiers. He adds, "As far as I knew, there was never any CD replication going on at Kim's."

Bettis remembers that as he was about to leave on his lunch break, he heard a cop shout: "The store is closed! Everybody out! Now!"

The yelling was coming from the store's first floor. The store is comprised of two, long floors. The first sells CDs, books, and magazines. The second floor sells albums, DVDs, and more reading material. The only spot that isn't usually congested with people hunting down the latest Morr or Fonal release is the store's wide slope of an entrance. Bettis' usual position is behind the counter on the second floor.

"I didn't know what was going on, but I just assumed that something must have happened on the first floor," Bettis explains.

According to Bettis, about 20 law enforcement officials had swooped into the store and that the cops were dressed "like SWAT guys" who were saying something about a warrant from the Supreme Court that allowed them to search the premises. When describing the scene, Bettis might as well be discussing an obscure film noir filed in his store's cult section:

"It was this crazy, eerie feeling. I mean, cops come in Kim's all the time, but not like that. At the time, it was really scary. It felt like a full-on raid."

All that Kim's employees could do was watch as investigators combed the aisles. After identifying the managers, the cops shouted one final directive: "Cuff 'em!" Then they herded the managers into police cars. Investigators offered no explanation to the managers. "I thought they were just getting us out of the way while they looked around," Bettis says. "But then they drove away, and I was like, 'Uh-oh... '"

read more at econoculture.com

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What am I missing? 05.Oct.2005 16:42

Mr. Groovy

This posting is an account of the cops busting a record store that was selling bootleg copies of CD's by a bunch of mainstream artists. Heavy-handed, but not unheard of. Kurt Cobain used to walk into record shops on Broadway, grab bootleg copies of Nirvana stuff, and walk out, explaining to the sputtering manager, "This stuff belongs to me." (He was right, so they let him go.)

But where is the "crackdown on underground musicians and rappers"?

from econoculture.com/ 05.Oct.2005 16:56

...

Going Underground PDF Print E-mail
By Lindsay Nash
Photographs by Rachelle Stuiver

Kim's At about 1:30 p.m. on June 8, a squad of NYPD officials, private investigators and attorneys busted into Kim's Video and Music, located on St. Marks Place in the East Village—intent on locking up employees whom they believed were selling and manufacturing pirated CDs. Officers sporting bulletproof vests immediately began ushering startled customers out of the store. The remaining officials got down to the business of drilling the store employees. They lined them up and ordered them to identify the store's managers on duty that day. The cops wanted the managers in handcuffs.

Police ushered the managers out of the store, placed them in separate police cruisers and drove to Manhattan Central Booking. There the managers were put in holding cells, where they would spend the next 36 hours.

Chuck Bettis, a Kim's manager, was one of those arrested. He described the scene in a widely disseminated e-mail sent out upon his June 10 release: "So we got put into a pen w/ a bunch of other dudes. The cells were packed constantly, filled w/ 30 or so people at a time, having 10 bullpens down there, body heat made things harder in the dank cells."

Court documents from the Kim's raid (Click for larger)



Police had in mind to charge Bettis and the other employees with felony trademark fraud, a criminal offense that could carry jail time. Bettis says that police never told him on what charge he was being held. "I only found out what I was initially charged with during my arraignment," Bettis explains, "where I saw on paper what I [was] charged for."

The bust on the chic flagship store was a joint operation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Counterfeit Division of the NYPD's 6th Precinct aimed at stamping out music piracy and trademark violations. After arresting the store managers, investigators searched the store. Court records indicate they confiscated an alleged pirated stash amounting to 56 DVDs, 471 CDs ("containing recordings of music by Mariah Carey, Bizarre, Faith Evans, Puff Daddy, R. Kelly, 50 Cent, and other popular recording artists") and nine computers. RIAA reports allege the search turned up nine CD-R burners, but, as Bettis points out, virtually all computers these days come with built-in CD-R copiers. He adds, "As far as I knew, there was never any CD replication going on at Kim's."

Bettis remembers that as he was about to leave on his lunch break, he heard a cop shout: "The store is closed! Everybody out! Now!"

The yelling was coming from the store's first floor. The store is comprised of two, long floors. The first sells CDs, books, and magazines. The second floor sells albums, DVDs, and more reading material. The only spot that isn't usually congested with people hunting down the latest Morr or Fonal release is the store's wide slope of an entrance. Bettis' usual position is behind the counter on the second floor.

"I didn't know what was going on, but I just assumed that something must have happened on the first floor," Bettis explains.

According to Bettis, about 20 law enforcement officials had swooped into the store and that the cops were dressed "like SWAT guys" who were saying something about a warrant from the Supreme Court that allowed them to search the premises. When describing the scene, Bettis might as well be discussing an obscure film noir filed in his store's cult section:

Questions the RIAA Refuses to Answer:

1) When considering to investigate and prosecute CD-R and mix-tape sellers, did you consider the cultural implications in so far as mixtapes and CD-Rs comprise a huge avenue for underground artists and DJs to ply their trade and get noticed?

2) In looking at statistics from your website, a huge percentage of stores raided were Latino businesses--why is that?

3) What was the basis of your investigation into Kim's--how did RIAA investigators learn that Kim's may be selling or manufacturing CD's?

4) Can you please provide to me a copy of the affadavit for the search warrant?

5) I understand that RIAA investigators can raid--without a search warrant--any record store that they suspect is selling or manufacturing pirated CDs--is this true?
"It was this crazy, eerie feeling. I mean, cops come in Kim's all the time, but not like that. At the time, it was really scary. It felt like a full-on raid."

All that Kim's employees could do was watch as investigators combed the aisles. After identifying the managers, the cops shouted one final directive: "Cuff 'em!" Then they herded the managers into police cars. Investigators offered no explanation to the managers. "I thought they were just getting us out of the way while they looked around," Bettis says. "But then they drove away, and I was like, 'Uh-oh... '"

Bettis was one of five arrested on misdemeanor trademark counterfeiting charges (the charges had been reduced from the felony counts by the time of their arraignment). According to Bradley Buckles, the RIAA's anti-piracy director, "the employees who were charged were involved in the burning or were making sales where they were knowingly going around the regular inventory system. They were sales clerks who were ringing things up as they go by them; they were salesclerks who were ringing them up, seeing what it was, and ringing them up special because they knew they had to be treated differently."

Bettis and the other defendants deny burning CDs and argue that they would not have been able to tell the difference between pirated and legitimate merchandise. "I don't have any idea how they decided what was what. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between bootlegs and mix-tapes," Bettis says. "I assume the guys going in and searching through the merchandise were from the RIAA. The cops were pretty much just acting as bodyguards. They wouldn't have known what they were looking for. Even I would not be able to tell the difference between a lot of that stuff."

The Kim's raid is one of a recent onslaught of busts stemming from the RIAA's new zero-tolerance policy on pirated CD retailers. In a May 12 news release, the association announced a beefed-up anti-piracy effort focusing on small retail locations selling pirated music. This emphasis on small retail establishments is the newest initiative in a series of anti-piracy measures that have historically ranged from attempts to outlaw the sales of used LPs to crackdowns on hometaping to the attempts to regulate peer-to-peer file sharing.

The new initiative amounts to a crackdown on mom-and-pop record stores—and the prosecution of employees for selling indie releases and underground staples such as self-releases and DJ mix-tapes. As the RIAA zeroes on CD-Rs, stores have to be more wary of selling mix-tapes and homemade CDs - the tools that drive, promote and sustain underground hip-hop.

For up-and-coming DJs and rappers, the mix tape functions as both the artist's calling card and a unique kind of street marketing that can launch an unknown into industry renown. Name recognition garnered from mix tape success equals artistic longevity and commercial gold - and 50 Cents' multi-platinum breakout album Get Rich or Die Tryin' is the most recent proof. If the RIAA succeeds, how will the future Cam'rons, Mases, DMXs and 50s ever bridge the gap from street to sales?

* * *

Information about the RIAA:

The RIAA tries to justify the cost of a CD.

The people who run the RIAA.

The RIAA's Board of Directors.

RIAA regional officer Kenneth Rivera, who worked as an undercover agent on the Kim's case, identified the store's mix tapes and CDs as piratical, testifying in an affidavit that they "listed unfamiliar company names, do not display the name of the owner of the copyright, have packaging inferior in quality when compared with legitimate discs," and because "many are recorded on CD-R media. Legitimate recordings released by RIAA member companies do not release their recording on CD-R format."

Ironically, Rivera's breathless description of his pirate bounty sounds an awful lot like the run-of-the-mill product that any college band would put out as their own. The investigator obviously hasn't attended a basement show or visited a dance club in the last decade or two. One thing that readers can divine from his statement above is that he knows the CD-R format—the latest accessible recording tool—is allowing bands to bypass the label system altogether. That's a big no-no to RIAA's board of directors.

What about bands like indie-poppers Au Revoir Simone who recently released their own album on CD-R format? Do its band members qualify for a set of RIAA handcuffs? And what of the thousands of college bands and ambitious DJs who rip and burn their own CD-Rs to distribute and sell? Indeed, Rivera's—and the RIAA's—characterization of pirated material is so broad, that it indicts whole swaths of the most vital music around. It also fuels the understandable perception of the RIAA's methods as draconian and nuclear. Whether suing the Apple Bottoms off tweeners swiping Britney tunes or storming through a landmark record store, the RIAA never fails to exhibit its most prominent feature—a tin ear.

What is most troubling about Rivera's description is that it substantially widens the scope of the RIAA's hunt. The association's stated regulations place self-released CDs and DJ mixes in the category of "pirated" music because they contain "unauthorized duplication of sounds from one or more legitimate recordings." Under this set of standards, the RIAA, in conjunction with local law enforcement, confiscated 1.2 million CDs last year, marking a 58 percent increase in the last two years, according to the RIAA's 2004 year-end report.

DJ Maticulous, manager of Fat Beats Records, a renowned source of underground hip-hop in Manhattan's West Village, admits that mix tapes look the same as counterfeit CD-Rs, and that the RIAA criteria for what constitutes a pirated CD would place DJ mix tapes in the illegal pirated CD category. "Mix tapes are illegal per se," explains Maticulous, "but they are the only way to get the material out there."

Damon Locks, spokesman for Def Jux and Stones Throw, agrees and adds, "The DJ mix tape is part of the hip-hop dialogue. The fact that they're not paying attention to copyright infringement is part of the rebellious nature of hip hop."

In the aftermath of Kim's arrests and similar busts throughout Manhattan and Queens, Fat Beats employee DJ J-Logic describes the impact of this increased regulation as more of a shift in sales methods than any real end to independent releases: "A lot of people are on the watch now. People are more careful. But they are still selling on the streets. There is a flood of mix tapes in the market right now and this crackdown won't affect the sales of already known individuals. Their name is known and it will sell. The DJ mix tape sellers and buyers are like a secret society. The kids go to Queens to get the newest and unreleased stuff. Even though this scene has been around for decades, it operates by word of mouth. The RIAA is only now getting clued in to it."

* * *

Kim'sAs the RIAA cracks down on unregulated music dissemination from the outside, questions and suspicions have arisen within the music scene.

In the underground music world of NYC, rumors have started to circulate as to why Kim's was a target. Although some say the raid was precipitated by a Columbia Records investigator purchasing a mix with unlicensed 50 Cent songs, others claim that Kim's had been treading on thin ice for a long time by breaking release dates, while still others say competitors were jealous of Kim's iconic status in the underground music scene.

"If there was a Columbia guy in the store," Bettis says, "it was probably because of all the talk about Star Wars DVDs coming out before it was supposed to be sold to the public." Bettis adds that the store never got the Star Wars DVDs early.

Maticulous points out that Kim's was just more blatant about selling mix tapes by putting a big sign advertising the sale of DJ mix tapes above the cash register while other mix tape sellers hawk theirs in behind-the-counter binders. Bettis denies Kim's advertising of bootlegs above the register and adds that the mix-tapes were filed with the rest of the CDs.

When it comes down to it though, says Fat Beats Records employee J-Logic, "[The RIAA] just wanted to fuck with them."

The RIAA has offered little explanation as to what brought them to Kim's storefront in the first place. Court documents indicate that RIAA investigator Rivera purchased CDs that "did not disclose the name of the manufacturer" on May 31 and June 1. Rivera's buys precipitated the June 8 bust.

If Kim's employees didn't notice an undercover Rivera's purchases prior to June 8, they were oblivious to investigators' pre-bust activities that day. According to court records, on June 8 an informant purchased an allegedly pirated CD from separately charged defendant Donald Stahl. Judging from the court record, it appears that only Stahl and another employee were caught allegedly selling pirated material. For the three other defendants, their only crime appears to be their job title.

Bettis says the cops' evidence against himself and his fellow employees belies a lack of understanding of how Kim's operates. "Total bullshit on the cops' part," Bettis says. "Kim's rings up things by title or artist, no special coding. Where the hell did they get that crap? The computer system is so old, I constantly joke how I can find [a] faster computer on the street."

Why Kim's was initially targeted, however, remains a mystery.

* * *

Within months of the Kim's raid, other record merchants in Chinatown and Queens were shut down as well. Since being targeted and picked through by RIAA investigators, these locations have remained taped off and empty. Neighboring business owners who watched these RIAA-assisted searches describe the seizures in ways that sound like the work of major sting operations. "The police came in and took the men away in handcuffs. They took all the equipment and everything away," says one Chinatown worker of the 68 White Street bust.

A parking attendant working next to the closed 22 Ludlow Street distributor explains, "[The police] came and took everything and took everyone to jail. I don't know what happened afterwards. The [arrestees] never came back." What these observers - like many of those being investigated - don't know is that not all of the people involved in these raids are officers of the law.

Who are these private investigators in cops' clothing? They are the anti-piracy unit of the RIAA—counterfeiting consultants who act as pirated-media authorities for the police.

RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol, a former member of President Ronald Reagan's cabinet and Republican National Committee chief of staff, brought on Bradley Buckles, former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to head this effort. A 2005 news release characterizes as a mission to "protect hit records - which are critical to the long-term health of the music industry and enable investment in new artists and new music [and] have suffered most dramatically."

Since adopting the zero-tolerance policy, Buckles has assembled a national force of ex-cops to act as the RIAA's own enforcement squad. Outfitted in black cargo pants, black steel-toed boots and black flak jackets emblazoned with RIAA instead of NYPD, these enforcers resemble real cops so much so that Chinatown observers aren't the only ones who can't tell the difference between the recording industry's band of ex-cops and bureaucrats from the real cops.

In fact, the RIAA officials' practices resemble the work of an average beat cop such as issuing pink violation tickets, confiscating allegedly pirated merchandise and search and seizures, all of which leads to a bit of confusion about exactly how much legal authority the RIAA has. New York lawyer David Cohn explains that, if these officials give the impression of being law enforcement officers, their seizures are technically illegal. But such claims are difficult to prove, and as Cohn notes, "Those guys do know how to work the system."

Amanda Hunter, spokeswoman for the RIAA, is careful to say, "These are not raids per se," but declines to elaborate on the exact nature of these investigations. "Every case is different," she says.

According to Hunter, many tips come through the RIAA tip line, 1-800-BAD-BEAT, which the RIAA passes along to local law enforcement. New York Police Department Officer Juan Virelli of the 1st Precinct clarifies this relationship, explaining that the RIAA organizes workshops to teach police to identify pirated and counterfeit CDs and how to ferret out the locations at which they are sold. Confiscated merchandise is then handed over to RIAA officials to verify its authenticity and determine whether to press charges.

RIAA officials sometimes accompany police on the busts as was the case in several recent Chinatown investigations. However, for the biggest jobs, the RIAA goes in alone. According to Virelli, "they have lawyers whose whole job it is to get them search warrants. They can go in there are do the bust themselves." A series of legal loopholes and careful legal maneuvering allows RIAA investigators to circumvent state laws regarding search and seizure. "Remember," Cohn points out, "a private individual (or entity) can go on your land and take your stuff and it can still be presented as evidence. And some states have provisions for private search warrants as well."

New York attorney Niki Warin calls attention to the added difficulty of challenging private entity searches: "Whether or not that entity has exercised its authority appropriately depends upon the specific facts, but they are quite often allowed to conduct them without law enforcement. Indeed, when law enforcement is not involved, there are often less challenges available to the search—the 4th Amendment protects us from unlawful search and seizure by the government, not by private entities, so often the argument is made that the private entity search was in fact instigated or related to the police."

The RIAA's ability to obtain its own search warrants might explain the 23 percent increase in anti-piracy investigation search warrants in the last two years, as reported by the RIAA website. Despite repeated calls, RIAA spokeswoman Amanda Hunter refused to comment on this.

The majority of music confiscated in the Chinatown busts was characterized as Latino or "urban in nature," and, according to the year-end report, more than half of the total merchandise confiscated in 2004 was Latino music. Maticulous attributes the RIAA's emphasis on Latino music to the hugely popular reggaeton scene. "It's the biggest thing out there right now. It's everywhere and even people like Tony Touch are using it. It makes sense that the record executives want to get in on that." Indeed, the RIAA has promoted its own studies that salivate over the increasing buying power of the Latino demographic.

The focus on Latino and hip-hop music illuminates a race and class aspect of RIAA efforts. The RIAA is determined not to let this growing market segment escape the grasp of their industry regulations. Though music and DVDs are integral parts of life in Hispanic countries, these luxuries often only exist in an off-the-books economy. Restricting CDs to label and tax-regulated items places recorded music in the realm of luxury items - and out of reach of many minimum-wage workers.

While Latino music may indeed be the most heavily pirated of musical genres—as the RIAA claims—the fact remains that this retail sector is also the most vulnerable to missteps and abuses during RIAA investigations. Even legally emigrated Latino merchants are at a disadvantage when subjected to recording industry investigations due to linguistic barriers, cultural misunderstandings and unfamiliarity with legal rights, all of which further obfuscate the already unclear parameters of RIAA investigators.

Maticulous makes clear who is affected by the RIAA crackdown: "People who want Garth Brooks aren't involved in the pirated music controversy - they don't need to be. It's everyone else, people who are hungry for the music" who must utilize all avenues to hear and be heard. Maticulous obviously wasn't thinking of small Bible Belt towns where the only lawful way of hearing music means buying it from Wal-Mart. Of course, Wal-Mart requires the artists—and their album art—to withstand rigorous censorship standards before being sold among its smiley faces. There are a lot of people—Brooklyn residents or otherwise—who are hungry for underground sounds.

Even as Youngman Kim, owner of Kim's, assumed all responsibility for the actions of his employees, he maintains to reporters, "I don't see what we did as wrong at all. Period. We are serving the poor, young, very experimental artists nationwide - I should say worldwide."

In the end, Bettis and the other Kim's employees got off with an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal), in which the charge is expunged from their records after a probationary period of six months. In the wake of the Kim's bust, it's clear that the biggest losers are not the arrestees at all, but the underground musicians, rappers, and DJs—the community of artists that comprise the amorphous independent music scene.

For Bettis, a musician himself, his store's attention to emerging artists is one example of why New York is such a musician haven and why he moved to the city in the first place. "I mean, so much of our stuff is put out by local artists who make their own stuff. That's how they can exist as artists."

So, gonna support the assertion in the title or not? 06.Oct.2005 10:11

Skeptic

Funny, after reading through this thread, I still can't find anything to support the claim that the RIAA is cracking down on independent musicians. Have they been staging raids against artists who use CD-R and 'net technology for the purpose of bringing *their own music* to the public? Is there something about that embedded in these articles somewhere?

Record Business is a Mafia Thang 06.Oct.2005 11:31

rAT

The Mob still controls the recording industry. Perhaps up to 30% of CD's on sale at Wal-Mart and other major distributors are high-end bootlegs, flooded on the market as side deals with the full knowledge and cooperation of the "legitimate" CD manufacturers. This is nothing but a 'false-flag' op, so the Mob can keep their corner on the multi-billion dollar bootleg CD industry. The intertwining tentacles in the music industry between record companies, radio stations, and organized crime are legendary, and indeed, seemingly indestructable. It's also a great excuse to cripple the alternative scenes that are at cultural odds with the prevailing tastes of modern pop. But the bottom line is GREED.
Now They Want To Give This MULTIMILLIONAIRE The NOBEL PEACE PRIZE!
Now They Want To Give This MULTIMILLIONAIRE The NOBEL PEACE PRIZE!

granted not all details posted here 06.Oct.2005 12:46

reader

You can read the full article here (I don't want to add yet another lengthy repost in the comments section):
 link to www.econoculture.com

What you'll read is that, according to this article, the cd's in question were dj mix tapes. Now the question is to what degree are those tapes infringements and what steps were taken, if any, by the RIAA prior to the raid to make sure they targeted actual infringements not just some dj's making remixes and using samples. But what I think is most telling was the charges that were actually brought against the employees:

"In the end, Bettis and the other Kim's employees got off with an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal), in which the charge is expunged from their records after a probationary period of six months."

Or, in other words, they weren't really charged with anything at all. Now what the RIAA claims is that the employees were making illegal copies of cd's and selling them in the store. Now, it could be that this is true and the RIAA just knew it couldn't prove it in court, or it could be that the charges are totally frivolous, as the RIAA is becoming renowned for (not to mention dressing it's employees in a manner to make them appear like law enforcement personnel).

what's wrong with this picture? 06.Oct.2005 15:51

Auntie Diluvian

How come the Sierra Club is not invited to supervise police as they raid the offices and arrest the officers of polluting corporations?