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Low Spark

by Paul Rapp on October 6, 2011

Got back really late last night from the 10th annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. As usual, it will take weeks to get my brain around everything I saw and heard there, but here are some first impressions.

This was my fifth (sixth?) FMC summit and, to be sure, it’s a different world than it was when I first went. I’m different now, too. Rather than the wide-eyed, fawning country rube who showed up years ago ecstatic and stunned to hear all these really smart people actually talking about these revolutionary things I’d only read about, now I’m more of a jaded, cranky, and impatient country rube.

That being said, I felt less passion, less buzz, and more uncertainty this year, continuing a trend that seemed to start at last year’s conference. Part of this was that the numbers were down from past conferences, maybe because this year’s conference was announced late, barely a month out, and many panels weren’t firmed up until a week out; or maybe it’s because the Georgetown University campus location is inconvenient to folks who are broke, i.e. musicians; or maybe it’s that superstar musician advocate Tim Quirk was conspicuously absent this year. Quirk, who made a jump from Rhapsody to Google late last year, always lit up the proceedings with his uncanny ability to break down complex issues into bite-size morsels and to hilariously skewer the mainstream music industry.

There are always technocrats and enterpreneurs at the conference hawking their “musician-helper” wares, some amazing, many incomprehensible, and most laughable. This year they seemed slicker and better-fed than in previous years. Is this because they’re making lots of money off musicians? If so, that’s not good, because musicians sure as hell aren’t making more money using their stuff. Or maybe it’s because there’s been an uptick in venture capital money feeding these new-idea businesses. Which would be fine. For now.

The politicians and bureaucrats were slicker, too. Maria Pallante, the register of copyrights, recounted her personal relationship to music, even dropping Frank Zappa’s name, then went on to hawk, without naming it, the Internet freedom-killing PROTECT-IP Act currently before Congress. Later that day, Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), expertly told a couple of down-home jokes and then, again without mentioning it by name, hawked the act using virtually the same talking points. To be sure, none of these talking points came from staffers; they came instead from lobbyists, groups like the RIAA and the MPAA. One got the sinking feeling that the fix was in and we were getting our noses rubbed in it, especially when both gave nonanswers to Chicago writer Greg Kot’s questions about how these proposed get-tough laws (like making unauthorized streaming a felony) would affect personal freedom in a world in which 95 percent of the music people get today is free. Trust us, they said. We won’t harm the little people. Hoo-boy. Especially jarring was Goodlatte’s repeated claim that Congress was just trying to put into action the Constitution’s guarantee that creators’ works would be protected. The Constitution says no such thing. Rather, the Constitution gives Congress the right, but not the obligation, to make laws to protect creators’ works only when such laws are in the best interests of society. Which is a vastly different thing, Congressman. Urgh.

For the last two years, my post-FMC-conference columns has consisted of nothing but great quotes from speakers and panelists. Not only were they great columns (if I may say so myself), they wrote themselves. This year, I came away with no banner quotes. Nuttin’. Even the loquacious visionary Jim Griffin, who’s always good for two or three rocket quotes, let me down as he resorted to long, convoluted sentences to explain the intricacies of rights clearances. It seems that a lot of big issues have been settled and now we’re into the details. Which are goddamned complicated.

I was prepping my own workshop and had to skip the panel that had the biggest buzz of the conference, about building and sustaining local music scenes. According to the tweets, Chicago rapper Rhymefest singlehandedly supplied all the excitement I found missing the rest of the time. Kills me to have missed that.

The tribute to outgoing FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was moving and bittersweet. The high point? Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilson, talking about his long career and the spate of stage collapses (one fell on him this summer in Ottawa), spotted an attendee sleeping in the front row. He stage-mouthed “What the fuck?” reached into his pocket and started flicking guitar picks at the guy, hitting him in the head on his third try.

Perfect.

I guess the takeaway is this: Times are scary, uncertain, and complicated, things are changing fast, there are still bad guys, and we gotta stay smart and focused. Can’t wait ‘til next year.