Future is Now
Last week, I attended the Future of Music Coalition’s annual
Policy Summit, which was held in Montreal. While it’ll be
weeks before I completely absorb everything I heard, here
are my initial impressions.
The organization is dedicated to helping guide the reshaping
of the music industry to insure the creation of a “musician
middle class,” a framework where successful and resourceful
musicians can make a comfortable living, instead of what we
have now, where a minute few musicians get stinking rich,
the rest of the musicians live hand-to-mouth, and the middle
class is occupied largely by functionaries who run “the music
Over three days, we heard theorists giving “big-picture” views
about what was happening, would-be new economy players jockeying
for position, industry shills and dinosaurs trying to rationalize
their existence, and ponderous “visionaries” explaining their
next big things.
It was largely accepted that we were in the midst of the biggest
change in the music industry since the advent of recorded
music. With digital technology, the business of music is no
longer based on a production model, but rather a rights-management
model. The consumer, aided by computers and the Internet,
is now the distributor and manufacturer of music. All of the
squirming we see going on is the result of a failing industry
trying to maintain a 19th-century business model in the face
of 21st-century technology, and that’s just not gonna work.
As one panelist said, what needs to be constructed is a way
for transactions between the creator and the consumer to be
mutually satisfying, and meantime, anybody else in the middle
of those transactions needs to justify their existence.
The current state of things, with all of these differing encoding
formats and modes of ownership, and schemes to protect digital
files from rampant copying was recognized as temporary and
transitional. One industry lawyer stated that DRM (digital
rights management, the stuff most download services add to
downloadable files to limit consumers’ ability to copy and
transfer music) was “pro-consumer”, an observation that would
make George Orwell blush.
The consensus was that the market would eventually dispense
of DRM, one way or another, as consumers would continue to
reject restricted files, and as the always slow-to-learn industry
figures out that the continued growth of the illegal P2P free
networks is caused not only because the music there is free
cost-wise, but also because the music on P2P networks comes
without DRM restrictions.
But how’s it going to work? The big choice appears to be between
subscription models, where vast libraries of music are always
available to subscribers, and a download model. Subscription
advocates say that with the expansion of broadband and, especially,
wireless and mobile technology, “ownership” of music becomes
irrelevant, because everything is always available. Download-model
advocates have this mantra, that “people like to own things,”
so that the downloading of digital files will continue to
be the only viable model.
I used to lean on the “owning things” argument heavily, but
I’m starting to rethink it. For one thing, I noticed that
the only people saying it were roughly my age, graying geezers
still harboring a fetishistic jag for vinyl records, people
who could be summed up as “music fags.” I don’t know if it
makes sense anymore. Is owning a digital file really owning
a “thing?” It’s really nothing more than a title in a playlist,
and when you push the button there’s no salient difference
whether the sound you hear is coming from your hard drive
or from cyberspace. Most people—most sane people—won’t
care where the music comes from, as long as it’s there on
David Byrne showed up and gave a charmingly frazzled talk
about whether record companies were necessary. He really didn’t
provide any information everybody didn’t already know, but
it’s always nice to be in a room with David Byrne.
The saddest panel was a trio of old-school multi-platinum
record producers, Bob Ezrin, Sandy Pearlman and Don DeVito.
Talk about the people in the middle trying to justify their
existence. We heard that too much music is available, that
music has become devalued because it’s too ubiquitous, that
artists’ newly acquired ability to create competitive recordings
in their basement was mere “pretending”, etc., etc.
So there are too many people making music, and too much music
being listened to? Are you kidding me? Sorry guys, you’ve
made some of my favorite recordings, and I respect what you’ve
done. But you’re gonna have to state your case a little better
than this to justify your bloated production budgets, your
overpriced studios, and your four-point positions out of artists’
royalties. The train’s leaving the station, and you’re either
on or off. And right now you’re off.