[18 March 2009]
Full disclosure: I briefly wrote for the Future of Music Coalition’s blog and the organization that I currently work for, Public Knowledge, was among the sponsors of D.C. Policy Day 2009. Such is the incestuous nature of D.C. tech policy.
Every year, music industry insiders, legislators, technology innovators, students, working musicians, and policy wonks converge on Washington D.C. for the Future of Music Coalition’s annual D.C. Policy Day; a day-long event filled with panel discussions on the future of music creation, marketing, and commerce. Given that the Future of Music Coalition—a D.C. based music and technology policy think tank that aims to represent the voices of artists on Capitol Hill—often works to bring these disparate constituencies together to address various policy issues, the event felt like a physical manifestation of the organization’s day-to-day work.
Taking up the better part of the day, D.C. Policy Day 2009 consisted of four panels and a keynote address. During the opening panel, Randy Hawke, operations manager for Madison, Wisconsin-based company Mid-West Family Broadcasting, defended the practices of small, independent broadcasters. The day’s keynote found acting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Copps pledging to lead an overhaul of the FCC’s internal processes (“We are a consumer protection agency and it’s time to start acting like one”), echoing the suggestions being made by advocates of FCC reform as of late. And the third panel found representatives from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Songwriters Guild of America debating fair use advocates from YouTube and consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge.
The second panel, “Broad-band: Internet and Spectrum Policy and the Creative Class,” was particularly intriguing, as it explained the significance of two ongoing technology policy debates—so-called “Net Neutrality” and spectrum policy—to artists and fans. Free Press’ ever-eloquent Ben Scott took the lead in explaining the thorny concept of Net Neutrality; the idea that Internet service providers should not be allowed to alter, block or degrade the traffic that flows over their pipes or favor one type of content over another. After explaining how a history of poor policy decisions turned once open and disruptive technologies—radio, television, cable—into one-way, media oligopolies, Scott opined that everyone who relies on the Internet as a distribution mechanism has a stake in the Net Neutrality debate and that the time to prevent the Web from becoming yet another appendage of big media is now. “We’re in that moment now for the Internet,” he said. “It’s right now.” Producer and Bomb Squad founder Hank Shocklee chimed in with his own thoughts on the matter, stating, “They’re slowly taking away all the avenues for creative expression…and creativity is what makes us human beings”. Luckily, Shocklee’s humanity was never called into question. When he asked how many people in attendance had heard of Public Enemy, a surprising number of hands shot up around the suit-wearing room. “We didn’t sell a lot of records but you’ve got groups who sell millions upon millions of records who you won’t remember two years later,” he said, clearly pleased with the result of his informal poll.
While all of the day’s events were quite insightful, I found the final panel, “Fair Trade Music: Toward a Legitimate Digital Music Marketplace,” to be the most enlightening. Bringing together various parties with stakes in the digital music marketplace, the panel was easily the day’s most uniformly forward thinking. I’ve been a fan of the online mixtape creation/sharing service Muxtape for a while now and have written elsewhere about the site’s unfortunate demise, so it was exciting to see the company’s CEO and founder, Justin Ouellette speak. If you’re not familiar with the Muxtape story, here’s a condensed version: The site, which allowed users to upload music files from their own personal collection in order to create virtual mixtapes that other users could stream, went dark back in August. Though Ouellette was in licensing negotiations with the ‘Big Four’ at the time, the RIAA issued a complaint to Amazon Web Services, Muxtape’s hosting provider, which, in turn, pulled the plug on the site. Having reached a point where the licensing negotiations had become “too costly and too complicated,” Ouellette decided to cut his losses and walk away from the negotiations.
Six months later, Ouellette is now relaunching Muxtape as a promotional tool for bands. The site’s core functionality—its streaming music player—will be repurposed for bands looking to create promotional websites, thereby side-stepping the complex licensing issues that plagued the first iteration of the site. Though Ouellette said little at the FMC event that he hasn’t already said in his fantastic write-up of the Muxtape saga, his comments offered quite a bit of insight into the difficulties faced by innovators, not to mention the uneasy and often dysfunctional alliance between the RIAA and the companies that it purports to represent.
Alec Ounsworth, another panelist, spoke from a very different perspective. The singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist for indie rock darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Ounsworth found success by using the Internet as a promotional platform while maintaining a strictly DIY ethos (“I think we benefited, primarily, from our own stubbornness to deal with the music industry,” he claimed at one point). Though his comments toed the indie-rock party line fairly closely (when asked about making a living by writing and recording music, his response was, “Musicians should just be honored and gracious that anyone is listening in the first place. If you make money—that should just be a secondary concern”), Ounsworth’s story demonstrates that hard-working musicians can still find success without the aid of a label. Both of CYHSY’s full-length albums were self-released in the United States and to date, the band’s debut album has sold over 200,000 copies—many of which were sold by taking orders and stuffing envelopes by hand, much the same way that fiercely independent labels like Dischord and Simple Machines did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Despite the lack of a label’s promotional resources, all five members of CYHSY are now able to make their living as full-time musicians.
Astoundingly, the panel’s most progressive and insightful panelist was also its oldest. Peter Jenner, the legendary British producer, manager, and A&R man who has worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, the Clash, and Billy Bragg, offered insights gleaned from four decades in the music business. Surprising many in the room, Jenner was unapologetic in his critiques of the major labels and the RIAA and continually hammered home his belief that the music industry’s only hope for survival is to embrace some sort of blanket, voluntary licensing scheme, whereby users would be charged a flat fee in exchange for the right to freely download music online (“In short, copyright has to be changed,” Jenner said, “It has to become, in essence, a remuneration right”).
Despite the fact that he is clearly rooted in the analog world, Jenner understands that the promotional opportunities that innovative services offer often trump the potential to wring a few cents out of the listener. “I sit here in my advanced years and see this incredible opportunity,” Jenner said, “and all the music business can do is bitch and moan”. Addressing Muxtape specifically, Jenner said the following:
“I don’t know what Muxtape is—I’m far too old and lazy to look into it—but I’m sure it was great. Yet some bunch of dickheads went and closed his server down. What has gotten into them? How does that advance their business?”
Going further, Jenner suggested that public distrust of the major record labels (“It’s got out, the public knows that they don’t give any of the money to the artists”) has emboldened many to download music illegally and that attempts to stuff the genie back in the bottle are futile (“If you make it illegal to walk around in the sunshine without an overcoat, you’re going to have a wave of crime in the summer”).
Throughout the panel, Jenner suggested that our outmoded copyright laws are ill equipped to deal with the digital world. While Muxtape was technically breaking the law by streaming unlicensed music online, it was not, as CD Baby founder Derek Sivers comically put it, “clearly illegal, immoral, and harmful, like Auto-Tune”. Rather, it was a service that allowed people to discover new music and as such, could have been harnessed by labels and artists as a valuable promotional tool. Due to the technical matter of how the site delivered music to listeners, however, it was immediately written off as enabling piracy—even though it did not allow users to download files to their local drives. “Now if you come over to my house and I play you a record, I don’t expect someone to come knocking on my door to ask for a payment,” Jenner said, illustrating the fallacy inherent in a copyright regime that attempts to prevent fans from sharing music with each other. He went on to add, “Now if there’s money there, share some of that money with the musicians and the creators”. Unfortunately, even that was not enough to keep Muxtape 1.0 from joining Napster 1.0 and OiNK in that great Web cache in the sky.