Wednesday, October 11, 2006

10.12.06 The Future of Music

[This article originally ran in the 10.12.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

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’s 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 business.”

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, 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 consumer’s 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 free of 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 that 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 any more. 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 demand.

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 artist’s royalties. The train’s leaving the station, and you’re either on or off. And right now you’re off.

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