Uber-dude Casey Rae-Hunter of FMC, Dave Frey (manager of Cheap Trick), Rick Nielson
Got back really late last night from the 10th annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit in Washington DC. As usual, it will take weeks to get my brain around everything I saw and heard there, but here’s some first impressions.
This was my fifth (sixth?) FMC summit and to be sure now it’s a different world than it was when I first went. I’m different now, too, different than the wide-eyed, fawning country rube who showed up at the conference years ago and got all ecstatic and stunned to hear all these really smart people actually talking about these revolutionary things I’d only read about. Today I’m more of a jaded, cranky, and impatient country rube who hates everything. You talkin' to me?
That being said, I felt less passion, less buzz, and more uncertainty this year, continuing a trend that for me started at last year’s conference. This may be due to the decreased attendance from previous years; and maybe that's due to the fact the conference was announced way late, barely a month out, and many panels weren’t firmed up until a week out. Or maybe it’s the location: the Georgetown University campus location is inconvenient to folks who are broke, i.e. musicians. To be sure, the lack of fireworks can be attributed to the fact that superstar musician advocate Tim Quirk was conspicuously absent this year. Quirk, a rock musician, alt music-biz heavy, and conference regular, 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. It was like he was the interpreter and id of the conference; his very presence made everybody else honest; and he wasn't there. Drag.
There’s always technocrats and enterpreneurs at this thing 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 business. Which is fine, I guess. For now. But damn, these dweebs can be annoying.
The politicians and bureaucrats were slicker, too. Maria Pallante, the Register of Copyrights, moistly recounted her personal relationship to music, even dropping Frank Zappa’s name, and then went on to pitch, without naming it, the internet freedom-killing PROTECT IP Act that's currently before Congress. Later that day, Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R, VA), expertly told a couple irrelevant down-home jokes, and then, again without mentioning it by name, pitched the PROTECT-IP Act using virtually the same talking points as Pallante. I'm gonna stick my neck out and say that none of these talking points came from Pallante's or Goodlatte's staffers; they came, instead from lobbyists of groups like the RIAA and the MPAA. Disney. Viacom. One got the sinking feeling that the fix was in and, worse, that we were getting our noses rubbed in it. This became abundantly clear when both gave non-answers to Chicago journalist 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% of music that's consumed these days is acquired "illegally." Trust us, they both said. We won’t harm the little people! Hoo-boy. Those guarantees sure worked well with the Patriot Act. 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. Dude, the Constitution says no such fucking thing, and you know it. 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 articles have consisted of interesting quotes from speakers and panelists at the conference. 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 had to resort to long, convoluted sentences to explain the intricacies of things like 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 to me have missed that.
The tribute to outgoing FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was moving and bittersweet. The high point of the conference? Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson, talking about his long career and the recent spate of festival stage collapses this year (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.
I guess the takeaway is this: times are scary, uncertain, and complicated, things are changing fast, there’s still bad guys, and we gotta stay smart and focused. Can’t wait ‘til next year.