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Debating the Future of Music

I spent most of Monday in an auditorium at George Washington University, attending the Future of Music Coalition's annual policy summit. This gathering is meant to give musicians--as opposed to the recording industry at large--a chance to mull over the state of the business.

Because life isn't always too kind to independent musicians, the FMC conference can be a bit of an airing of grievances, with two recurring themes: Nobody plays us, nobody pays us.

That is, for all the changes in the music industry since the first FMC summit in 2001, indie artists still find that commercial radio and other forms of mass-market media ignore them, with the result that it continues to be difficult to make a living--not get rich, but earn enough for a decent middle-class lifestyle--in this line of work.

Some highlights from yesterday's sessions:

* How unbalanced is radio these days? At a panel discussion early in the afternoon, Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, cited figures gathered by the performance-rights organization SoundExchange: In 2006, 37 percent of the songs played on "non-terrestrial" radio--essentially, satellite and Internet--came from independent artists. On AM and FM, the figure was below 10 percent, Bengloff said.

* Terrestrial radio doesn't seem likely to get much better anytime soon. Low-power FM awaits Congressional action to make these neighborhood-based stations possible in more cities. HD Radio isn't being held back by any legislative inaction, but faces its own relevancy issues: When a speaker asked a roomful of more than 70 music-biz types if any of them owned an HD Radio, I saw only 2 hands go up.

* These days, though, musicians also have to watch out for unplanned exposure. Singer/songwriter Lady Miss Kier--whom readers of a certain age may remember from the group Deee-Lite--said she needed to get her new album for sale online because fans keep recording her live shows with cameraphones and posting clips on YouTube.

* In a brief keynote speech, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) blasted media consolidation and what he called the Federal Communications Commission's complacency about it. He cited a North Dakota town with six radio stations, all owned by one firm: "Why on Earth would the FCC, if it wasn't dead from the neck up, let one company buy all the radio stations in one town?" Dorgan followed: "That's not what you and I intended when we gave away the public airwaves for free."

* I've written before about how effective Internet radio can be at helping listeners find new music--and how threatened Internet broadcasters are by the steep royalty payments current laws require them to make to musicians. Both sides of that debate surfaced at a discussion late in the afternoon. Everybody agreed on the merits of compensating musicians for the public use of their work--not just on the Web and satellite radio, but on AM and FM too. But they disagreed sharply on whether the current system did the job satisfactorily. To judge from the questions directed at SoundExchange executive director John Simson, that organization has burned up a lot of credibility by pushing so consistently for high royalty rates for Webcast radio.

* Figuring out the finer points of copyright law as applied to digital music can exhaust even those who have spent decades mastering it. At a talk after lunch, Marybeth Peters, the Library of Congress's Reporter Register of Copyrights since 1994, said, "Today, copyright law reads like the tax code, and there are sections that are incomprehensible to most people and difficult to me." Later in the chat, Peters expressed her approval of one of the laws that make digital copyright such a mess--the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. She also admitted that she doesn't own a home computer or DVD player.

* The last panel discussion of the day focused on net neutrality, and included one of the most concise definitions of that argument. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu said the point of net neutrality--in which Internet providers would be legally required not to discriminate against particular types or sources of Internet traffic--was "to save the Internet from being like commercial radio."

* I've wondered before whether an interactive-music service ever could replace a collection of music that you actually own. My own hunch is not--but at a reception that closed out yesterday's sessions, FMC deputy director Kristin Thomson told me that she and her husband have left all their records and CDs in boxes in the basement. Instead, she said they subscribe to Pandora and Rhapsody, using a Sonos music system to broadcast those Internet sources throughout their house. (Note that Rhapsody, unlike Pandora, lets you cue up a specific track instead of only asking for songs from a particular genre of music.)

Would you like to defend commercial radio? What problems do you see with the way new music finds its way to your ears? The comments are waiting for your input...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 18, 2007; 10:07 AM ET
Categories:  Music  
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