Future of Music Summit 2013: A Feisty In-Depth Preview


I am beyond pumped to be headed down to Washington, DC next week for the Future of Music Summit.

The Summit is 2-day conference for music industry professionals and musicians, and is organized by the Future of Music Coalition. The FMC is a non-profit that advocates for musicians’ rights, and helps educate musicians on issues that are important to them, even though they may not realize it. Besides giving musicians a voice in Washington, they may be best known for their Artist Revenue Streams research project that gives incredible insight into the details of how musicians make money in the digital age. The Summit will begin with the latest analysis on that treasure trove of data.

I’m also looking forward to the rest of Monday morning, where conference attendees will be serenaded by government leaders in intellectual property, followed by a counterpoint on copyright from musicians and music businesspeople.

I’d like to ask the copyright panels how they would reform copyright to balance the needs of the individual and the culture versus the need to profit from corporations who have all the legal and lobbying resources to shape the law. Shouldn’t we decriminalize song sharing by adopting some of the ideas successfully employed by Creative Commons? Don’t we have enough studies showing that “piracy” actually increases fan engagement and spending?

I would also question whether virtually infinite copyright terms perpetuated by corporate lobbying have anything to do with the original intent of copyright. I would ask the musicians if copyright exploitation is perhaps a less ethical business model than direct fan patronage, and now that technology has enabled the latter, we should focus on what technology now enables rather than stifling innovation to protect anachronistic models.

Finally, I would posit that free access to music is a net benefit for promoting all of the underlying tenets of copyright: the right of the individual to be compensated for their labor, the right to own and control one’s personal expression, the right of society to benefit from creative works, and the right of a culture to use those works to perpetuate itself. Has anyone noticed how our copyright system works against these ideals by hoarding wealth at the top, appropriating our personas, creating a large deadweight loss in music consumption and denying cultural re-use of creative works, in a culture increasingly based on re-use?

All that will probably have to wait for the cocktail party. Maybe I can get the person who curates the copyright panels drunk and you’ll see me and Larry Lessig up there next year wrestling some lawyers from the Copyright Alliance and the Center for Copyright Information. The gauntlet has been thrown.

The lunch breakout session is the “Band as a Business” workshop, which is funny, because that’s almost the same name as my free “Band as Business” video course on Udemy. I reached out to workshop facilitator Paul Rapp when I realized he was 2 hours north of me in Albany. I asked him why crowdfunding wasn’t covered, considering it’s the next big thing in how musicians can make money. I also dropped the whole copyright spiel on him, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised I didn’t hear back. Looking forward to taking the workshop nonetheless, as there’s always something new to learn, especially for those who teach.

The rest of Monday is dedicated to the “Future” part of the Summit, where we’ll be discussing the cutting edge of music markets and marketing. I expect artist discovery and fan engagement to take center stage here. Over the last few years, we’ve really seen the music industry embrace the kinds of marketing best practices that were developed by natively digital companies. In particular, the idea of a “fan lifecyle” (analogous to a “user lifecycle”) is central to any modern musician’s business strategy. Success comes from identifying target fan markets, coming up with strategies to engage those fans, and then creating a system by which those fans drawn into an integrated marketing funnel, generating more revenue the deeper they go. Digital tools and services can go a long way to facilitate marketing and conversion, and I’ll be curious to see which names from that industry are dropped.

The last panel of the day is the one I’m looking most forward to — a discussion of streaming, crowdfunding, and the future business models of music. Most people are confused when it comes to this topic, and I understand why. But I’ve been a digital native all my life, and I’ve dedicated my life to music, technology and the intersection in between. The “future” of music business is, without a doubt, many different streams. The days of one dominant stream from copyright exploitation are leaving us. When we talk about the “old” business model dying, we’re not just talking about selling CDs or MP3s, we’re talking about paid vs. free access to recorded music, and things are moving inexorably toward free. It’s a net benefit for fans and musicians, and more music is being made and listened to than ever before. It’s awkward and sometimes devastating to professional musicians who are having trouble adapting, or who put their heads in the sand and blame their own fans for their career woes.

At the same time, the “new” business models like crowdfunding are revolutionizing the band as small business… and it’s all just the tip of the iceberg. We have seen but a fraction of the potential for new music markets and models. Perhaps if the market wasn’t mostly controlled by a handful of enormous corporations, it would be agile enough to shift. But no matter, individuals will flip the paradigm and enable new categories of paid musician that defy the dominant “professional” title. Indies will continue to innovate. The majors will hulk along collecting back catalog royalties until music is a utility like electricity or water… and we’ll be there sooner than you think.

We’ll need a drink after that one. Lucky for me, Mailchimp‘s buying.

The second and final day of the conference features a potpourri of unexpected topics.

A history and analysis of the crossfader “as a tool for re-thinking music as a form of social action” seems to jive nicely with my piece on how copyright law undermines the power of music to effect social change. With no de minimis standard for digital sampling, the crossfader seems to be regarded more as a nuclear weapon than a tool for social change by the record industry.

I’m also looking forward to the panel on music and social change. MC5’s Wayne Kramer (who makes an appearance in my Band as Business course) chairs a particularly interesting pursuit involving instrument donation to incarcerated people. I’m a huge fan of music charities, and music’s ability to provide meaning, healing, joy, comfort or entertainment to people who are aimless, suffering, unhappy, uncomfortable or just bored. It’s the reason we have music! Too often we lose sight of music’s true purpose in pursuit of profit. As such, the following panel on “Nonprofit Models for Supporting Independent Music” shares similar potential for being an awesome eye-opener.

Before lunch, the Director of External Affairs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will run out on stage and scream, “Musicians can afford health care now!” and then disappear in a flurry of pyrotechnics. Or not. But either way, I can’t think of a better place to tout the Affordable Care Act than a conference for musicians, even if I can build a better website myself, for hundreds of millions of dollars less.

The breakout session I’m headed to after lunch is all about how we can provide a better career education to musicians. That’s my mission too! I just launched the Songhack website to do just that — educate musicians on how they can “hack” the music business and make their own careers. My work with John Snyder at Artists House Music (we did the Band as Business course) has given me a unique look into the realm of institutionalized music career education, and the huge challenges it faces. I look forward to gaining more insight from the panelists of this talk… because despite the best efforts of the FMC, most musicians don’t have any idea how musicians make money!

Tuesday wraps up with a more philosophical take on the issues from our distinguished hosts and a group of accomplished musicians. Diving deep on the cultural value of music with the Producer of Blue Oyster Cult sounds like a pretty sweet ending to me.

I’ll be missing the conference-closing NPR All Songs Considered Listening Party. Gotta hightail it back to New York to keep the entrepreneurial machine running. But while I’m there, I’ll be tweeting up a storm and posting daily updates, both here at Mediapocalypse and over at the Songhack blog. Please join me!

Are you headed to the FMC Summit? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am about free access to music and throw a drink in my face? (I know there are some of you out there!) Or have you seen the same bright future for music that I have, and want to join forces to spread the good vibes? Leave me a comment or drop me a line on Twitter and we’ll hang.

See you in DC!

How Many Musicians are There? Copyright Change Requires Answer


How can anyone profess to know what’s best for musicians when there is total disagreement as to what a musician is?

In conversation after conversation, I have come to the following conclusion: the fundamental disagreement in the copyright vs. free culture debate is over opposing definitions of “musician”.

In one corner, we have the musician as defined by the copyright industry. This is the definition with the most qualifiers. To be a musician in their eyes, you must be making a living playing music, or at least actively pursing a music career. There is an aesthetic judgement too — the “quality” of the music must demonstrate a level of competency above the amateur. This is a subjective assessment, but factors include fidelity of recording, originality in composition, and technical acuity in performance.

In the other corner, we have free culture advocate. The underdog. Their definition of musician has virtually no qualifiers — one must only be composing, performing or recording actively to be considered a musician. Quality, skill, experience… these are not necessary for musicianship. One need only play.

Much can be said about these two opposing philosophies, but I am going to stick to how these attitudes relate to the constitutional purpose of copyright, to “Promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts”.

There has been much debate over what “Progress” means in this clause. One can imagine our two fighting definitions as revealing different interpretations. The copyright industry would likely consider “Progress” to be any work of art that has demonstrated market value. They would see the inclusion of “Progress” as intent to separate amateurs from professionals in economic terms.

A world full of amateurs would not fulfill the copyright charter for these folks. It doesn’t matter what “Arts” progress if none of them are “Progress”. “Progress” for them is the conversion of the amateur musician to the professional musician. This view is driven by economic imperatives, and it comes as no surprise those musicians and businesses that have profited the most from copyright are its most vehement supporters. This view is more in line with the “labor / desert” theories of copyright which justify granting market monopolies as a way to make available the “just deserts” of creators’ labor as a critical incentive to create.

The free culture advocate is quick to point out the hypocrisy in the above view. “Progress” doesn’t emerge out of thin air. Everyone starts as an amateur. There could be no music professionals without a thriving amateur musician scene. How soon the professional forgets they were once the amateur. “Progress” for them is represented by the conversion of the non-musician to the amateur musician. This view is largely driven by creative or cultural imperatives.

It also is demonstrably true that a musician who defines “Progress” from an economic standpoint will often end up working in the music industry instead of being a musician. There simply isn’t much money to be made being a musician, and what profit exists is fiercely competed over, dependent on impeccable timing bordering on luck, and rarely lasts.

On the other hand, most musicians hold the view that defines “Progress” in creative and cultural terms. This is great for culture, but bad for musicians making money. It explains why musicians have historically been bad earners. It also helps explain the system of exploitation the entire record business is based on.

So, the music industry overwhelmingly defines musicians as those who are contributing measurable value to the music economy. Musicians define themselves as creatives making cultural contributions, which may subsequently be recognized financially. What about fans?

I would suggest most fans’ attitudes of what defines a musician fall somewhere between the opposing poles. Which side they gravitate to depends on their musical tastes. Those who enjoy discovering obscure acts and new artists probably hold more of a cultural view, while those with more mainstream pop tastes might have a narrower view of what constitutes a musician. The former celebrate the value in music that isn’t necessarily economically viable, the latter celebrate the value in music produced by big budgets and big business.

In other words, all approaches are variably valid in the eyes of the public, and this is the group copyright is meant to protect. Certainly, copyright is a tool for creators, but its charter is to benefit the greater good. The needs of the musician and the music business are intertwined, but ultimately the needs of the commons take precedence in concerns over copyright’s purpose.

The best and most recent attempt to answer the vexing “How many musicians are there?” question was undertaken by the Future of Music Coalition (FMC).

The conclusion? “There is no reliable way to measure the real size of the US musician population.”

Leaves a little something to be desired, doesn’t it? The FMC highlights three key reasons for their assessment:

“(1) There is no agreed-upon definition for “musician”, no certifications or qualifying tests; (2) There is no one organization that represents all musicians; (3) The government’s statistics excludes a huge chunk of the musician population by their own counting standards.”

It’s not likely we’ll have a single organization that represents musicians anytime soon because amateur musicians by definition aren’t professionally represented. Nor will the government be able to shed any light on the uncounted musical masses huddled at the edges of the music career world.

The only way we’ll be able to reform music copyright to be equitable to all is to agree upon the definition of “musician”. I would be remiss to leave the issue hanging here unresolved, so here’s my proposition for how we can move forward in this endeavor:

There is a concept in copyright law called “extralegal norms”. Sometimes traditions and standard methods of operation achieve the “Progress” goals of copyright without having to involve messy and expensive legal procedures. In this respect, under utilitarian theories, copyright is justly viewed as a “necessary evil” that can be rendered unnecessary if the culture of creation provides enough incentive and protection to creators already.

For example, comedians are not granted copyright in part because of extralegal norms that involve the self-policing public shaming of joke-stealers (Joe Rogan vs Carlos Mencia being the classic example). Like fashion, which is similarly unprotected by copyright, comedy is often defined by its context — a moment in time that is fleeting. As such, fashion and comedy are thought by many to be better off without a copyright system that might stifle that rapid innovation required to stay “of the moment”.

This unprotected creativity is starting to sound a lot like music. I think it’s time to take a serious look at the parallel extralegal norms in music and consider that in many respects musicians may not need copyright protection at all. Among them:

(1) Cost of production is becoming so low, musicians no longer have to give up their master rights just to have an album made. The less musicians choose to be exploited this way, the less copyright protection they need.

(2) Songs were meant to be shared. Online, copyright is increasingly unenforceable. An unenforceable law does no good, and when it is enforced, it limits sharing — which is in many ways the purpose of the song’s creation in the first place.

(3) As the language of emotion, music creation is primarily driven by a deep-seated need to express oneself. Most musicians make music for the love of doing so, not for the money. As such, copyright less necessary to provide an incentive for the labor of music creation.

(4) Music increasingly involves collective authorship. In many ways the “amateurization” of music is bringing us back to music’s folk roots. The folk tradition does not require copyright incentives for it is an expressive practice where sole authorship is downplayed in favor of collective, historic tradition. Joint authorship copyright has historically been avoided as a creativity-stifling minefield of competing conflicts of interest.

(5) There are self-policing features in music to prevent outright stealing of material. I would look to the fan outrage over the appropriation of the “seapunk” micro-genre by Rhianna as a parallel example to Mencia vs. Rogan. Such co-option is becoming less of an economic threat because the web connects fans in a way that amplifies their collective attitudes. Witness how fast Seapunk was dropped by those in the mainstream who were caught with their hands in the cookie jar attempting to co-opt it.

There are many more reasons why copyright might also stifle creativity and music in general — they can be found throughout my blog. Here I tried to stick to the extralegal norms that warrant it unnecessary or at least in dire need of reform.

The critical and final point I want to make is that all of the above strongly suggests to me we need a broader definition of “musician”. While I find truth on both sides, I can’t find a single good reason why we should narrow our view of what constitutes a musician.

We should openly embrace the “amateurization” of music and build a music economy and culture in which the millions of aspiring professionals get a fair shot at making a buck by being discovered and supported by their prospective fans.

How do you define “musician”? Is it time to change our collective attitudes and widen the circle?