Copyright, activism, and making a living in the age of streaming

Future of Music Summit 2013

Volume 113, No. 11December, 2013

Adam Witkowski

Spotify icons etc by FranckReporter istockNow in its 12th year, the Future of Music Coalition recently convened its annual summit on the scenic Georgetown University campus in Washington, D.C. The two-day conference brought together people from all walks of the music industry for interviews, workshops and panel discussions focusing on a broad range of issues affecting musicians and the music industry as a whole.

The Future of Music Coalition is a nonprofit group that is, in its own words, “committed to serving as an ongoing resource to musicians, policymakers, and the public about the many challenges and opportunities facing artists today.”

Local 802 once again co-sponsored this year’s event, along with the AFM, NPR Music, Gibson, Google, and other organizations with diverse goals and interests. Along with myself, Local 802 was represented by Executive Board members Gail Kruvand and Andy Schwartz.

Although there were a broad range of topics, two main themes of the summit revolved around copyright issues and activism. Copyright, and its connection to the online streaming services that many believe are the future of how we will consume recorded music, dominated the discussion of day one. And while the debate often got heated, parties from all sides of the issue were able to make their case in some form or another by the day’s end. Bassist Melvin Gibbs, former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner, Google Play’s Tim Quirk and others were able to weigh in on the effects that streaming services are having on musicians. And as you may have guessed, they all had very different opinions. Though there were a range of reactions to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, the two main points were:

  1. These services are making it virtually impossible for artists to make any money from their recorded works, while the companies themselves rake in huge profits.
  2. These services are making it easier than ever before for artists to have their music listened to by more people than ever thought possible.

While this is a very interesting conversation to be had, the way in which it was conducted left many people unfulfilled and sometimes confused. Representatives from companies like Google Play and Pandora were able to have the microphone for 45 to 90 minutes. They preached all the benefits of being able to legally listen to anything you like with the click of a button, for a small monthly fee. After having this kind of pulpit, the question-and-answer period was often cut short due to time constraints, leaving the discussion feeling a bit one-sided and industry-friendly.

But there were also many panelists and attendees who were against the exploitative business models of these companies, and fortunately they got their turn at the microphone too. Many agreed that, while the music industry has desperately needed a way to maintain a viable business model in the Internet age, giving your music away for fractions of a cent is not the answer. Artists need to be compensated fairly for the use of their recorded works, and so far the wages from today’s streaming services are not cutting it.

Not only did this issue give way to discussions about artists needing to gain copyright control over their music, it also led to interesting discussions on how musicians can come together to find ways to make a living and bring back a sense of value to their work, which many agree the Internet has slowly taken away.

Let me now point out something that has tremendous importance for our own union. There are many activists involved in all levels of today’s music scene eager to address the major obstacles faced by artists. These activists are forming all types of groups and coalitions to meet these challenges. That is inspiring on the surface. But what’s frustrating is that these groups are often not including the voice of the AFM. As Peter Jenner so eloquently put it, “How many organizations does it take to say the same thing, which is ‘For God’s sake, pay us!’”

Many of these new groups are setting out to do great things and have admirable plans for doing so. (The Content Creators Coalition and the Music Creators Alliance are two examples.) But by forming too many separate groups, musicians are actually dividing themselves more. The AFM and Local 802 need to start reaching out to these groups to find out exactly what their main concerns are, what they are struggling with, and what their ideas for overcoming these obstacles might be. By opening our doors to new campaigns and new ideas, we open our doors to new, active members, who in the end will only make our union stronger and more relevant in these rapidly changing times.

All of the interviews and panel discussions from the conference will soon be made available at This summit is a great way for Local 802 to keep up with the most pressing issues in today’s music scene and learn how we can get involved in matters that mean the most to musicians.

If you would like to become active in Local 802’s organizing campaigns, please contact me at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 157.

Adam Witkowski is Local 802’s director of organizing. Sign up for the latest news about copyright issues at