The Future of Music

Volume CVI, No. 11November, 2006

Andy Schwartz

I was pleased to represent Local 802 at the sixth annual Future of Music Policy Summit, which took place in Montreal in early October.

The summit brought together musical artists, managers, performing rights organizations, producers, radio, unions, consumer electronics representatives, digital distribution service providers, lawyers, government lobbyists and journalists to participate in three days of panel discussions and seminars.

The focus of this year’s event was an examination of the current economic climate, and specifically the impact of digital distribution upon the business models of independent artists and music marketers.

Per its mission statement, the coalition was organized in 2000 to work for the establishment of a “musicians’ middle class.” It has worked to empower the vast number of artists who are not superstars, but who require no less basic protection and security in order to continue their work.

The coalition educates its members on issues including new technology, music marketing and distribution, the partnering of record labels and artists, media consolidation and its effects, and health insurance plans. It provides musicians with the framework to understand the environment in which they struggle.

The Schulich School of Music at McGill University was the site for this gathering, and the presence of hundreds of conservatory students in the mix with industry pros gave the event an interesting perspective. These young musicians are the first generation who will record and see the distribution of their music in purely digital form from day one of their careers. They were eager to take part in the seminars and took lots of notes!

While it would have been impossible to attend all the intriguing seminars and panels, I was able to participate in 15 different events over the course of three days. I walked away with an enhanced understanding of the modern music business, notably from the viewpoint of the independent artist/musician.

Panels composed of experts in each field offered insight and proposed solutions to the most pressing problems confronting artists, digital music distributors, and the existing entrenched music businesses that are all attempting to fully participate in this new arena.

An especially significant panel, “Consonance and Dissonance — How Orchestras are Navigating Change” covered the issues facing the distribution and marketing of symphonic recordings. In a video presentation, Maestro Kent Nagano argued against pop/classical crossover recordings, and for an emphasis on live, experiential artistic efforts with serious content. Contemporary music, he argued, should not be a genre focus but, along with the presentation of “heritage” works, should be a reflection of the very best music has to offer. Maestro Nagano favored a natural evolution in technology that does not discard established CD and vinyl media, and reminded the audience that the challenge is not to serve technology, but the art form itself.

The ensuing panel discussion featured Joseph Kluger, former president of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Margo Saulnier of the Boston Pops; Laura Brownell of AFM Symphonic Services, and representatives from digital music distribution and academia. Views expressed were that collaborations across genres were an essential part of the modern age, and that making orchestral music relevant, communicating a love of music, enhancing the image of serious music, relying on live performance recordings with patch dates, and spreading the experience through the less intimidating channel of digital online distribution were all necessary to bring audiences to recorded symphonic works. Joseph Kluger proposed that orchestras reassess marketing strategies for recordings and focus on selling a smaller number of copies rather than seeking mass-market appeal.

Copyrights and new attitudes toward the unfettered sharing of creative works were a major topic. Copy protection schemes for downloads and CD’s came under fire from many sides, but were defended by those interested in preserving the flow of revenue to artists and to the companies that have financial interests in their music.

New proposals for redefining the royalty structure in an age of digitized music — one that requires no physical “object” in the distribution chain — were hotly debated. The consensus seemed to be that smaller royalty percentages from a vastly larger audience via subscription models would create a better profit structure for all artists and labels. The digital download market is a scant 5 percent at this time, but it is accepted that this will rise dramatically in the coming years.

Lobbyists from the electronics industry and the U.S. and Canadian governments argued over what constitutes distribution in an age in which content can appear on mobile devices that are developing digital storage and time-shifting capability.

The move away from major record labels toward very small independents, or to artist-released and marketed recordings, was another dominant theme of this conference. Our concern as union members is how to collect shares of revenue from these newly hatched, frequently non-signatory businesses, many of whom are not aware of their responsibilities to the freelance musicians that often work without a contract on indie record dates.

Importantly, the presence of representatives from the AFM provided an opportunity to inform young artists of the need to organize. In the case of the new media companies, it served to encourage them to become signatories to union agreements, protecting the sources of the talent on record and providing for contributions to the special payment and music performance funds, so as to acknowledge and financially compensate the backing musicians who are often overlooked when the new digital pie is divided.

I had great opportunities over the three days to interact with Hal Ponder, Linda Patterson, and Laura Brownell from the AFM; John Grimes of the Boston Musicians Association; Alan Willaert and Mark Johnson from the Canadian AFM Office; and Peter Jenner, one of the most renowned pop music managers and the former manager of Pink Floyd, who heads the International Music Managers Forum.

Discussions as to how we, as organized labor, might improve our visibility and impact upon the business of digital music marketing — at what is still essentially a nascent stage of development — were fruitful and left us with a determination to insist that any business model provide terms for sharing revenue with working musicians.

I want to thank Local 802 for the opportunity to travel to Montreal and participate in the policy summit, and would strongly recommend this event to all musicians interested in staying on the cutting edge of their business.