After many long months of work, the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit kicked off this morning. FMC Executive Director Jenny Toomey and New Orleans crooner Al "Carnival Time" Johnson got things started. Jenny gave a short intro speech and Al, who lost his home to Katrina, played his powerful lament to the hurricane "Lower Ninth Ward Blues."
The first panel a "State of the Union" on the music industry, featured musician Bob Mould, entertainment attorney Rosemary Carroll, Nonesuch senior VP David Bither, Superchunk member and co-owner of Merge Records Mac McCaughan, and Chairman and Founder of the Mobile Entertainment Forum of the Americas Ralph Simon.
Jim Griffin, started the panel by asking David Bither of Nonesuch Records, about the zeitgeist of the record industry since many feel the bottom has dropped out with declining album sales, rampant filesharing, and other factors. What was most interesting is that while there is a lot of angst among the majors, some of the indie artists and labels are reporting things are quite good.
Mac McCaughan said his business has been better in the last couple years than at any other time.
"For us, we have bands in the Billboard top 200 than we ever did before. People maybe be buying less bad records, but probably buying more good records," he said to laughs from the audience.
David Bither, whose label is part of the Warner Group, said there have been blows to the industry like Tower Records going out of business, but from the perspective of his label things weren’t that bad either.
"There’s more vitality in the music community than there has been in a long, long time," Bither said.
Rosemary Carroll said the majors have become a less attractive place for many young artists.
"Five years ago — even four years ago — that band would have probably wanted to go to a major label. But that doesn’t happen anymore," Carroll said. "The combination of the majors not doing a good job and being engaged in a contractual land grab for rights. It used to be that the artist gave up to rights to masters, which was unfortunate. But now artists are having to cut in labels on touring and other revenues. I don’t think that’s an attractive model to young artists."
Bob Mould struck a gloomier note on the state of the music industry:
"I worked so I could buy music, now people are downloading 100 songs a day that are an icon on their desktop. Where is the respect for the artist, where is the sacredness of the music?"
Ralph Simon said the major challenge these days is how an artist can "rises above the clutter." In other words, with so much music available these days digitally and so many different media outlets, how do you generate buzz?
"You may have a band that’s great in Moose Droppings, Idaho, but how do you get them out to a wider audience?" Simon said. "In today’s community when the audience is so mobile. You really have to find something that captures their interest."
Simon said one answer is plugging each of the media niches with artist content from videos to ringtones. He mentioned a British group called AWOL — Artists Without Labels — that helps generate buzz through these various media holes.