WASHINGTON, D.C.— At the intersection where Capitol Hill policy, technological innovation and musical creativity meet, tensions spilled over at the two-day Future of Music Summit while government officials washed their hands of the mounting chaos.
Count it as a mixed blessing, for what artists — inherent outsiders and rule-breakers, if they’re doing their job well — want politicians telling them how to do their business?
But there was frustration aplenty with federal copyright laws that many artists and lawyers contend are impeding creativity.
The annual conference of cutting-edge artists, tech heads, law buffs and entrepreneurs, which concluded Tuesday, provided a window into the struggles of a music business still in the throes of a decade-long revolution. Digital distribution has made intellectual property a new hot-button issue on Capitol Hill, but a congressman and a federal copyright officer who delivered keynote addresses at the summit took the slow, steady approach, as if reading from the same script.
It was not what many of the 450-plus, mostly progressive-minded conferencegoers wanted to hear, especially with the lightning-speed changes in the way music is distributed, shared and reconfigured in the last decade. “Technology is leaping ahead exponentially and the legal system is lagging behind exponentially,” said Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council.
The disconnect between the culture and the law has led to a world of marooned artists, who must choose between illegal activity that can’t be officially sanctioned and business as usual, where artists get paid last, if at all.
“I wish there was a way to blow up” current copyright law and start over, said Jessica Litman, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
U.S. Rep. Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Maria Pallante, the federal register of copyrights, were not about to blow up anything, nor were they particularly eager to take more aggressive action against alleged copyright infringers the way certain overseas governments have been. Their tiptoing-on-eggshells discourse left unresolved the huge disconnect between federal law and the way people actually interact with music in their own file-sharing networks.
France mandates that Internet Service Providers warn consumers about infringing activity and cut off on-line access to repeat offenders. In the last decade, the Recording Industry Association of America has sued thousands of citizens in an effort to combat copyright infringement, yet today more Americans than ever are consuming music, much of it through channels deemed illicit by federal law.
Pallante and Goodlatte said that while the government would prosecute consumers who blatantly infringe on artist copyrights, they urged private-sector solutions to combat rogue file-sharing. Goodlatte said it’s up to companies that depend on copyrighted songs for their existence to create legal platforms that are as convenient and high-quality as illegal alternatives that command most consumers’ allegiance. He also said that copyright law won’t undergo a major reform to reflect new digital realities that have made the artistic manipulation and recontextualizing of copyrighted material more accessible and fluid. Instead, he underscored artist copyright as a fundamental right that must be protected while adapting gracefully to Internet innovation — a “sweet spot,” as Pallante called it, between sometimes opposing impulses.
Entrepreneurs were busy trying to advance solutions, introducing platforms with applications to social media and cellphones that would actually (theoretically, anyway) pay performers, and received approving grades from a panel of artists and managers. With streaming rapidly overtaking downloading as the preferred method of accessing music via cloud-based storage lockers, artists were cautioned to secure their public-performance royalties. Yet collection agencies such as ASCAP and BMI were denigrated on a panel that examined licensing of intellectual property, for their lack of transparency and their high overhead, with little money trickling down to middle- and lower-tier artists. In addition, current copyright law with its costly and time-consuming icensing procedures ensures that most of the revenue accrued winds up in the hands of “behemoth” corporations instead of artists, Litman asserted.
“People with power continue to take power,” said Erin McKeown, a fiesty singer-songwriter.
Selling recorded music “is like pitching pennies,” added another songwriter-producer, Ivan Barias. The culture is moving in the direction of “microwave music,” as consumers use it as background for social settings. It is then more easily disposed and fewer long-term artists are developed.
The best solution against a slow-moving Congress and corporations happy to cling to 20th Century copyright laws is for artists to sample, remix, reconfigure and innovate “and hope Congress and business let that happen” without litigating, Litman said. “But that’s a risky proposition.”
One of the few pools of significant revenue available for artists in the current climate is that derived from live performance. A panel of concert-industry executives heatedly debated the shifting terrain of the touring business: flexible ticket-pricing, which allows the price of a concert ticket to ebb and rise with demand; the troubling paradox of increasing revenues even as fewer tickets are actually sold; paperless ticketing as a way to cut off scalpers while restricting the ability of genuine fans to sell or even give a ticket to someone else; and the boon or bane of the burgeoning secondary-ticket market. The latter is here to stay, according to even those executives who oppose it, with even giant Ticketmaster in the business of reselling tickets at a significantly higher price for in-demand shows.
The perils of a life lived on the road were put into stark perspective by Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and manager Dave Frey. At a panel surveying the band’s career, Nielsen described how he and his bandmates barely survived the Ottawa Bluesfest last July when a storm brought the 50-ton roof of a temporary stage crashing down on them.
“I felt like I was in a Buster Keaton movie when the building falls down on him,” Nielsen said. “I ran forward looking for the equivalent of daylight.”
Nielsen and his bandmates were saved when the roof’s fall was broken by the band’s equipment truck parked in back of the stage, allowing them to escape even though their equipment was destroyed.
The collapse was one of four-weather related accidents at concerts over the summer when temporary stages collapsed either while or just before bands performed, resulting in 12 deaths and dozens of injuries. After the panel, Nielsen and Frey were on their way to Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation that would create standards for temporary stages, similar to how amusement rides are subject to oversight at carnivals.
“We want to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” Frey said.
Though no match for that live-or-death drama, the challenges facing artists were more complex and offered less clear-cut outcomes. Chicago hip-hop artist Rhymefest spoke of a culture that rewards artists who conform to a stereotype.
“Ninety-eight percent of what (mainstream) rappers talk about is a product. It’s like a commercial,” he said. He added that in running for 20th Ward alderman earlier this year “the arts was put on trial” and as a hip-hop artist he was stigmatized. “I don’t know Lil Wayne, but I had to answer for all his songs.”
Even some fellow artists didn’t support his efforts because they were put off by his association with hip-hop, a genre they didn’t enjoy or understand. “There is a generational and cultural disconnect betwen artists,” he said. To grow and learn, he said he discovered, artists have to appreciate different means of expression from all sides of culture.
But there were small glimmers of hope. The National Endowment for the Arts is actively trying to foster dialogue in cities about better integrating the arts into the community and economy. For Dan Lurie, a former Chicagoan who is a senior adviser at the NEA, the idea is to empower artists and inform politicians so that they recognize “the impact of art in the life of the city.” The underlying message of the Future of Music Summit was that until that connection is more tangibly understood in government, technology and culture, artists will continue to be outsiders, whether they choose to be or not.