[This post was co-authored by FMC Policy Intern Eric Perrott]
There’s no doubt that the 10th Anniversary Future of Music Policy Summit (Oct. 3-5, 2010) sparked plenty of conversations and even some controversy. Topping the list of the latter was the onstage chat between award-winning musician/producer T. Bone Burnett and music scribe Greg Kot of Chicago Tribune. Any press is good press, but we’re wondering if maybe some of the articles missed T Bone’s overall point.
T Bone’s statements offered an alternative view of the future of music and the internet, focusing the degradation of music as it hits “the tubes.” Since then, we’ve seen T Bone’s comments being distilled into a handful of provocative soundbites, including:
“The future of music is analog.”
“If I were starting off right now, knowing what I know right now, I would say, ‘don’t put your music on the internet,’ that’s what I would say. I would say stay completely away from the internet, have nothing to do with it.”
“Don’t be on Facebook, don’t be on MySpace. You know why? Because as soon as you’re on MySpace, you’re one of 6 million.”
“If you’re a musician today, and you want to record music, and you want to circulate that recorded music, don’t put it on the internet, because you’re degrading the thing that you’re doing to such a low point that… its value goes to zero….”
T Bone definitely said those things, and you can see why there’s been a fair amount of shock and consternation on blogs and in columns. Some of these reports even garnered responses from T Bone himself, where he politely clarified some of his points. Hypebot did a decent job itemizing some of his repsonses; check it out here.
We all love zesty headlines, but we thought it might be useful to examine the context behind these statements. Let’s roll the tape.
While many of those commenting on online reports want to paint T.Bone Burnett as a “curmudgeon” or “luddite,” his focus on the internet as a “broadcast medium” (video at 4:55) has more in common with forward-thinkers (and FMC advisory board members) Peter Jenner, Jim Griffin and Sandy Pearlman than the head-in-the-sand crowd.
At 5:47, T.Bone Burnett expresses shock that an artist would allow their music to be sold and distributed as low-quality MP3s. In fact, T Bone believes that MP3s should be “given away” due to their “unlistenable” quality. This isn’t to say that the internet isn’t a helpful tool as a broadcast or promotional medium, but that artists should not be selling their music at low qualities, as it leads to the degradation of music in general.
We take this to mean that the MP3 format is more like listening to a song on a mono transistor radio. Enough to know that you might like it, but not the way you really want to experience the music. But somebody should pay something, right? T Bone’s answer sounds similar to what the aforementioned folks have suggested in terms of either a blanket license for sound recordings online or a “music access charge” at the ISP level. In fact, at 6:08, T Bone even states that there should be a digital music license similar to the broadcast music license available to radio. (Keep in mind that FMC is not necessarily advocating for any of these approaches — we’re just pointing to the record.)
A blanket license online would cover MP3 downloads and the money would be subsequently distributed to the rightsholders. This would mean no more negotiating licenses for individual tracks — downloads would be more like online radio, where songwriting royalties are paid via ASCAP, SESAC or BMI and the sound recording payments via SoundExchange. T Bone also says (at 11:28) that, if an artist chooses to sell MP3s to listeners it should be for “a penny.”
That sounds familiar, too.
At one of our earliest conferences, legendary producer Sandy Pearlman introduced his “5 cent solution,” where MP3s would all cost a nickel and the money distributed to the appropriate rightsholders. He thought at the time that this was the best way to “compete with free” and still compensate artists, songwriters and other copyright owners. Sandy has since moved on from this idea, but we think it’s worth mentioning in light of T Bone’s remarks.
Digital music pioneer Jim Griffin and longtime music manager Peter Jenner (both Policy Summit vets) have talked about what the music world would look like if we could somehow make paying for music happen at the ISP level, meaning your music consumption would be covered by a line item on your monthy internet bill. (In some versions of this idea, you’d be immune from lawsuits for downloading to your heart’s content.) Again, we’re not debating the merits of such a concept, but merely pointing out the similarities to T Bone’s points.
So what about all the analog-is-superior stuff?
Well, in T Bone’s version of the future, people would stop putting so much energy into making digital music sales reach peak CD levels and go back to the basics: great sounding music on great sounding formats at a meaningful price point for artists. This would allow users to explore new music online but purchase the equivalent high quality medium (which T Bone claims to be working on with new analog storage), as well as extras like album art, specialty goods, etc.
What we take from T Bone ‘s comments is this: technology changes. While many of us grew up with the internet and can’t imagine life without it, there’s every reason to believe that subsequent generations of innovators will think similarly about something we can’t even conceive of (we’re hoping it’s hoverboards).
So watch the full video of the event and keep the conversation going. It’s probably what T Bone wanted all along.