Rethink Music? Think again.

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The Rethink Music conference on 27 April 2011 in Boston, MA, brought little new thinking. A highlight for me was the Canadian indie rock band Metric, saying things like: “Let the music go and monetize scale.” Singer Emily Haines, guitarist Jimmy Shaw and manager Matt Drouin re-told the band’s history from mortgaging their house via getting Canadian public support for the arts for touring to lunches with industry, leading them to the conclusion: “What we need is fans.” The one-on-one relationship in concerts and on social networks is the organic way musicians work. “Respect your fans and let them do the marketing for you.”

Their most recent album “Fantasies” they put up in its entirety on MySpace. When they released the CD half a year later through the direct-to-fans marketing platform Topspin it hit platinum. Metric started out with 2,000 email addresses, now they have 150,000. By cutting out the middlemen, they can sell half the records and still make twice the money. “Giving away music is so counter-intuitive. But it works.” (see the video recording of their talk.)

In contrast, most speakers still stuck to their pre-digital intuition. Kim Buie, A&R of Lost Highway Records, for example, said: “You have to be famous to be able to afford to give things away.” This idea has clearly been refuted among others by the British newcomer band Arctic Monkeys. They gave away self-burned CDs at their concerts that their fans put up on P2P. Fans shot, edited and uploaded videos to YouTube and fans created the band’s MySpace page. When they released their first CD it became the fastest-selling debut album in UK history.

On the Microfunding panel, artist Bleu told the audience that financing an album though Kickstarter donations is already feasible, given a large enough fan-base. In his case that is a mailing-list with 4,000 subscribers of whom 10% donated for the release of his already recorded fourth album in the US, reaching the target of 8,000 US$ within 48 hours and closing at nearly 40,000 US$. “People understand artists need to be supported,” he said. “They don’t want to pay 99c to the Man, but are happy to give 20$ to the artists.”

No calls for stricter copyright laws were heard, with the exception of RIAA president Cary Sherman (video from 26:30) supporting the French 3-Strikes regime and the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act (COICA) that intends to regulate the blocking of payment and advertising services to allegedly infringing sites and the seizure of domains running on servers outside the US but registered in that country. But generally, voluntary arrangements were preferred to casting regulations in law. A legal issue mentioned several times was anti-trust law getting in the way of industries finding common arrangements.

Business-to-Business flat-rates were featured, particularly the online radio service Pandora which, launched in 2005, now has 80 million users in the US and recently filed for an IPO. Many in the music world think that technology companies are beneficiaries of the losses in recorded music and should be held liable. Calls for making ISPs, Google, Apple etc. pay met with applause.

There was no controversy about the need to know who owns what. A database it will be, the only question now is who will be running it. There is the Global Repertoire Database, an industry working group that grew out of an initiative by EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes. WIPO with its track record in dispute resolution has offered to start the International Music Registry. Both of them address only music, which is why Terry Fisher from the Berkman Center suggested to aim for a global digital library of all categories of works that might be operated by a consortium including Harvard and Berklee.

As for legalizing and remunerating file-sharing, there was a common understanding that it will not happen in the US. Basing an Alternative Compensation System (ACS) on taxes rather than on copyright levies proved to be a political non-starter. Voluntary arrangements, if anything, would be the only acceptable solution here. The EFF’s 2008 Whitepaper on Voluntary Collective Licensing of Music File Sharing stands as a tomb stone to this futile approach. Its author, Fred von Lohmann, now works as Senior Copyright Counsel for Google. Both Terry Fisher and Jim Griffin had then attempted to target the gated communities of colleges and universities. Terry’s Noank is dead and Jim describes his Choruss as a “learning experience.”

Much hope on our panel rested on Brazil. Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Center for Technology and Society of FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro, told us about a recent deal the music collecting society ECAD has concluded with YouTube. The music on Google’s site is very different from what is popular in the regular market. Last year’s summer hit was a Forró title from the North-East and currently most popular on YouTube with 33 million views is a funk piece from a favela in Rio. This music from the peripheries is already free, said Ronaldo. The question now is whether ECAD will distribute the money it collects from YouTube to these artists based on the popularity of their works. “If so, it would be an example that an ACS can work.” That’s a big ‘if’ given that these artists are not members of ECAD and given the constant scandals of fraud and corruption ECAD is involved in.

But most of all, this B2B arrangement will not solve the illegality of file-sharing. The only solution in sight is a statutory Sharing Licence. The debate on this in Brazil is moving forward but alas ministerial policies have taken a big step backwards under the new government of Dilma Rousseff.

Larry Lessig pointed out on this panel that this is not a battle of ideas, but a battle between those who make money under the old system and those who might make money under the new system. “In every industry of the world governments are conspiring with incumbents to protect themselves against innovators.” His hope is again on Brazil, Canada or Sweden where incumbents don’t have a lock on policy like in the US. “If they could demonstrate how copyright can pay artists, it would be difficult to continue to defend a broken system.”

My suggestion was to change the battle ground, leave industry aside and – in the spirit expressed by Metric – get artists and audiences to negotiate a new social contract on culture. (See my extended talk notes and the video recording of the panel.)

All videos from the main conference track are here. Some more videos are on Rethink’s Tumblr page (alas those by Metric and Ben Folds say “not available in your country”). There is also a special seven-part series of Radio Berkman podcasts. The Berkman Center for Internet & Society also produced “Rethinking Music: A Briefing Book.”


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