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The Future of Music Policy Summit: "It's the future, so get used to it"

This line from the 2002 performances of Radiohead’s  song “Go to Sleep” (sadly omitted from the studio version) kept coming back to me at the Future of Music Policy Summit this week. I’m updating some of my thoughts from the first day of the concert. As I noted in that post, the summit was packed with ideas and energy and I was impressed with the spirit of cooperation and community that pervaded the discussions, which I have also sensed in the cyberworld of social media. There is a feeling of open ended possibilities that I found especially refreshing.

Throughout the summit, I continued imagining how the promotion and networking strategies, the new technologies and media platforms, and the radically altered market structure for music will affect artists, like Magnificat, that work with historical music – how to make the music of the past part of the future of music.

Mike Mills sings "Ohio" with Bonerama

Mike Mills sings "Ohio" with Bonerama

At the remarkable performance by Bonerama, Nicole Atkins, Erin McKeown, Wayne Kraemer, Mike Mills and others on Monday night, someone on stage observed the importance of touching base with your roots – whether it is traditional New Orleans Delta Blues, Cuban Son, Appalachian folk songs, whatever. Knowing where you’ve been and how it touches you today, can provide a basis for navifating the future. I would argue that this is one of the best arguments for the continued renewal of “historical” music. While I’ve written before that all music is in some sense “historical”, here I mean specifically Classical music – the only genre offered by ReverbNation, BlackPlanet, Virb, and any number of other muic portals, for artists involved in the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. forms of “art music”.

Focusing on the music Magnificat loves, promotes and performs, I would venture that most of what serves as the basis for music of today – not just the institutions of orchestras, opera, chamber music, virtuoso vocal and instrumental music, but also the theoretical basis for “common practice” tonality, vertically conceived harmony, and melody/accompaniment compositional structure – was first formulated and solidified in the 17th Century. The humanistically motivated shift in orientation toward the expression of human emotion ignited a century of experimentation and exploration that still speaks with a freshness and wonder centuries later.

The trick is to find the place for this “roots” music in the new and exciting avenues that are emerging, that were the focus of attention at the summit.

Needless to say, the focus of the discussions was “popular” music, but it is clear that the genre fragmentation characteristic of “the music business” in the past generation allows “Baroque Music” or even “17th Century Music” to be just another niche market along with “speed metal” or “skronk”. It’s really a question of scale – Stradella may never be a popular as Jay-Z, but there is a “fan base”. The recurring mantra of the sessions was that musicians need to identify the listeners who love their music, their “fans”, and build relationships with them. The global nature of communications now makes it possible to build those relationships on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.

The first session on Sunday, led by Kristin Thomson, education director of the Future of Music Coalition and Jed Carlson of ReverbNation, was a basic overview of the emerging portals for music promotion and distribution – and there are many. There was lively feedback from the audience and as with the second panel led by Ariel Hyatt of CyberPR and Charlie McEnery of Well-Rounded Radio, which focused more specifically on social media portals, there was the nagging question of how all this promotion could actually generate a sustainable income for musicians. Having fought with the existing, or more properly, the “quickly fading” model of music promotion and distribution, I  found myself thinking that it has never been easy. The future of music will present its own challenges and obstacles. I also thought about the challenges faced by musicians in the 17th century and decided that on the whole, I found this set of rules more appealing (and we have indoor plumbing!)

Much-tweeted was Hyatt’s remark that “Your music is your business card. I hate, hate, hate to say it… but it’s true,” was on one hand sobering, but on the other hand, how better to tell the world who you are than by letting them hear your work? This is a vexed issue of course – more on that later.  To some extent the final two sessions of the afternoon addressed this question.

“Digital Ducats: Getting Paid in the Networked Age” discussed, from several points of view, the legal issues surrounding digital royalties. Hosted by Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, was a primer on services that collect and distribute royalties for digital downloads and airplay on internet and satellite radio as well as liscensing for film, video games (imagine a Monteverdi soundtrack for an action-packed video game!), and television.

The last session was fascinating for me, as it dealt with arts policy on Capitol Hill. Indeed, hearing Michael Bracy discuss the ramifications of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 on local radio and the Internet, which hardly existed at the time, sounded all too familiar. Decisions made by the committee staff in the drafting of legislation do have a profound effect on our day-to-day lives. The complexity of the process and the delayed consequences (both intentional and unintentional) often make it difficult to recognize the cause-and-effect, but it’s there and musicians and performing artists in general are fortunate that organizations like The Future of Music Coalition have a presence on Capitol Hill.

Senator Franken at #fmc09

Senator Franken at #fmc09

To briefly touch on Monday’ sessions, it was salutary to hear full-throated advocacy for Net Neutrality and the rights of artists from Senator Al Franken and FCC Chairman Julius Genanchowski. “Free Speech limited or Free Speech delayed is Free Speech denied”, Sen. Franken memorably observed. He added “Net Neutrality is a 21st Century iteration of the fundamental right of free speech.”

A meme that pervaded the discussion, which focused on nuts and bolts of digital licensing and outmoded notions of copyright, was that we have entered a new era where fans are co-conspiritors with artists – one presenter described it a new age of “musicking”. I noted the unintended refrencing of Bruce Haynes use of the term in The End of Early Music. The global communication infrastructure has made it possible for musicinas to reach people around the world and touch them with their music.

Opportunities always come with challenges and the new models for the distribution and promotion of music are as daunting as they are exhilirating. Thank you to the Future of Music Coalition for organizing such a thought-provoking and inspiring program.

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