Music for the Masses

BY Patricia Aufderheide

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When Lester Chambers stepped onto the stage to galvanize the audience with “People Get Ready,” his band included one guy who looked like he might be from the IRS. But he wasn’t. He was there from the Federal Communications Commission.
New FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, garage band harmonica player, joined in, and then stepped up to the podium to talk about the importance of musicians’ voices as the FCC began deciding on a set of deregulation proposals. The Future of Music Coalition’s third conference was like that.
The coalition, led by singer-songwriter Jenny Toomey, was born out of musicians’ frustration with the crises of the music industry. The potential benefits of new digital opportunities weren’t trickling down to musicians, while they were bearing the brunt of the industry’s attempts to control change. Three years later, the coalition has brought together musicians, unions, some businesses, and public-interest organizations for artist empowerment.
More than 500 people signed up to attend this year’s conference. Hair styles ranged from punk pink to lobbyist trim. Interspersed with live music ranging from opera to avant-garde to folk to rock, panels featured critics and leaders in the recorded music business. But no one showed up from the National Association of Broadcasters, which refused FMC’s invitation.
That mattered because of the FMC’s authoritative study,“Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” (futureofmusic.org/research/radiostudy.cfm). It shows what happened to radio when Congress removed most of the restraints on radio ownership in 1996, and radio went from mom-and-pop to oligopoly almost overnight: Two companies, Clear Channel and Viacom, now control 42 percent of the market. The study shows that a few companies control the playlists defining different music formats, and those playlists now overlap greatly. The report has been submitted to the FCC, which is considering further drastic deregulation.
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The music business, many panelists agreed, is in crisis. Digital file-sharing generally has triggered much of the current crisis, although it didn’t start it. Webcasting—Internet-based radio stations where aficionados and small entrepreneurs showcase music that has lost out in format consolidation—is one creative use of the new medium that could help the industry. But webcasting recently suffered a huge blow from the federal government’s decision to charge high (for webcasters) royalty fees.
The royalties problem is just one example of the wider problem of rights management. Music rights are already poorly allocated; radio royalties, for instance, are paid to songwriters but not to performers, through redistribution companies BMI and ASCAP. Digital technology complicates matters further; sampling is easier than ever, but it also creates a rights nightmare. Musicians who are sampled want to be paid; musicians who sample want to be able to use.
Musicians, everyone agreed, need more control over their own creations and also more access to raw material. That’s where Creative Commons executive director Glenn Brown stepped in, noting the more flexible rights licenses that his organization has introduced. They permit a creator to authorize some noncommercial use without giving copyright away completely.
Meanwhile, industry incumbents are busy putting up digital fences. The Recording Industry Association of America rep touted the value of new pay-for-play services like Pressplay. Microsoft’s rep celebrated the growing trend toward “tagging” items like songs or programs or articles or books, so that a user’s rights can be limited precisely (copy once, play three times, etc.). But Consumer Federation of America rep Mark Cooper argued that Digital Rights Management, as the tagging is called, puts all the control in the hands of the corporate provider, and steals existing rights from users. Instead of technologically limiting users, he said, government and industry should develop new strategies—new policies—for compensation.
Conferees glumly commiserated in the sad state of retail—where 20 percent dips in sales are typical, in part because of the Internet. Some musicians are successfully using the Internet to sell independent product, but no one has solved the problem of marketing. “The old platform [retail] is dying, and the new platform [the Internet] isn’t mature yet,” one agent said ruefully.
A panel on the recording industry did nothing to convince musicians that the recording industry had a clue. But John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants soberly cautioned against glee at the big labels’ downfall.“We’ll miss the majors,” he said. “They’ll be swallowed up by large media and packaged-goods companies, and J-Lo will be the future. We’ll see a lot of actors who just happen to love to sing.”
A counter-trend to megablandness showed up at the FMC in the shape of new businesses, ranging from intrepid webcasters to satellite radio to subscriber music services to on-the-road-and-on-the-Web musicians. But all these businesses depend, in the long run, on successful policies that can exploit the opportunities of digital communication while remaining fair to consumers.

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1986. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, co-authored with Peter Jaszi.

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