WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the words of the scheming royal adviser Littlefinger in the cable-TV series "Game of Thrones," "Chaos is a ladder."
Chaos was the way of the music industry since the digital upheaval of 1999 started to loosen the consolidated chokehold commanded by a handful of corporations. At the 12th annual Future of Music Summit this week, the opportunity afforded by that shake-up had given way to impatience. The uncertainty of new opportunities and an untested business model built on digital file-sharing instead of retail sales and commercial radio airplay has been replaced by a growing sense of frustration. The new mantra might be "Is that all there is?" Whereas once artists could count on revenue from a couple of sources -- touring and, to a lesser extent, record sales -- now their income is measured in payments from myriad streams, some of them nearly microscopic, from licensing of songs to TV commercials and movies to streaming tracks on-line.
"There is never going to be a five-part plan to save the music industry," said Future of Music cofounder Michael Bracy. Yet again it was roll-up-the-sleeves time for about 450 musicians, technocrats and industry professionals trying to negotiate the latest turns in the music business.
Many chafed that the industry was not changing fast enough, complaining that music-makers still aren't getting paid a living wage for their labors. "The new business model is not in the interest of musicians," said Melvin Gibbs, a versatile, respected bassist who has been active since 1980. "Music is generating a ridiculous amount of money, none of it flowing to the people who create it."
He was exaggerating, but he was also scornful of a new batch of corporate heavies -- including Apple and its iTunes store, Spotify and its streaming service, YouTube and its instant gratification video site -- that he and other musicians perceive as cashing in while they scrape for the leftovers. In an oft-cited statistic on Monday, the number of professional musicians has declined more than 40 percent since 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (others have put the figure closer to 30 percent, still a steep decline). A recent book by Harvard professor Anita Elberse, "Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment," notes that 98.9 percent of digital music tracks in existence in 2011 have sold fewer than 1000 copies.
A producer and composer who works under the name of Count previewed a documentary, "Unsound," that portrayed the frustrations of five groups or artists struggling with the new rules of the music economy. "The work of the creators is at risk," he said. "Everyone agreed the old model sucked ... that doesn't mean the new one should."
The have and have-not dichotomy of the 20th Century industry has not been replaced by a thriving middle class, promised by the more democratic music-making process of the new digital model, Count contended: "There is no better time to be a creator, except for the making a living part."
The snail-like pace of reform was reflected by government representatives discussing copyright law, last revised in 1976. The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a long-overdue overhaul of the law to reflect the new digital reality, but it could take years, if not decades. "We're dealing with a law that's about 'Happy Days' and jukeboxes," said Jacqueline Charlesworth, general counsel of the U.S. Copyright Office. The '76 law is ill-equipped to deal with consumers who "are now copiers. They interact with (the outmoded) copyright law daily. Can they be taught to respect copyright?"
Shira Pearlmutter of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office outlined a series of public hearings that will extend into next year on copyright reform. But neither official promised a quick fix.
Some activists recommended collective action by artists to push for fair pay from technology companies, on-line and terrestrial radio. Count embraced a new artists group, Content Creators Coalition, recently endorsed by David Byrne. "Artists need a collective voice to facilitate a conversation between artists, the industry, the technology world and fans," Count said.
Artist manager Peter Jenner seconded the notion, but cautioned that it's not a panacea for all artists. "I've been destroying artists' careers for 45 years," he said. "Most have been unsuccessful and gone on to other careers." The reality, he said, is that "most artists are just more of the same" and aren't innnovative or creative enough to break through. Though he advocated a musicians union to push for more equitable pay, he questioned the need for yet more coalitions beyond ones that already exist. "How many organizations do we need that say the same thing: For God's sake, pay us."
His skepticism was echoed by consultant Bill Thomas: "We don't need another organization to represent artists. The organizations that do exist need to be more effective." He pointed to a "leadership void" in the industry, with a small group of corporations "trying to protect an increasingly shrinking slice of pie."
The metaphor of an industry scrambling for crumbs is an ongoing one, and it frustrates longtime executive Tom Silverman, the founder of the New Music Seminar. "We're at the point where we're at the end of digital downloads (as a major revenue stream for labels and artists) and we're not even thinking about what's next," he said. "We're all still too busy fighting (Internet) piracy."
"All of our content is based on delivery of records, but our business is now so much more than that," he said, underlining his impatience with the industry's willingness to adapt.
But the development of new business models linked to massive technological shifts can take awhile. Consider that the phonograph, introduced in the 19th Century, didn't truly foster a thriving recording industry until after World War II. Relative to that, the current revolution is still in its infancy.
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