Three Big Ideas From The Future Of Music Policy Summit

By David Combs

The 2015 Future of Music Policy Summit grappled with big questions facing musicians in the digital-music era.
The 2015 Future of Music Policy Summit grappled with big questions facing musicians in the digital-music era.

David Combs is an independent musician.

Every year, the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition hosts a summit that tackles the trickiest issues facing musicians today, and it’s not afraid to get into the weeds.

At this year’s conference, held in October at Georgetown University in D.C., musicians, educators, reps and DJs took on the big subjects, including music education and the modern role of radio. But many panels went deeper, examining the nuts-and-bolts of the digital music economy — and exposing new fault lines in the process.

Here are the three biggest ideas I heard at this year’s Future of Music Policy Summit.

Digital music has a transparency problem

The decline of album sales has been a long time in the making. But as the physical-music market shrinks, its replacement — digital streaming — has ushered in a new set of problems. If there was one point central to most discussions at the Future of Music Policy Summit, it was how streaming services have institutionalized the expectation that music should be widely available for free.

“The future of music is being built and musicians are being left out of it,” said musician Tift Merritt. “That’s like building a house with bricks you didn’t pay for.”

The big culprits, of course, are digital services like Spotify and Apple Music, which many panelists decried as opaque.

Songwriter Shelly Peiken — who has written chart-topping hits including Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” — sat on a panel of professional songwriters. “When streaming became the new business model,” Peiken said, “the laws that dictated how songwriters get paid didn’t take into account a digital universe.”

But those criticizing the lack of transparency and fairness in how artists are paid also found a classic villain in major record labels.

Told that Spotify does in fact pay rights holders — i.e. record labels — former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner earned applause for his response: “But the rights holders are extremely dishonest,” he quipped.

Songwriters Guild of America President Rick Carnes added, “We don’t even have enough information to blame anybody. The record labels own part of Spotify. If they don’t pay the record labels the money, maybe it’s because they have a deal with the record labels.”

The only way to get transparent information about streaming revenue for his own songs, Carnes said, “is under discovery in a court case or if a North Korean hacker tells me.”

Musicians need to be more than artists

So what happens when musicians, managers, record labels and digital distributors all sit down and discuss potential solutions to these problems?

Liv Buli of Pandora’s Next Big Sound summarized the industry’s perspective succinctly: “You can complain about it, but when we’re seeing people succeed is when they adapt to it.”

Digital-platform representatives seemed to define adaptation as executing effective social-media campaigns, aggregating and analyzing data and efficiently marketing merchandise and ticket sales to a core fan base. But who should have to do that work? One discussion offered a clear answer: artists should.

“Making Moments Matter: Musicians and Time Management” focused on how musicians can balance their artistic work with the increasing need to self-manage, self-promote and self-release.

At the policy summit, the clear message was that artists must be playing a fairly sophisticated numbers game to be taken seriously in the music business.

Musicians had mixed responses to the idea that they should be taking on a more active role in self-promotion. I asked Shelby Peiken how wearing more hats affects musicians and songwriters.

“If a musician wakes up every day and focuses on his or her craft, they’re going to get better and better at it,” Peiken said. “If they also have to spend time and energy honing social-media skills, booking dates [and] liaising with band members, it’s possible their art will not get the attention it needs and their music will suffer.”

That thought seemed to be at the heart of a key question from bassist Melvin Gibbs.

“My job is to move crowds,” Gibbs said, addressing a wonky panel of data specialists. “It took me as long to learn how to move crowds as it took for you to learn how to do what you do [with analytics]. How am I expected to do both?”

That prompted a response from CD Baby’s Tracy Maddux that may have sounded hollow to artists in the audience. “It’s incumbent on an artist not to be a business person,” he said, “but to surround themselves with business people that they trust.”

Maddux’s comment didn’t jibe with what other industry spokespeople had said throughout the summit. After two days of music reps touting the importance of social-media strategies, the clear message was that artists must already be playing a fairly sophisticated numbers game to even be taken seriously in the music business.

Musicians are laborers

Another eyebrow-raising moment came when former Interscope data analyst Kiran Gandhi offered what she admitted was forced optimism: “What a joy to be in a broken music industry,” Gandhi said. “More so than ever, artists are relevant in the industry.”

While “joy” may not have been the word of choice for many musicians at the summit, Gandhi did point to another emerging consensus: that musicians, whether by choice or necessity, are finally starting to build a movement to advocate for themselves.

Building stronger unions for musicians was among the more rousing strategies suggested during the conference.

The socialist-leaning Jenner chastised musicians for not unionizing. “The problem is you Americans care far too much about competition and not enough about cooperation and not enough about unions,” he said.

“We can think ‘artist’ with a capital A all we want,” echoed Andy Schwartz, a representative from the American Federation of Musicians, “but in the minds of the people who pay us, we are labor.”

Another model that came up was the Fair Trade Music movement, which has put down roots in D.C. as well as places like Seattle.

“Can we apply the fair-trade food model to drive for transparency and change in the music industry?” asked Panos Panay of the Berklee Institute during a keynote talk.

On the tail of the Music Cities Convention that took place at Georgetown University one day beforehand, the idea that local city governments could be doing more to boost their local music communities became a point of consensus.

“We have been stuck, in the music industry, in a very negative dialogue,” said Shain Shapiro, the managing director of Sound Diplomacy. But he called the Music Cities movement unifying.

Transforming the role governments play in the arts, Shapiro said, is “agnostic to the debate over some of the more negative divisive arguments.”

Read David Combs’ three-part series on the economy of DIY music.

Top photo by Flickr user Jason McELweenie used under a Creative Commons license.