Forging a future for the music industry

 

Technology has brought music to the masses, but at what cost? The Future of Music in a Digital Age conference set out to discover just where the music industry is heading, writes JIM CARROLL

THE HEAD-SCRATCHING and hand-wringing show no sign of abating. Over the past dozen years or so the future of the music industry has been debated and pored over ad infinitum like the lyrics to an old Bob Dylan tune.

Those who make, sell and consume music seem to spend as much time debating what a brave new world will mean for them as they do listening to the actual music. From Napster and iTunes to cloud computing and copyright, music activists argue about technological changes with gusto. Meanwhile, those engaged in film, book publishing and other creative sectors look on and wonder what this means for their trade.

Last Friday’s The Future of Music in the Digital World conference at Dublin Castle was a lively affair. Organised by the Contemporary Music Centre, as part of the annual get-together of the International Association of Music Information Centres (Iamic), it brought together Irish and international artists and administrators keen to get a steer on what may well happen in their future.

The best value for money was provided by Gerd Leonhard and Andrew Dubber, a pair of speakers who, on paper at least, came at the issue from diametrically opposed stances. Leonhard is “one of the leading media futurists in the world”, as the Wall Street Journaldescribes him; Dubber’s presentation was titled The Future of the Music Business and Other Fictions.It was a pairing that could have turned nasty.

On top of all the heavyweight pronouncements, you also had more personal and poetic ruminations about the cultural importance of music from the Irish composers Bill Whelan and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, plus a brief céad míle fáilte for the delegates from the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin.

It’s a pity the Minister didn’t stick around for some of Leonhard’s talk. An experienced and well-regarded commentator on the relationship between technology, media and entertainment, the German’s input was a provocative, thought-provoking and entertaining look at how to turn the trials and tribulations of Music 2.0 into a way for all music creators to be paid.

Opening with a slide featuring this newspaper’s report on Eircom’s move to cut off the broadband service of customers found to be repeatedly sharing music online illegally, Leonhard asserted that the problem

is that control of music now

does not necessarily equal

money.

In the old music industry such control was a means to income, but the internet has changed this scenario completely. Now, Leonhard believes, getting paid means connecting with fans, offering them added value and giving them reasons to buy your products. While this was always the case, the internet makes it a far more important proposition. Control is no longer the key to a pay day. “Kicking people off the internet for using BitTorrent is so ridiculous,” he said. “The only people who get paid are lawyers.”

The current situation was “conceived by people who print their e-mails”, and their conservatism makes the “dysfunctional” music-industry approach “like trying to put horseshoes on a car”.

Leonhard argued that, with more than 300 ways of sharing music online, and global sales down 65 per cent in the past decade, it is time for a rethink.

This would mean a creator getting paid for work as part of a blanket approach similar to that for TV and radio. Leonard’s all-encompassing licence was

“a toll-booth solution we can all live with”.

As with road tolls, some people would try to avoid or circumvent the toll, but the vast majority would happily pay a collective, fair blanket licence for music usage on the internet that would benefit the music’s creators.

He pointed to Denmark, where TDC, an internet service provider, has a deal with local music-industry lobby groups and royalty-collection agencies for a flat-fee music service. The reason it works, he said to laughter from the audience, is because “no one gives a damn what happens in the music industry in Denmark”.

Afterwards, when questioned by members of the audience, Leonhard asserted that a blanket licence approach can only work if there is a change in agenda. It has to be about the creator and user’s agenda, not the middlemen, so the onus is on the creator to force the change at various institutions and lobby groups. It is now, he told a delegate from the Irish Music Rights Organisation (Imro), about “survival or death”.

Andrew Dubber takes a completely different stance to Leonhard on futurism. A lecturer and author on music business innovation, Dubber believes that predictions about the future of music are “worse than useless” and that you can’t predict the future by extrapolating trends from past events. The answer to the question about the future of the music business depends on who is paying for the research and on what they want the

future to be, Dubber said. All independent music industry surveys are simply “lies”.

It is possible, however, for music creators to analyse and adapt to the present environment. Outlining five media ages – oral, scribal, print, electronic and digital – Dubber explained how those involved in creating music adapted to what were then seismic changes.

In the overall scheme of things, the recorded-music industry is just a blip. Surviving and thriving, Dubber emphasised, is therefore about understanding each media shift and not engaging in the pointless notion of predicting the future.

The conference ended with a panel discussion featuring Dubber, Leonhard, Bill Whelan, Imro’s Keith Donald and Iamic’s Stef Coninx.

While many in the audience were relishing the prospects of a good-natured scrap between Dubber and Leonhard to end the day, the discussion ended up falling between a number of stools. Light-touch moderation of questions from the floor also meant there was an over-emphasis on royalties, copyright and the accountability of collection agencies rather than on the proposed topic of the future of music.

Indeed, many of the questions and points seemed to dwell more on the negatives than on the positives of new technology. There were too many questions about how music creators could control use of their work in a digital world, with Whelan wondering if a proposed blanket licence would allow him to opt out of having his music used if he so wished. As the panel ran around in circles, it really did feel as if we were asking the wrong questions.

While nobody expected the conference to come up with any definitive answers to the topic of the day by 5.30pm, it did, at any rate, provide plenty of food for thought. Conversations like this are a good starting point, but it’s abundantly clear that it’s the creators and the consumers who will dictate the future of music and the pace of change in the digital world. Over to them.


Further information from cmc.ie