Published Oct 26, 2009While there's no doubt many in the music industry are still struggling to recover from that wicked roundhouse to the head dealt ten years ago by Napster and the dawn of file-sharing, this year's Transmission music conference, recently held in Victoria, felt somehow lacking in the coherence of purpose that made last year's conference such a success. More troubling, though, was the continued absence of input from two rather significant players in the music business: musicians and consumers.
Why is that? Well, for music creators in Canada at least, wide representation doesn't exist. SOCAN (representing both songwriters and publishers) and the Songwriters' Association of Canada were both at Transmission, but their interests don't capture those of the broader musician and creator community. And the musicians' union (the AFM) was not in the house. Wouldn't it be weird to have a conference on, say, food production and not have any farmers? Or diners?
That aside, the premise of Transmission is a very good one. Comparatively tiny and invitation-only, its great strength is in putting people with differing interests into small discussion groups, then reporting the results to attendees at large. Small groups generate a real sense of purpose and engagement, which isn't so much the case when one is made to sit passively and listen to a lecture.
This year's proceedings were opened with a traditional song of greeting from a local musician, Butch Dick, who is also the educational liaison of the aptly named Songhees First Nation. In a short address following the song, Mr. Dick described his nation's conception of "ownership" of music: songs are owned, sometimes by a nation, clan, or family, and sometimes they are owned by a ritual event. But at all times, songs are considered valuable, even sacred community property. They teach, inspire, and keep the soul of the nation alive. The people that loses their songs, said Dick in his soft-spoken, understated way, loses their whole being. A lovely sentiment, but one unlikely to give pause in the ongoing struggle between what the industry calls rights-holders and users.
York University media prof and conference moderator Paul Hoffert then took over. A veteran stage-pacer and former Lighthouse keyboardist, Mr. Hoffert's lecture at last year's conference on the hollowing-out or "disintermediation" of power at the centre of the industry provided many useful talking points during the ensuing roundtable discussions. This year, however, his lecture on "black swan theory" came across as a repurposed synopsis of Nassim Taleb's bestselling book of the same name. An investigation into our inability to cope with randomness and uncertainty, black swan theory proposes that when catastrophic stuff happens, it invariably a) comes as a big surprise; b) has a major impact and c) can be rationalized in hindsight as having been entirely predictable. What an industry must do is to learn to profit from disruption by not relying on conventional wisdom and taking contrarian action. Buckets of money shall surely ensue.
No doubt the music industry experienced a "black swan event" at the launch of Napster in 1999. Ten years on, we continue to not have anything close to a satisfying legal commercial framework for downloading and file sharing. And for every start-up that successfully takes contrarian action (Swedish music service Spotify came up numerous times), ten more are sued into oblivion or collapse for simply not finding a way to make money.
It's worth noting here that when we talk about "new business models" we are invariably speaking of mobile and/or online businesses that distribute or store content in some way, and though they are largely peopled by newcomers from the tech industries rather than players from what we traditionally call the music business, several of the plenary speakers were music producer crossovers into the tech sphere. Most interesting was Sandy Pearlman, now Schulich Distinguished Chair of music at McGill University in Montreal, who managed and produced Blue Öyster Cult and co-founded E-Music.com before going on to a career in thinking really hard about stuff.
Pearlman's lecture on what he calls "the paradise of infinite storage" versus "the cloud" presented an impending and potential dark dichotomy in how we'll "own" music in the very near future. He calculates that with the cost of RAM getting cheaper, it's possible that even today you could store every piece of music, art, and literature ever made on 50 petabytes (one petabyte is 1000 terabytes) of storage, with a current cost of $2.5 million. On the other hand, a huge chunk of the tech industry and new music services are dedicated to getting us to give up autonomous ownership of music in favour of accessing it any time anywhere from the great jukebox in the sky. Going this route could defeat all kinds of portability and hardware issues, but the implications for personal privacy are enormous.
Other plenary speakers included content aggregator IODA's founder Kevin Arnold; music producer and founder of Slacker.com Jim Rondinelli; Abebooks.com CEO Hannes Blum; Future of Music Coalition legal counsel Walter McDonough; David Hyman, founder of MOG.com; FACTOR's Heather Ostertag; and Tyler Lessard who heads Blackberry/RIM's VP of Global Alliances and Developer Relations.
The small-group roundtable discussions were focused on three broad topics as they affect the live music, recorded music and distribution sectors: intellectual property, emerging markets, and next generation leadership. It is in these small groups that Transmission really proves its worth: discussions tend to be both intellectual and practical, and put unlikely bedfellows together in productive ways. Only here do you find someone who manages live music venues discussing branding and personality rights with another who develops ringtone applications.
One fundamental question that never gets posed, not even at Transmission, is whether it's right that we continue to base all discussions on the future of music on the premise that only through its commodification can we truly "value" music. Well, of course, not to do so would be to essentially call death upon the business of music. And yet, even the most hardcore copyright lawyer would agree that music is so much more, or so much other, than a simple commodity. It shapes our brains, gives us an emotional language, defines our histories and cultures. Defines us. In that sense, music is very much a community property, just as Butch Dick described it. It doesn't matter that some people go more readily to a Journey song than to a drum and voice chant. The impact is the same: each is music that defines a people. There is no price tag, no economic framework, and no legislation that can change that, no matter what the outcome of "rights holder versus consumer" or "storage versus cloud."
So can we not just skip ahead to the bit where (to use industry-speak) the consumption of music is valued such that transactions costs are end-user transparent? In other words, where it's free again? Until then, the very nature of the music business will doom it to keep struggling against its own customers.
Meanwhile, at the end of his welcoming speech, Butch Dick accepted his brief applause, packed up his drum and stepped off stage. I watched him make his way to the door, and when he turned away I noticed a message on the back of his t-shirt. It read, "Live to sing to live." Discuss.