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Attack of the Widget People

“Musicians need to start thinking of themselves as makers of a product just like widgets,” said Kevin Murray, a Democratic state senator for L.A. County‘s 26th District. Unfortunately, Murray -- a former agent at William Morris -- was speaking as an artist’s advocate. What have we come to when the solutions our best allies espouse sound like worst-case scenarios?

Murray, chair for California‘s Select Committee on the Entertainment Industry, delivered his message as part of a keynote address at last week’s Future of Music Policy Summit, on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The Summit brought together musicians, Internet entrepreneurs, members of Congress, academics, record-industry execs, union reps and many lawyers to discuss the evolution of the music business in the digital era when trading MP3 files on the Internet -- for free! -- has become a rampant practice.

Because sound, unlike video, can be compressed into files small enough to fit through a phone line, music has become the test case for how entertainment, art and commerce will work together in the digital era. The original debate about file sharing has expanded into a wider dialogue about how the music business works and how it should work. How should music be delivered? How should musicians be paid for their work? And, most interestingly, how far should we let musical expression be governed by legal and business concerns?

Advocates of free speech online fear that we‘re headed for a world where all expression produced by corporate entities will be locked down, private property forever. To squeeze every last dime out of what has come to be called content, they say, corporations will, in effect, rewrite the part of the Constitution that grants copyright: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Napster’s CEO Konrad Hilbers -- who acknowledged that Napster v1.0 was more a cool idea than a business -- complained that the five major labels, hoping to extend their consolidation of physical distribution and manufacturing into the digital realm, have been reluctant to license their music catalogs to legitimate, paying competitors. Instead of offering their widgets to all comers, the labels have aligned themselves behind two major label-affiliated services, MusicNet and Pressplay, reviews of which have been mixed at best. Hilbers threatened government action. At the Summit he found it.

Representative Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia, explained the Music Online Competition Act, a bill he has sponsored with Representative Chris Cannon, a Republican from Utah. Forcing labels to license sound recordings as well as compositions, the bill would be a government-mandated extension of the compulsory license for public performance (e.g., radio play) administered by bodies such as ASCAP (the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). The bill also tries to legislate online retailers‘ right to use sound samples for free.

“Major labels are more interested in control than profitability,” said Mark Cuban, an aggressive, smart and media-savvy entrepreneur who founded Broadcast.com (he’s since gotten out of content and now owns the Dallas Mavericks). Cuban summed up all you really need to know about the biz‘s current wranglings. What’s distressing is that he could do it without once mentioning music. This isn‘t bullshit. People love music. It actually bothers them when the industry ignores that fact.

The debate at the Future of Music Policy Summit only intermittently addressed the basic idea that music is not a widget. State Senator Murray, despite his keynote widget statement, announced in the same speech that he was filing a bill to remove the exemption to the Seven-Year Statute that the recording industry won back in 1987. The exemption, loudly criticized last year by Courtney Love and a others, allows record companies to keep artists under contract indefinitely. If the bill passes, recording artists, like other artists in California, will be able to break their contracts after seven years.

But more typical was the scene during the Summit’s first panel, “The State of the Union,” when Fred von Lohman, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, staunch defenders of freedom and expression in the digital realm, helped reveal just how much music has become a commodity. Lohman stood and addressed panelist Jonatha Brooke, the L.A.-based singer-songwriter who, burned by her experiences with the majors, now releases and markets her own records.

“Because I‘m a fan of Jonatha Brooke’s music,” said the ponytailed Lohman, “I have $20 for Jonatha and $20 for any other songwriter Jonatha thinks is worthy of my $20.” He removed two bills from his wallet, then went on to make an optimistic case that, in the future, individual fans‘ intense love of music could, in this manner, support the arts.

“I’ll take that $20,” erupted a voice from the opposite end of the panel. The audience laughed. The speaker was Phil Galdston, a pop songwriter who has worked with Celine Dion, Beyonce Knowles (of Destiny‘s Child), Brandy and Anita Baker. His best-known work? Vanessa Williams’ “Saving the Best for Last.” His specialty is pop commodities. And if control is what the industry continues to pursue, Galdston is the future of music. All he really wants is your $20.

“The issue of intellectual property,” said Miles Copeland, founder of I.R.S. and Ark 21 Records, “is not just an issue of the record business. It‘s an issue in our society over all, because we are a society that manufactures less and less, and thinks more and more. And if you don’t get paid for your thinking, pretty soon we could go the way of the Romans.”

To explain the difficulties of competing against “free” in a capital-intensive business, Copeland provided one scenario, accompanied by a Freudian slip that highlighted just how discomfiting the idea of intellectual property -- or I.P., in industry lingo -- can be. “You‘re a drug company and you’re developing a cure for cancer, but now all of a sudden it can be taken by some company that‘s on the Internet,” said Copeland. “Some company can immediately manufacture it. You don’t get your billions back.” A beat. “Why would you invent the next disease to be cured?”

Once again, everyone laughed. Nervously.


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