November 19, 2005

Six Years After The Fair...

Notes from a past (the deadly earnest MB 5 / Music Biz 2005 conference, Emeryville, 1999):
Chuck D: from my past and another planet, a riveting, wise, funny, articulate, rambling (50 minutes), good-humoured, encyclopedic (leaping from Philo Farnsworth to Little Richard in the same digression...), committed, extemporary speech on the Internet and the music industry in front of an almost totally white audience of record industry insiders and aging LA label execs (all pre-cancerous skins and ponytails...). Thomas Dolby (Robertson), energetic, boyish, very English; Reeves Gabrels (fat, earringed and leather-pants-clad... no, I had no idea who he was until this meeting).

Nearly every time I open my mouth people I talk to at the show immediately identify me as part of the strong and vocal anti-Label (and somewhat smug) insurgency there (was it my accent? my clothes? my attitude?). Good for the ego. But yes, I’m one of the very few "artists" (urgh) in a conference mostly peopled by lawyers, managers, and nerds. I play both sides here....

The music showcased at the conference is uniformly mediocre, nearly always bright happy polite jazz or complex, facile, soul-less techno-nerd music (not Techno) played through a whole barracks-worth of synths and producing some of the least musically-interesting or emotionally-engaging multimedia pap I’ve seen in years. The revenge of the nerds....

The conference seems divided into three groups: those (like me) who think that some sort of subscription or (small) fee-based download scheme is inevitable and probably the best way for musicians; those who think that they can crush downloading by legal and technical means and drag us all back to CDs and such; and those who ask "what's the internet...?". The labels represented here seem uniformly in the second and / or third category. The more excitable of us would call them running scared, but that'd be giving them too much credit for being able to see the future. I'd say they're more running stupid.

I raised the issue in one of the panels about the possible new model where the only really professional musicians are the Sony (etc.) house musicians; everyone else is effectvely an amateur (due to lack of money to be made in distribution...); a sort of new version of the rich private and state patronage systems common in the early days of classical music. No one seems to think this likely, but there are times I can't see any alternative. How the hell do you make money when the net lets you download almost anything for free? You make it by doing something else (selling films, selling MP3 players...) and making music the accompanying soundtrack or hook. This is for the big boys only.

So six years later, what's changed?

(Peripherally part of the Punk (and Later) thread).


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