Fairness, Transparency & Technology
Interview with Casey Rae, CEO of the Future of Music Coalition
What have you found are the most common themes during discussions about fair and transparent payment in the music industry?
"Like many things that can become politicized, the terms “fair” or “transparent” can be used to promote agendas that aren’t necessarily either. This is the reason that Future of Music Coalition makes the effort to promote definitions that make sense for artists. As far as themes go, I think that the vibe among musicians and songwriters—which is my tribe—is that the pay isn’t fair. That seems especially true for those who work in genres or disciplines that don’t tend to generate massive numbers of plays. An artist who controls their rights and enjoys a decent size fanbase may still struggle with shrinking revenues from recorded music. I’m talking the kind of artist who 10 years ago might have sold 10,000-20,000 thousand copies of a CD, either on their own or signed to an independent label. You can definitely make money from interactive streaming, but the way the money accumulates and is distributed is very different than any other era. And your landlord doesn't care about the "lifetime of plays."
There are bright spots, though. We now see music-specific direct-to fan platforms like PledgeMusic, where the passion of music fans is converted into revenue opportunities for artists. I'm still pretty thrilled with Bandcamp, because it's always been good and they don't randomly add features unless it's something that actually has a shot at delivering value to musicians. All of this is exciting, and at this point, crucial. However, what we have yet to see is an evolution in the on-demand streaming model. The most recent Future of Music Policy Summit had a great panel about this. Dick Huey, my board president, has for years run a technology solutions company for artists and indies called called Toolshed. At Summit, he hosted a conversation about "subscriber share," which is one alternative to the current streaming model. The concept got a huge boost when Sharky Laguana of Creeper Lagoon, who runs a company called Bandago, posted about it at Medium. He came to our conference and gave a compelling presentation, and after that, Darius Van Arman from Secretly Group and Simon Wheeler from Beggar’s Group kicked the tires, along with my favorite legendary downtown NYC bassist Melvin Gibbs and Warner Music's former digital deals guy, Tucker McCrady. We’ll have video archive on our site shortly. It really illustrated for me, and I think our audience, that we shouldn’t just assume we’ve solved this thing. And musicians have to be involved.
Transparency fits hand-in-glove. In my opinion, it is not possible to turn off the on-demand spigot, and I don't know that that should be the goal. I mean, everyone has been streaming Netflix forever. The genie isn’t just out of the bottle; he’s on his third tour. Which means that we have to work with what's in front of us. There is no historic precedent for rolling back a format or technology a certain adoption threshold is met. Of course, I am thrilled that so many fans are buying vinyl even if they stream. If Jay-Z really wanted to do something to improve conditions for musicians, he’d have opened up a few hundred more vinyl manufacturing facilities. Anyway here we are, past the halfway point of the second decade of the millennium, and everyone is tired and yelly. Luckily, there’s far more people who are actively doing stuff rather than yelling. There's a global artist movement emerging that I believe history will ultimately favor. Artists know that transparency is more than a buzzword. It’s a base requirement. And it applies to content and technology alike. Musicians and composers are paying attention. We will collaborate on these new systems, but before that happens we need to get folks to understand where there are problems. A lot of decision-makers in the public and private sector don't always have a grasp of how artist businesses function. We are here to aid in their understanding. Most important is artists’ understanding. Future of Music Coalition is the place where forward-looking musicians come together to identify opportunities and push for solutions. It's a like a creative change incubator. We're thrilled to work with anyone who shares our basic values of fairness and transparency. And if you only pretend to, well, we're still gonna do our thing. "
Undoubtedly, some sort of new technology will be involved in solving transparency issues within the industry. Talk about the relationship this tech would need to have with the industry in order for it to work. How is it paid for?
"I’ve gone on record in support of a dual approach, and this comes from deep consultation with some of the most brilliant minds in music and technology. Some of these people believe strongly that databases with comprehensive and accessible information on rights ownership will make all the difference. I think they would, too, but it is something of a major procedure. The good news is that there are things we can do to promote good post-surgery outcomes. For example, the global music industry must commit to numeric identifiers for both copyrights—the musical work and the sound recording—and these identifiers have to be glued at the hip like festival besties. Any enterprise that uses music to make money must have systems to accommodate these standards. Future of Music Coalition wants to train a new generation of artists, songwriters, audio workers, managers, labels and publishers about how to properly secure and attach their metadata. I'm talking about metadata boot camps. But instead of pushups, we’ll have playlists.
From there, we can think about the necessary superstructures. I personally believe that it would be a huge deal if we had standards plus a requirement to not lock away these data in order to maybe-not-really-but-yeah-actually skim money from black boxes. I’m not talking about some metadata Skynet. Everyone knows that Skynet is already here. What I'm describing hasn’t been built yet.
So what was I saying about a dual approach? Well, there’s a parallel wave we can ride. That second wave is called blockchain. I feel like blockchain is the “Can’t Feel My Face” of music technology—tons of people hyping it, some have even heard it. Future of Music Coalition has been chewing on the concept for a little while now. It's why we have “future” in our title. A few ears ago, I gave remarks at a Copyright Office convening of senior intellectual property officials representing a bunch of different nations. I started talking about how, in the future, we may have the benefit of “distributed ledgers” that can track a range of copyright transfers and transactions in a completely transparent way. I said the word “blockchain” and nobody—not even the incredibly smart Copyright Office staff—had a clue what I was talking about. Some of them had heard of Bitcoin. Of course, I then had to make a distinction between the volatile cryptocurrency and the decentralized authentication technology. So that was fun.
There’s a lot going on in that space right now. I’m looking forward to helping musicians think through the implications of blockchain and, where appropriate, encourage them to take an active role in its development."
New technologies have both created and solved issues of the music industry. However, it takes a while for the legal aspect of the industry to catch up. What are some legal developments that need to follow the current state of music technology?
"You know, people were really excited about the MP3 once upon a time. It wasn’t about stealing music; it was about this thrilling new conduit for music. That’s why so many music people appreciated Steve Jobs—he helped make music matter again for a lot of folks who had been frustrated with the marketplace. And that frustration was already present back when filesharing was Scully handing a dossier to Mulder.
I’m actually starting to feel the excitement again. We’ve been down this road far enough to understand that the music industry—whatever one imagines it to be—isn’t gonna swoop in to save us. Neither are those behind the big tech platforms, who are clearly operating in a completely different realm. So we have to do for ourselves. Which is scary, but empowering. Some great stuff that’s already out there is entering a new phase, like CASH Music. Here are tools that every artist and manager knows straight up from experience that they need. But these tools aren’t going to disappear after the developers get acquired, go public or burn through their venture capital. These tools are infinitely more intuitive than your average open source torture devices, but they can still be modified and built on. And we've got fan funding. And blockchain. What we don't have are copyright laws that reflect today's realities. The policy scene is like tailgaiting before the big concert. All the different cliques are starting to arrive. Everyone is anxious for the artists to do their thing. We're just backstage tuning up.
Here’s the punchline: the whole music vs. technology thing is simply political expediency and marketplace opportunism. Sure, there are true believers, but they do not represent the majority. There is a wave of music creators coming who already know how to code. The fans, do, too. And they are not opposed to coming together for the greater good. It’s not like the alt nation or the punks or the ’60s counterculture are suddenly irrelevant. Their role is to help young people understand how we got here. To encourage them to harness their own creativity and passion to "advancing progress and the useful arts," as laid out in the US Constitution. I consider this a more than sufficient to-do list."