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Interview w/ Jenny Toomey, Future of Music Coalition
By Margee Fagelson
(more articles from this author)
2001-01-03
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[Margee] Why did you form the coalition?

[Jenny] It was just the necessary next step, I think. Originally, Kristin Thomson (who had been in Tsunami and runs Simple Machines with me) and I began looking at the music and technology space to try to figure out a way to get our diminishing back catalog back in print. We wanted to do something really simple -- what we thought would be simple -- we wanted to identify the best technologies out there for indie artists to use and to share that information so that indie artists wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. We also wanted to create an educated and artist-centered presence in the space so that music technology companies would know that there was an unbiased site critiquing and praising what they did and keeping them honest.

So basically, Kristin and I had put out a guide to putting out records that just was the basic tools for putting out records and we thought, "Hey let's do this for digital downloads. We have to do it for ourselves, we have to learn this stuff so we can make better choices, and we might as well share the information." Very quickly, however, we began to get concerned about larger issues that would have a far greater impact on indie artists than the more trivial details of which compression format they choose to use to upload music files.

For example, this time last year many indie labels were signing exclusive digital download contracts with companies that had no established track record, in a market that had no established track record. This was a huge red flag for us. At the time, Emusic was dominant in the space and had an interesting business model, they were attempting to sell digital downloads for 99 cents apiece. They were offering large advances to indie labels to sign exclusive digital download contracts for their entire catalog. This looked really wonderful to a lot of indie labels a year and a half ago. 'Free money and someone to take over the responsibility of uploading my catalog! Where do I sign?'

Fast forward to now, a year and a half later, there are many labels that signed away their catalogue to these exclusive contracts. Emusic is far less powerful in the space, and as they hang near the bottom of the NASDAQ, their model seems less wonderful. As we move into the digital future there is much evidence to suggest that Emusic is not where these labels want their entire catalogue locked up. Sadly in many cases that's just tough luck for those labels that signed contracts and took advances. In many cases the advances were recoupable. In other words, if the labels didn't sell enough downloads through Emusic to pay back the advance, then Emusic still owns the catalog.

This is an example of the kind of issues that Kristin and I began to think about and as we moved around in the music/tech space. We met a bunch of people who contributed to our understanding. These folks made up the coalition. I was already working with Michael Bracy, who is one of the board members [FMC], because we had worked for the past two years on the Low Power Radio issue.

In my work with the Low Power Radio Coalition, I learned a lot about the power of moving relevant information out of the margins and into the eyes of the constituents who would most benefit from that information. The most successful work we did with Low Power Radio was just bringing the issue to the attention of the folks who would value the possibility of new stations the most, i.e. the musicians. Once musicians understood that there was a chance to have more radio stations on the dial, their commitment to the cause was immediate. After that it was only a matter of getting their voices to the people who would make the decisions. This meant that when certain policy makers decided to kill Low Power Radio or when they tried to say that LPR was 'not-viable' they would have to do it in the face of musicians they purported to care about, respect and love. Information makes it makes it harder for people to do things in a vacuum. I thought, "Wow, we could use that same technique to advocate for artists in the music technology space."

So, as we looked around and educated ourselves, I met many very smart folks, and interviewed them for The Machine, in order to share their perspective about the space. Two of my first interviews were Brian Zisk and Walter McDonough.

Walter is incredibly valuable to the coalition because he has a broad understanding of the entertainment industry, having worked as a music industry lawyer. He understands the insider details, the biases, the trends and limits of the traditional music business structure. These details are invaluable to me in particular because I've consciously worked in the independent music community my whole -- I don't know if I would call it a career --but my whole experience as a musician. Walter knows about the business I've consciously avoided and he knows where the legal bodies are buried. Ironically enough, another wonderful aspect of Walter is the fact that while he understands the details he also obsessed with the big picture. He's always looking six months down the road. Because of that, he's been incredibly accurate at understanding where we need to put our energy as an organization.

Interviewing Brian Zisk was incredibly interesting to me because he knew so much about the origins of open-source. The open-source technology community has a similar ethos to the punk rock community so he and I hit it off right from the start. Clearly, we had very different viewpoints with regards to copyright in those first conversations, but we also had similar beliefs concerning why people create and how communities form around creation and community activism. I think we've managed to temper and focus one another's views.

Brian is someone who is very excited about technologies like Napster; peer to peer sharing and open source but he also thoroughly loves musicians and fundamentally understands that they need to be compensated for their creation. In our conversations I was able to push him to focus on questions of compensation, (questions which many folks in the technology community are experts at avoiding.) In return, he was able to expose me to the limits Of -- at least the established -- encryption proposals. He was able to make me look beyond traditional compensation models that depended on encryption or a maximalist copyright view. That sort of give and take discussion between respected equals with opposing views is a model for the kind of communication I would like to see come out of our Policy Conference.

So, about 6 months ago I pulled the four of us together and decided to explore the fact that the sum of our parts was greater than our parts and that we all agreed that we wanted to work together on these issues. We created a manifesto and put it out there in the world, just to see if there were others who thought these questions, which were concerning us, needed to be addressed, publicly. And, as soon as we got the response -- a thousand people signed the manifesto in the first couple of weeks -- as soon as that happened, we knew we were on to something and just began working from there.

Actually, very shortly after we published the manifesto I was contacted by an old friend, Peter Dicola, who had just quit a snazzy consulting job. Within minutes of our first phone call he'd volunteered to spend the better part of his summer break doing economic research for us. When someone as bright and committed as Peter contacts you to volunteer you know that you're onto something.

[Margee] What do you hope to achieve with this conference, both imminently and long-term?

[Jenny] A lot of things. Some of them are very education based and personal; some of them are community based or more structural and activist. Let's be clear, these issues fascinate me. I can't read enough about them. I can't learn enough about them. I dream about them at night. So, personally, part of the excitement of this event comes from a selfish desire to self-educate and that's why we've pulled together many of the voices that most interest us. But on another level we're putting these "experts" on panels and getting them to answer questions that we think need to be answered publicly because they concern structures that will impact the public (the digital royalty, the DMCA, fair use etc.). These questions will impact musicians' ability to guard the value of their labor so they (the musicians) need to be in conversation with the people who will bless future structures. Their voice needs to be heard in this discussion.

One of the really interesting things that I've learned in the last six months, just from studying the American music industry and looking at the numbers, is the fact that the great majority of copyrights that are created, are created by folks that aren't served by the traditional system. These musicians make up the majority of the "rights holders" but they rarely weigh in on issues that effect them for several reasons. Often times their lack of involvement is attributed to a sort of laziness or a basic iconoclasm that's associated with artists. (We've all met tortured or crazy artists and there might actually be something legitimate to the concept of an 'artist's disposition' but I also think that those perceptions are self-destructive and self-perpetuating by a culture that thrives on a star-system and 'winner-take-all mentality.')

A far greater hurdle to overcome when organizing less famous musicians is their lack of free time due to lack of money. A recent NEA study used census data to reveal that most artists work two jobs to meet their household expenses. This lack of time when coupled with a history of disenfranchisement (i.e. lack of access to major promotion and distribution channels) makes it very difficult for these musicians to get together and see that they actually are the majority, as opposed to the minority.

It's my belief that if indie musicians would begin to see themselves as the majority, they might be able to wield that power in order to get the government -- as well as the technology, promotion and sales communities -- to create tools for them. Without new structures that cater to indie artists it is impossible to imagine a future where more than a handful of musicians will be able to make a living off the value of their artistic labor.

So, that's something of critical importance to me. We need to create a place where these questions, which are so important, are asked, but not from the perspective of the technology community or the established, major label music community, but from the position of what best helps the majority musicians.

Getting 300 musicians in the room asking questions and being treated as equals is one of the most important aspects of this event.

On top of that, our policy conference serves a basic function. Hopefully, if we can sell 200 tickets, we'll have the budget to be full-time activists next year. I also think that our ability to pull all these folks together has really underscored the truth that a lot of these issues aren't being fully covered. Just the fact that these respected folks will fly themselves to Washington, DC and pay their own expenses, for the privilege of arguing in real time, at an event like this, says that there's an aspect of the discourse which isn't being covered by the traditional structures, so far. Hopefully, we can step in and add to the debate.

[Margee] Who or what are you most excited about the conference --I mean, I know you'll be incredibly busy -- but is there one individual or faction that you're most excited about being represented at this conference?

[Jenny] One of the most exciting things that we're doing is comping these 300 musicians in. Every day I get these phone calls from people who say, "I run one of the two "all-accordion" stores in New York City and I want a comp to your event." And I get to talk to him about what would draw someone to open the all-accordion store in New York City. I got a phone call yesterday, from an African Arts Community Center in Washington, DC that are splitting up a couple sponsorships between a bunch of people, because no one can get two days off work. These are people who are asking incredibly basic questions like, "I'm really curious about putting a CD out," which may be, in some ways, below the radar of sort of the larger questions we're asking at the event. But the idea of getting these folks who are working through the basic details and exposing them to some of the larger questions, it's just really valuable.

Just meeting these folks is really fascinating to me, and beginning to see the similarities of artists and trying to figure out a way to actually get them to meet each other and learn about these issues and go on the record together. That's really fascinating. Artists have so much in common but they also tend to isolate themselves around styles, genres, themes, communities. This is another reason why it's hard to create the critical mass needed for activism. It's exciting to pull 300 in under the same tent.

One of the best things about these kinds of events is the accidental meetings, the cross-pollination. Who knows, in the right environment you might end up sitting next to someone who will change your entire thought process. To that end I'm really excited about the dinner that we're all going to go to the night before the whole event. I think everyone's going to be really jet lagged and excited and there's going to be all these brilliant, curious, active folks who I've never met before, meeting and fighting about these issues and sharing food.

I think that all the panels are going to be great. I don't know which one of them I wouldn't be interested in watching all the way through. I also love the idea of being able to be in such a gorgeous space as Gaston Hall and I can't wait to watch artists as brilliant as Kristen Hersh or Ida or Danielle Howle or the Rosenbergs. Every aspect of it is going to be really exciting to me. But then, I set it up this way.

[Margee] Besides attending the conference, what can the community do for you guys, to do their part?

[Jenny] They can be patient with us and give us the benefit of the doubt. I think a lot of times when someone stands up to try to ask a tough question or to try to change something big, a lot of other people measure these actions with unfair expectations. The fear of making mistakes is a huge impediment to activism. Many people with strong convictions are reluctant to stand up to try to change things simply because they are terrified that spotlight may turn on them and they might be seen as imperfect. So, the first thing that I want everyone to know about the FMC is we're all imperfect, we're tremendously flawed but we are genuinely committed to making the world a better place for musicians and we're all doing the best that we can. We're a very young organization; we've only existed for about six months. We are not players in the space, we are curious activists from different disciplines working with a lot of the different folks in this community and hoping to represent and respect a group of people that are under-represented and under respected. One of the first things that we ever get from people, when I'm being interviewed, is, "Which major artists do you represent? You say you represent artists. What famous artists do you represent?" It's interesting to me because - yeah - there are some famous artists that have come and talked to us and are excited about what we're doing and our agenda certainly benefits them as well. But far and beyond that, I think the most interesting thing for me about FMC is working to represent the 80% that are under represented. Trying to get them to understand their space, their understanding of themselves in the space, or more importantly to get the media community to value them is far more rewarding than finding a culturally accepted mascot or spokes-model.

The NEA did the first study ever on the value of artistic labor last year and it was a very little study, it just focused on one aspect, moonlighting. You know, these artists are completely under represented; they're under-looked at. We live in a culture that only values the people that are the hugest successes when all of this is so relative. People like American Music Club will win Rolling Stone's Best New Artist after 15 years of playing! And all those 15 years which led up to some arbitrary measure of them being the best new artist all seem invisible in the face that there's only one measure of fame, even though for ten years they were the exact same band before that. So, what other people can do is be patient with us. We're not going to be doing everything exactly the way that everybody would love us to do. I wish we were funded to the point where everyone who ever wanted to come to this event could come for free. And hopefully, with webcasting, it will at least provide access to exchanges, if not being in the room. There is such a feeling of disenfranchisement, and such a fear. A lot of these organizations that represent artists are trading on the power of the artist, without actually respecting them. They trot out the artists, like little ponies and say, "We're representing that pony." And then they send the pony away and then they represent their own interests. The two things I would really want from people is that they have patience with us and that they actually trust us enough to engage us, to suggest things. This kid in Cleveland was mad at us and then as soon as he realized that we weren't excluding him and that we wanted his participation, all of a sudden, he's got five things that he's going to do, including a benefit, a couple of months from now, which is so much more valuable than the four of us who are already overextended, trying to do everything for the entire country, which we would never presume to do.

[Margee] Seems to me that the opportunity to participate in this event is invaluable, but what about those among us who can't possibly get themselves to DC?

[Jenny] This is just the first of many things. I got on the phone with a professor the other day, who was furious at me for not knowing that he was the expert in the field. He was offended, that we had asked him to come, but that we hadn't put him on a panel. It's funny; I think that says two things. That says we've done a really good job because this guy's been on panels forever, and he's really mad that he doesn't get to be on ours. That means we've done a pretty good job, putting one together. And that said, one of the ways to hopefully console him, was to say, "You know, we're not planning on just doing this one event. There's going to be any number of opportunities." And there's so many issues out there, there are issues where like SoundExchange [the RIAA's Digital Royalty organization] where we are on the side, against the labels. But then on issues like the new, webcasting song performance royalty, we'll probably be on the side of the labels. There are so many things that could be made better, about the way that musicians live in the world. And so much that it's going to take a long time and lots of opportunities for folks to throw their hands in.

[Margee] Anything you'd like to add?

[Jenny] I'd just say also, that this is the most fun that I've had in years. I feel like I'm doing a PhD and meeting an entire planet of new friends and to have lucked into working with such incredibly generous and intelligent folks. And it seems like every day there's a phone call from another one. I would encourage anyone who has any desire to learn about something or to try to make a difference around things, to jump in and do it, because there's so much payback, in such a huge way. I really don't feel like I'm working for other folks, I feel like I'm getting so much more out of it than I put in.

Linkography

Emusic - www.emusic.com
RIAA - www.riaa.com
SoundExchange - www.soundexchange.com
The Machine - www.insound.com/machine

Related MusicDish e-Journal Articles:
» Interview w/ Kristin Thomson, Future of Music Coalition (2001-01-03)
» Interview w/ Peter DiCola, Future of Music Coalition (2001-01-03)
» Interview w/ Walter F. McDonough, Future of Music Coalition (2001-01-03)
» Interview w/ Michael Bracy, Future of Music Coalition (2001-01-03)
» Interview w/ Brian Zisk, Future of Music Coalition (2001-01-03)


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