Taking Charge


With its five-year-old annual policy summit, the Future of Music Coalition has made great strides in identifying issues in business, technology, and policy affecting career musicians, “the vast majority” of whom, its organizers note, “live gig to gig, unable to afford the basic protections and securities of life that allow them to continue making their art.” As independent artists develop and discover shortcuts to get their music out in spite of an inequitable and often corrupt industry, conferences like the FMC’s go a long way toward providing them a map.

Many are asserting control over their creations by taking charge of their copyrights and licensing. Melissa Ferrick, in a panel on “New Label/No Label Models,” illustrates one approach: Incorporate yourself, start your own label, hire your own distributors, and you’ll actually see your own royalties. Hers is a touring-based model. But if you’re a New York five-piece indie-rock band with sales in the four-figure range, and touring is a break-even proposition at best, the licensing-centric indie Magnatune label might be a better fit: focusing your energies on exploiting your existing catalog.

Exploiting catalog has long been the near exclusive province of ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC—performance rights organizations (PROs) whose member publishers license content to soundtracks, film school projects, commercials, and elsewhere in exchange for a hefty chunk of copyright ownership and whose blowhard honchos spent the FMC summit boasting of their support of songwriters and musicians while disingenuously pretending that all those performers own their own copyrights. Which is one reason John Buckman created Magnatune, non-exclusive and demanding no transfer of copyright. “I’m not gonna make you rich,” he explains to one bandleader after a panel, “but I’ll be a nice supplementary income source.”

Interesting avenues are developing in emerging media for artists who control their own work. Podcasts utterly depend on such material, trapped as they are in a no-man’s-land where the law doesn’t know if they’re downloads or performances for royalty purposes. Candace Corrigan, who podcasts a local-talent show called Nashville Nobody Knows, explained during a panel called “I Am the DJ” that she pays out fees to ASCAP and BMI to be on the safe side. However, as Ali Partovi of GarageBand observed, the PROs offer no license to podcast, so it’s unknown whether they distribute those fees to the correct member artists. Safer to stick to content owned by the authors and artists themselves, most podcasters find.

That policy of using what’s free and clear guides technological visionary Lucas Gonze. A programmer with roots in the peer-to-peer movement, Gonze appeared at the FMC summit to discuss Webjay, his project that helps people create playlists of audio (and some video) files that are freely available on the Web. It’s as much a social-behavior experiment as a methodology for artist promotion: Gonze deals in an idealized scenario wherein the should, the unspoken moral imperative, guides interaction and music sharing. “Today I asked one of the guys from Kill Rock Stars what their should was,” Gonze explains. “He said, ‘Well, for every album, there’s one song that we don’t care what people do.'”

The material Gonze recommends for his playlisters’ community is generally either public domain or Creative Commons licensed. Under Creative Commons, a growing “some rights reserved” copyright, creators set tiers at which they permit different levels of reuse, remixing, and redistribution of their work. The CC licenses make it easier to share songs (as in Webjay), sample and remix others’ works (as in ccMixter), and become part of a “pod-safe” community (as in GarageBand, which has gained a new lease on life through people perusing and podcasting content).

Artists who make their music freely available in this fashion take a risk in not going for the immediate sales. But as participants in a closing panel on “The Unheard Music” note, CDs aren’t exactly profit makers either. Rather, best to treat them as calling cards, use them and MySpace connections and collaboration partners to self-market. As celebrated avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp explains, if you’re good at what you do, there is an audience for it. And these emerging technologies and policies are making it easier to find that audience without the major labels, bringing artists steps closer to a more desirable middle-class existence.