It was 2000, and Napster — an online service that allowed users to swap and download MP3 files for free — was growing at a viral rate. In just under a year, the site’s 20-million-person user base tripled, as people shared artist discographies and top-10 singles with a single click. CD sales plummeted. Artists rebelled. The music industry was shaken.
“We were thinking, ‘Something is going to happen with this Internet thing,’” Future of Music Coalition CEO Casey Rae said. “You get the sense that a chunk of the community was freaking out about it, saying, ‘Oh no, it’s completely going to mess up our business models.’ They were right.”
That same year, a group of musicians and artist advocates formed the Future of Music Coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights and proper compensation of artists in the evolving industry. The FMC held its first policy summit in 2000, bringing musicians, producers, major label representatives and government officials together to discuss piracy, CD sales and the death of vinyl; they met in Gaston Hall.
“The idea was, the Internet could actually not be the worst thing in the world for the independent music industry, provided that we pull together and try to figure it out,” Rae said. “And so the very earliest conference reflected that idea. Let’s get everybody who possibly has a stake in this conversation in a room, because it’s just that important. To some extent, that really created the framework for the summit even to this day.”
On Monday and Tuesday, musicians and policymakers gathered at Georgetown again for the summit’s 15th iteration, this time in Lohrfink Auditorium in the Rafik B. Hariri Building. Many of the pressing issues discussed, including music streaming, data, artist compensation and artist advocacy, stemmed from the same discussions at the 2000 summit.
“It’s not like we’ve come out of summit for 15 years with a five-point plan of how we’ll fix the music industry,” Rae said. “But we do promote a more diverse industry that isn’t just one model — respect for artists who aren’t and don’t want to compete at a Taylor Swift, Beyoncé level.”
Crafting Music’s Future
In the past 15 years, Georgetown has hosted major players in music and policy at FMC summits, including musician and author Patti Smith, Fugazi singer and Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye, R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs and various senators and Federal Communications Commission officials.
In panel discussions — this year, on topics ranging from music education to streaming services to the future of radio — participants discussed their perspectives on the industry and engaged in debates. In one particular panel discussion called “Herding Cats in Theory and Practice: Musicians Making Impact,” Grammy-Award-nominated artist Tift Merritt, American Federation of Musicians Executive Board Member Andy Schwartz and Downs, among others, discussed how musicians could make an impact on policy discussions. In another, five music managers, including former Pink Floyd and The Clash manager Peter Jenner of Sincere Management, explored the complicated decisions they have faced in the increasingly digital music world.
The primary demographic of the summit is content creators, namely artists, musicians, songwriters and composers. The FMC provides some conference scholarships to musicians who cannot afford the $249 general registration fee. The fee, which goes to pay speakers and rent space at the university, is relatively low compared to those of other similar industry conferences, Rae said.
“We want musicians to be able to encounter information that they might not otherwise encounter because they don’t fly around the world to go to all the other industry conferences about the music industry and digital technology,” Rae said.
Despite targeting creative types, the business and policy components attract other music industry members, including producers, lawyers and businesspeople, as well as delegates from the U.S. Copyright Office, the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“Being that we’re in D.C., there’s also a focus not just on the marketplace stuff and how the technologies are evolving, but also public policy,” Rae said.
Students from the Berklee College of Music, Monmouth University, Northeastern University and Georgetown paid $25 to attend this year’s summit.
An Inextricable Link
The partnership between FMC and Georgetown formed naturally, since two founding members of the coalition, Jenny Toomey (COL ’90) and Michael Bracy (COL ’90), attended the university. Rae is also an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s communications, culture and technology graduate program.
“We like the Georgetown environment,” Rae said. “When we look at the creative industries, we also imagine the public good, we also imagine a social good, the ability to express oneself creatively as a kind of social justice. The values at Georgetown very much align. And departmentally, there are a lot of great professors who are really invested in these types of conversations.”
Two Georgetown professors — Anna Celenza, Bernard Cook — participated in panels at this year’s summit. Celenza, who began working at Georgetown in 2006 to develop its American musical culture major program, sends students in two of her courses to the summit for free. One of the courses, a seminar on the music industry, is designed entirely around the summit.
“Up to this point in the semester, all we’ve been doing is preparing so that the students hit that conference and really understand what’s going on,” Celenza said. “We’ve talked about copyright laws, we’ve talked about digital media now, we’ve talked about entrepreneurial processes so that they can go to the conference and really network.”
Cook, the director of the film and media studies department, said he encourages his students to attend the summit to network with big names in the music industry.
“FMC enables our students and faculty to meet and to talk with artists, managers, programmers, record label executives, digital consultants, politics, policy-makers and many others invested in the cultural significance of music,” Cook wrote in an email to the hoya.
WGTB Georgetown Radio Events Coordinator Bianca Soler (MSB ’16) participated in a panel on the future of radio after networking with FMC staffers at a previous summit. She said Georgetown’s location in D.C. makes it the perfect place to discuss policy that deeply affects artists.
“In D.C., we have access to really making a change,” Soler said. “Really having policymakers present who have heard about the issues in the music industry and changed their vote. That was the main reason I think it was in D.C. There have been a lot of important people from Congress and from the FCC who have been present, and I think that’s what really makes the FMC Summit a policy summit. That’s why I think the Georgetown community has really supported it.”
A Changing Landscape
According to the 2014 Nielsen Music U.S. Report, on-demand streaming jumped 54 percent last year, with 164 billion songs streamed through platforms like Spotify and Pandora.
In contrast, physical and digital albums and track sales declined by 14.9 and 9.4 percent, respectively. The growth of streaming services and music piracy, among other factors, has cut into artists’ profits. According to Spotify’s revenue model, artists make as little as 0.6 cents every time their song is streamed; to make $100 in royalties, a song must be played 16,666 times.
In a panel discussion on musician impact, Merritt said that the music industry is failing.
“I’m a working musician and I make records and I write,” Merritt said. “In essence, I have a small business, and I’ve watched the economy of this small business pretty much fall to pieces over the course of the last 10 years because of the changes in the music economy.”
Merritt explained that making an album automatically puts small artists into debt that is nearly impossible to recoup through online streams and tours.
“I hemorrhage money when I go on tour with a full band,” Merritt said. “I stay up at night worrying about how I can pay these 50-year-old men what they deserve, because they’ve spent their whole lives studying their instruments. They’re true craftsmen.”
To Jenner, who managed Pink Floyd with its original lineup, the digitization of the industry has proven disastrous, making artist-fan connections less personal and minimizing opportunity for innovation. In the late 1960s, Pink Floyd’s success grew out of the psychedelic underground London music culture, its fame built on a thriving fan community.
Jenner said the growth of electronic music can be attributed to the fact that the music is simply cheaper to make. An artist does not have to pay a drummer or guitarist like Merritt, but can produce the sounds himself on a keyboard instead. Jenner said the craft associated with making music is becoming less important in an age of digitally created sound and auto-tune.
“It’s all part of a ‘deskilling’,” Jenner said. “There’s becoming less and less people employed in music, and yet the number of pieces of music is expanding and expanding. The machine is such a great opening, but it seems to be closing so many doors because people don’t want to go out. They’re just sitting at home on Facebook and playing games and maybe making their own records instead of going out. It also undermines community. They’re not going out to shows and they’re not meeting each other there.”
Content Creators Coalition Executive Director Jeffrey Boxer, who works to advocate for artist rights through lobbying and unionization in D.C., said that artist engagement and honest discussion is key to solving some of the industry’s major problems.
“The music business has lost 60 percent of its value in the last 15 years,” Boxer said. “If there was an inside industry solution to this problem that did not require new pathways and helping musicians stand up for themselves, people in the industry would have fixed it. Nobody gives up 60 percent of their industry value willingly. Nobody.”
To develop solutions, Boxer said it is necessary to form advocacy groups and work with lawmakers to affect change and ensure fair pay for all content creators.
“If you want to talk about the fact that your music being taken from you is unfair, that’s a political conversation, except we have a political system that’s set up not to listen to it,” Boxer said. “You overcome that by organizing.”
Where Music and Policy Intersect
Since the FMC’s inception in 2000, the group has aimed to actively affect music policy discourse in the District through lobbying and research projects.
The nonprofit, in addition to organizing the summit, submits artist testimony to lawmakers, translates difficult-to-understand contracts and laws for musicians and creates original research on topics including artist revenue streams and commercial radio. Over the past 15 years, they have researched and worked with policymakers on issues such as copyright, net neutrality and artist compensation.
“The crazy thing is that, back in the ancient times, some of the stuff that got floated as potentials became reality on the marketplace side or definitely informed the policy discussion and outcomes,” Rae said. “A really clear one would be net neutrality. There’s a lot of people involved in this policy debate going back 10 years, but we were there right at the beginning.”
Rae said that in addition to FMC’s work, he has noticed that discussions at summits have led to real policy changes. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) participated in a summit discussion about net neutrality in 2009, which Rae said helped the senator develop a robust platform supporting the issue. The FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality in February.
“It ended up being a core platform for [Franken], to this day,” Rae said. “He really found his voice on that issue at our event. After his keynote, he sat down with Mike from R.E.M., and they talked more about it. That moved the needle and created the opportunity for more folks in our community to talk about the issue.”
The summit has also affected radio deregulation policy following the Telecommunications Act of 1996. A 2002 FMC study found that two companies controlled 45 percent of radio industry revenues and 42 percent of listeners, and explained that this oligopoly was harmful to the diversity of the music industry. In 2003, the then-FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein commended the study.
“We were sending letters to the FCC and Congress signed by rock stars. Summit is the place where a lot of this context can emerge,” Rae said. “Congress is taking it very slowly, but examining copyright rules and laws. We want to make sure whatever the proposals are adequately reflect the views of creators.”
As policy changes in the next 15 years, Rae said he hopes the FMC Policy Summit will be at the heart of the discussion, working through issues in the heart of Georgetown’s campus.
“I can’t predict with certainty what’s going to be the thing that moved the needle,” Rae said. “But after 15 years of doing this, we still have plenty of opportunity to highlight issues and demonstrate values coming from the people that we care about and, most importantly, help them develop their own sense of agency.”
As the music industry evolved from 2000 to 2015, the FMC has remained invested in its future, spreading its roots in the Georgetown community. To Rae, the symbiosis between the summit and the university is extraordinary.
“All of these things that inform the conversation that we have within Summit get reflected out back to the entire university and the folks who attend and the professors and scholars who participate or observe the event,” Rae said. “That’s a really beautiful thing. That’s why Georgetown.”
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that three Georgetown professors participated in panels. In fact, only two professors, Anna Celenza and Bernard Cook, participated.