NEW YORK -- The annual
South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, retains an
inspiringly defiant underground/do-it-yourself spirit, despite being the
music industry's largest annual gathering.
In sharp contrast, the College Music Journal's Music Marathon has never
disguised the fact that it's designed to prepare young radio enthusiasts,
journalists and label entrepreneurs for a career in the music business.
The odd thing about the 23rd annual event, which drew thousands of
conference attendees and musicians to Manhattan for four days last week, was
that no one was sure that there will be a music industry for very much
longer -- at least not as currently defined by the major labels -- or what
the new model that will inevitably emerge might look like.
It's hard to prep for a career when nobody knows the job description.
Like SXSW, CMJ fills the days with panel discussions and workshops and
the evenings with showcase performances by bands from around the world. As
is often the case with entertainment events in New York, both tend to be
more about commerce than art, and they're dominated by hype rather than
The two most interesting panel sessions that I caught focused on the
state of radio in the midst of the FCC's ongoing drive to allow further
corporate consolidation and the Recording Industry Association of America's
efforts to outlaw file sharing.
With the exception of indie radio promoter Bryan Farrish, who sounded
like the captain of the Titanic as he consistently denied that there is a
problem, all of the panelists at the radio session decried the increasingly
concentrated ownership of America's radio stations by a handful of giant
companies like Clear Channel Communications, which they accused of turning
music broadcasting into a bland, soulless medium that is bought and paid for
by big business.
When a member of the audience asked if there is a better model, Rep.
Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) pointed out that radio thrived in America, offering
countless alternative viewpoints from 1934 until 1987, when the Reagan
administration began to knock down FCC regulations and allow a handful of
media giants to buy up hundreds of stations across the country.
"People have got to rise up against the offenses being perpetrated
against them" and protest the FCC's actions, Hinchey urged.
At a session on Saturday, I conducted a public interview with Michael
Weiss, the CEO of the company behind Morpheus, one of the best and most
popular online file-sharing programs to emerge in the wake of the old
Napster. Not surprisingly, the company has become a major target of the RIAA
and opponents of the free swapping of online music files.
Weiss is not new to this battle: A native Chicagoan, he opened this
city's first video rental store in 1978, on Lincoln Avenue near the Biograph
Theatre. He recalled how the Motion Picture Association of America (the
movie industry's trade group/lobbying arm) tried to shut him down because it
was convinced that the practice of renting video cassettes of feature films
would "destroy the movie business."
"Now, video rentals are a key part of the industry and a major
moneymaker," Weiss noted. He believes the same thing will happen with online
file sharing -- once the industry stops suing consumers and begins working
with Congress to set up a system for licensing and compensating artists for
songs that are downloaded online.
"The industry should be working on that instead of persecuting its
customers," Weiss said.