Conference attendees agree: Music industry will never be the same

October 28, 2003


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 music.

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.