Casey Rae is a musician, artist advocate and the Interim Executive Director of Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit research, education and advocacy organization for musicians. Throughout his career, he has been an artist, engineer, producer, music journalist and is currently also an adjunct professor of communications, culture and technology at Georgetown University. He has worked with bands and artists including Drowning Man, The Cancer Conspiracy, Five Seconds Expired and Ryan Power.
Casey talked to me about the work the Future of Music Coalition is doing to re-shape policy and Copyright Law to better address the needs of artists and creators in the Digital Age. He also shared some of the topics that will be discussed at this year’s Future of Music Summit on October 28 and 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Thanks for talking to me, Casey. How did you get into the music business?
I grew up enthralled by music. I entered the state university jazz program when I was 16. And I was there for about two years before I freaked out and wanted to go out and start performing. That took up a chunk of the ‘90s, and then I got into production and did a lot of editing, mixing and mastering on records. Then I found myself writing about music a lot and ended up being an editor at a local alt news weekly for about three or four years.
I’ve worked with tons of artists, some of them known some of them unknown. I was based in Burlington, Vermont for many years, so I worked with a lot of artists in the Northeast, all the way down to Boston. I also worked with some people in Montreal.
When I was a music editor from around 2003-2007, the industry was really being transformed by digital. I started getting interested in what was happening structurally. I didn’t realize that there were so many intersections between the music industry and this other hobby of mine: public policy. I’ve always been interested in public policy and politics, even as a little kid. I even wrote some essays in childhood about politics that would get me invited to state houses, etc. I had no idea that these two areas of focus in my life – music and politics – could ever line up.
Prior to your career, the only intersection was some of the stuff Rage Against the Machine was doing.
Yes. And I was at least savvy enough to understand that the band’s politics didn’t entirely line up with their record deal. And I wasn’t a super hardcore punk kid either.
Eventually, I decided to move to Washington, D.C. on a whim, with no agenda. I got here, and I was casting about for a month. Then I saw the Future of Music Coalition that had been around since 2000 and was working on figuring out, analyzing and documenting the trends and changes in the music industry and trying to translate that for musicians. We all have a sense of what happened to the industry because it is being discussed everywhere. But musicians have not always been included in that conversation. In the mid-2000s, that idea was a new and exciting thing. Now I’m happy to say that a lot of musicians are getting involved in the conversation for all different quarters.
When I first got involved with the Future of Music Coalition, we were trying to bring some original research to the discussions in Washington, because a lot of the decisions being made in Washington affect the entire music ecosystem. And that is not always apparent.
Well, and often it’s totally invisible. Ten years later, many musicians are just finding out about SoundExchange, which of course resulted in a massive policy shift.
And there are new revenue streams. What my organization has been trying to do since 2000 is to help musicians understand the changing landscape that previously I and others were only intuiting as musicians and people working with music. And of course, a lot of the issues acutely impacting music have also been impacting journalism. And the Future of Music Coalition has been documenting these issues in a way where the musician is the main focus.
Our goal is to get that information in front of the decision makers, because I don’t think they mean to not focus on the musician when they are creating policy that impacts them directly. But I don’t think these decision makers hear from anyone except industry trade groups that have been in Washington since the beginning of time. They all have valid perspectives as well, and some of their agendas may line up with musicians’ agendas, but they are ultimately focused on making sure they continue to make money. They are approaching this from the lens of their position in the marketplace. Their reasoning makes sense, but they certainly don’t speak for musicians a lot of the time.
When we are doing our research and analysis at the Future of Music Coalition, we are always interested in translating it so it is actually useful for the musician, songwriter, composer, policy makers and the media, so they can get a grasp of what this means to an all-too-silent constituency. And we do that beyond our research and analysis by keeping our ears open and listening to the artists, managers and indie labels that are out there doing this stuff.
We don’t take a hard advocacy position, as we’re a 501c3 and not a lobby shop. But we do get involved in advocacy. We just mostly try to get out of the way and let those people offer up their perspective directly. We want to be a conduit. As I mentioned, historically what happens in Washington, D.C. happens at the stroke of midnight, behind closed doors, often without the participation of the people who the policies will affect. And there has been a lot of industry input, but that’s not the full picture.
We’ve spent the last 15 years trying to input information into that process. One of the ways we do that is our Future of Music Summit. And our 12th Summit will be happening this year on October 28 and 29 in D.C. We try to create a safe space where everyone can get together and have an open dialogue about these issues in a transparent way. Folks can be held accountable for what they are saying and discuss the issues that impact the entire music and in some cases the entire creative ecosystem might be going, but with a focus on the creators.
What are the big issues that will be addressed at the Summit this year?
Policy is our “special sauce,” because we’re situated in the nation’s capital, and this is a unique opportunity for policy makers to interact with our community and vice versa. It’s an incredibly exciting, but very uncertain time. This digital transition that has been happening since 2000 is still very much ongoing. People thought they would solve it in five years, but it’s a work in progress.
A lot of the topics we discuss in a big sense at our conferences have been surrounding making sure the artists have audience access. And now, that seems like an obvious concept, because of all the opportunities the Internet offers. But those opportunities weren’t always there.
Sometimes we’ll talk about deeply unsexy things like radio. What a lot of people don’t know is that radio did a complete turnaround in the mid-1990s because of a bill called the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That bill did a lot of different things – some good, some really not good. One of the not good things it did was remove the caps from the number of stations a broadcasting company could own. So, overnight, you went from a lot of Mom and Pop stations to most stations being owned by Clear Channel. People don’t talk about that very much, but that is an access to audience issue. And we’re trying to figure out how to rethink that space while also nurturing non-commercial radio. And non-commercial radio people are doing a lot of work breaking bands, because bands come from local markets. And the diversity of the music in those places is often reflected in the local radio stations. We’re hoping to shine the light on that type of radio as a valuable resource.
The other side is the Internet. In this universe, it seems like you can access, experience and discover music anywhere. At one point there was an effort by service providers to turn music access into something like what you see with cable television. We talk about the Internet as the backbone of a legitimate digital music marketplace. We hate piracy and think musicians should be paid for their work, but we also understand that this particular ecosystem is where it’s at in terms of people trying to grow their careers today. We want to make sure musicians still have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field alongside the biggest companies. We’ve seen so much consolidation within our industry that if we simply grafted the old analog world onto digital and called it solved, we wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors.
It’s unfortunately how most people still think, though. Most people seem to be caught up in printing far too many CDs that people don’t want. The album release continues to be the cornerstone of most artist marketing plans. In a lot of ways, the industry still functions as though recorded music is the center of the universe.
And it makes perfect sense. People also talk about missed opportunities by labels in the mainstream industry. When you’re used to doing business a certain way for decades, and something as disruptive and difficult to understand as the Internet comes along, it’s really difficult to steer that Titanic. The era of casting stones against the major labels and publishers for their inability to adapt to a sudden and transformative shift is over.
I don’t even blame the majors. I think artists of all sizes are just anchoring themselves around recorded music.
That’s the other part of it. In the big sense, we’re trying to make sure we don’t compromise the very essential structures that allow artists to have a shot at reaching audiences, because the narrative around copyright issues, artist rights, new business models, etc. has become huge. And we talk a lot about those and do tons of work around those issues. But I think it’s important to still understand that access to audiences is critical. The old days weren’t so great, because the majority of creators – no matter how talented – were not going to have as much of a shot at reaching audiences. For example, if you were a bluegrass band in 2002, the era of boy bands, you were not going to be very successful reaching people.
The other thing that’s coming up lately is copyright, because Congress is showing some appetite for reviewing existing laws and maybe updating them for the Digital Age.
And I would imagine you are looking at issues such as what YouTube has been doing to pay or not pay publishers, because there are so many documented missing royalties.
Black boxes have always been a problem in the industry. And generally, when we’re talking about the new digital marketplace as part of the Future of Music Coalition, we have some very basic, core principles we want advanced. Transparency is big – transparency and accuracy to avoid those black boxes and make sure musicians are properly compensated when their music is used on any platform.
I think the other concept is that the laws have to be equitable and fair to creators, because, even if musicians don’t understand some of the finer points of digital concepts, they do get the fact that there is money out there, and someone is making it. We want to make sure they are cut into that.
The third piece of this – and how you get to the first two – is leverage. The average artist doesn’t have leverage on a platform like Spotify. If you’re on a major label, and you have a major label going to bat for you, you might have some leverage. But the terms are still under a non-disclosure agreement and subject to the terms of your contract. And these terms might be on page 368 of your 360-degree deal – the terms that tell you how much you get paid in pennies per stream after the label recoups.
There are a lot of things that aren’t particularly transparent in this new marketplace, and that’s a huge failing, because technology can give us the opportunity to be more open with data and information.
And we have the ability to do a lot of digital watermarking, etc. Someone who knows a lot more about publishing and royalties than I do posed to me recently that if the accounting of PROs came to light with all the new technology there is to track it, and they had to pay out everything they owe everyone down to the penny, they would go under. There is so much accuracy in the Digital Age that there is also a problem on the other side.
I think that touches on one of the biggest difficulties of this transition: A lot of the systems that were working as well as they could – and they could still be criticized in some ways – were designed for an analog era and not an era of ubiquity and abundance. They were not designed for an era of granularity in terms of data and monitoring data.
It’s interesting, because a lot of those organizations like PROs, labels and publishers do represent leverage for artists in these business model debates. I think there are a lot of folks that want to do the right thing, but aligning the incentives is not always easy.
Then, when you get this general sense that copyright is what shapes what happens in the marketplace and what is permissible in the creative industry side and the user side. And it affects the business models, which of course affect all the structures that are put in place to keep that machine lubricated. Everybody has a sense that it might be time to do something about our copyright laws, but no one wants to disrupt the status quo. It’s a delicate thing. The last complete copyright overhaul was in 1976, which was decades before the Internet. And they started debating that overhaul in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, so you can see that it takes a while. However, technology is not on that same timeline. It marches ahead at light speed and advances at an exponential rate.
People often ask, “Why don’t musicians just come together?” Well, the Future of Music Coalition is comprised of musicians and independent labels and folks who have been doing this for a long time. We were founded by people in the D.C. punk and post-punk scene. We knew intuitively that musicians are not part of a monolithic group. And all our research into their revenue streams and general attitudes about digital technology is that they are not a monolithic group. There’s a range a range of perspectives on everything from protecting rights to how business models should work. But again, copyright shapes the entire digital marketplace. It shapes the legitimate digital music services that we’re starting to see now, because we did have some open and accessible Internet resources. That’s how Spotify and iTunes have grown. People complain about the way they pay out, but they are legitimate digital marketplaces that did not exist pre-2003. And we want to leave that universe open to further development, because that’s how you attract consumers and grow respect for legitimate services so you can fight against piracy.
But there’s still a lot of tension between the idea of an open, accessible Internet that allows for the development of tools musicians use every day, like Twitter, Facebook and other platforms and the same type of Internet that makes it difficult for a lot of music to get real traction. And here’s one of the biggest issues: This type of Internet also makes investment in real music careers really challenging. That has been the most difficult and the most unanticipated thing. At the beginning of this disruption, a lot of people didn’t necessarily think all this technology was going to be so bad. Many of us thought, “Maybe we can cultivate relationships with fans more easily and not have to go through so many gatekeepers and middlemen.”
On the other hand, this has been rough in terms of return on investment in music itself. There has been a lot of investment in the platforms, but at the same time not as much investment as before in music careers. And we certainly don’t have all the answers yet; there’s not a five-point plan to fix the current state of affairs. But at the Future of Music Coalition, we do think policy makers in congress and at federal agencies and the White House need to consider the experience of musicians themselves when they get into the weeds on copyright issue.
That’s why we do all the work we do when it comes to research, education and advocacy and also why we bring so many different types of people together from the music community at our Summit: songwriters; managers; non-profit organizations; technology companies; policy makers and others. Every single player has a tiny little piece of the puzzle. The days when we think one sector has all the right answers and can be trusted to make all the decisions are over. We have to work together if we think the music industry is worth investing in and nurturing.
To learn more about Casey Rae and the work he is doing for artists and the music industry through the Future of Music Coalition, check out the Artist Revenue Streams (ARS) research project.