If the opening salvos of MIDEM 2012 on Saturday seemed to be dominated by technology and internet-based content aggregators, throughout Sunday and Monday (thus far at least) I witnessed a great deal of talk back from various content creators and their representatives who are not particularly happy with the emerging music industry paradigms and are seeking to find a third path.
Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m., I attended a press conference with the provocative moniker “Commerce or Chaos.” Among the speakers was Principle Management’s Managing Director Paul McGuinness (who reps, among many others, the band U2) who expressed astonishment at the “extraordinary greed” of technology companies including ISPs and manufacturers, “Why are they not more far-sighted and generous? Why are they not trying to solve this?” At the same time he acknowledged from an audio perspective that the overall “low quality of internet music is an accidental conspiracy.”
Yves Riesel, president of an internet-based music company called Qobuz which purports to have a more equitable remuneration model as well as to be the first and only CD quality audio download service, countered that the problem is that most web and tech initiatives did not originate with folks from the music sector: “There is no love of music in these tech companies. There is no one in charge of classical music in France for iTunes; just one person for all of Europe.” He also stated that standards for the quality of metadata should be included in copyright protection. French entertainment lawyer Pierre-Marie Bouvery pointed out that despite the current anti-copyright rhetoric of people who claim to be representing free speech, copyright has never been something against free speech. Rather these anti-copyright positions are ultimately about ensuring that regulations are not imposed on big businesses which have been reaping huge financial benefits from an environment without any kind of regulation. Perhaps the most outspoken panelist, however, was Robert Levine, the German-based American author of a bestselling 2011 book called Free Ride that is highly critical of internet business practices. He explained that over the last decade his opinions about the online sphere have changed considerably. Whereas once he believed it could give individuals more control and was therefore an unequivocally positive environment, now he’s far more skeptical.
These technologies are not giving bands more control; they’re giving technology companies more control. The issue [of having a completely unregulated internet] has been framed as the “people” vs. “the man,” but look and see what side the big companies are on regarding this issue.
He acknowledged that as a freelance journalist, his own efforts to receive remuneration as a content creator are diminished by news aggregating blogs which he described as inherently parasitic, which is why he feels empathy for music creators. He was unabashedly blunt in his criticism of Creative Commons (which only has one artist on its fifteen-member board) and Google, particularly Google’s tactics in lobbying the United States congress against SOPA (the recently defeated Stop Online Piracy Act), a campaign on which Google spent some $11 million according to Open Secrets (which he pointed out was far in excess of the $2.6 million spent by MPAA in pro-SOPA lobbying). Plus, in addition to their placement of an anti-SOPA banner on the Google homepage, Wikipedia’s blackout day suspiciously occurred right after they had been given a $2 million donation from Google. According to Levine, “If NBC put a banner on their screen supporting SOPA everyone would have been outraged, but no one was outraged by Google using their homepage to promote an anti-SOPA position.”
In the afternoon I attended a session about performers’ incomes in a digital economy (in French, but luckily there were headphones for instant translation). The session featured a group of four speakers, all of whom work for SPEDIDAM, a performing rights society that collects revenue for recording artists—roughly the French version of Sound Exchange in the USA. According to SPEDIDAM’s estimates, there should be a remuneration of somewhere between 4 to 9.5 euros per household per month to account for internet usage of music, but that obtaining such remuneration will ultimately have to occur as a result of governmental legislation. At the same time, it was pointed out that the current, mostly non-remunerative system for recording artists is largely the fault of the major record labels, who were interested in maximize corporate profits rather than sharing revenue and, in the old paradigm, rarely gave recording artists fair remuneration. According to SPEDIDAM’s President Jean-Paul Bazin:
The system of making recordings is tantamount to blackmail to performers. Producers and labels own everything. It is important to remember that the record industry wants to keep this money for themselves. […] The wrong choices were made by industrialists who refused to make their catalogs available in new platforms.
After all the talk about economic inequities between individuals and large corporations, my brain was reeling. Luckily at around 4:00 p.m., there were parties at exhibition stands with various countries offering regional drinks and foods. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) pooled their resources for some really nice offerings—Swedish meatballs and bottles of beer, but the Czech republic was offering the herbal liqueur Becherovka with delicious sausages. The Belgians lured folks to their area with various lambics, but Switzerland perhaps gets top prize for serving white wine made from a nearly extinct Swiss grape called Heida along with the requisite fondue.
The evening, however, belonged to Singapore, at least for me. This was the first year that Singapore has ever participated in MIDEM and from while I was still in New York City, they were already lobbying hard for me to attend the first-ever showcase of Singaporean bands during MIDEM at a local club named DaDaDa. So I did and I brought along with me representatives from music information centres from Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Greece. We were regaled with a succession of six different bands. Randolf Arriola performed one-man-band versions of some trippy, drony originals as well as a cover of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” If that lulled anyone into a dream state, they were quickly awoken by a phenomenal percussion group called Wicked Aura Batucada that had at least 12 players (it was hard to tell) and a lead singer who had a penchant for climbing up on the bar while singing.
There was even some Singaporean rap, from a group called SIXX. It was quite hard to catch the words, but at one point I thought I heard, “It’s contagious; it’s outrageous.” Indeed. Most of it seemed to have nothing to do with the traditions of Singapore, which is comprised of a large percentage of ethnic Chinese and Malays, but most of the bands were very integrated between these two groups and at one point Kewei, a female singer who performed with several of the bands, pulled out what sounded like an erhu and played a dizzyingly virtuoso solo for about a minute. The show came to an end with a brief set by Zero Sequence, which claims to be the only progressive rock band in Singapore. They’re quite an elaborate outfit which unabashedly carries on the legacy of mid-1970s British prog. Although according to their manager who spoke with me earlier in the day, the band members are also fans of American bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. To bring the set to a rousing conclusion, one of the band members conducted the rest of the group in a bombastic cadence. Following their closing note, I wandered back to my hotel in the pouring rain in order to catch a few hours of sleep before it all started again this morning.