The always-tense discussion of how musicians make money -- and ought to make money -- in the era of YouTube, streaming services, and easy piracy turned into a fiery debate between a diehard punk rocker and a major rock band manager at the SF Music Tech Summit yesterday.
In a packed mid-morning conference room at the Kabuki Hotel, Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray insisted that "society needs to demand" an end to rogue piracy sites, and punish Google and other advertising networks that do business with them. Ray, whose real name is Raymond John Pepperell, held up a screenshot from the site MP3Skull.com showing links to free downloads of the Bay Area punk icons' music and, next to them, ads for companies like Alaska Airlines and 1-800 Flowers.
"There's opportunists on the Internet that have taken advantage of the artists," he said, at one point calling them "pimps." The slim royalties from streaming services, coupled with the proliferation of free MP3s online, meant the music industry was "selling a free ride on a carnival horse, but they're starving the carnival horse." (He said he liked the Internet for some purposes, and made it clear that he wasn't attacking individual fans who download the band's music for free.)
Squaring off against Ray -- and constantly getting interrupted by him -- was Steve Rennie, manager of Incubus and former major-label exec. Rennie didn't exactly champion the current system as a model of fairness, but said the new communication tools of the Internet, coupled with new and old revenue streams, meant the industry was "not as fucked up as it used to be."
"You've got to figure out where the money is," Rennie said, at one point getting so agitated with Ray that he gave the panel moderator, Digitalmusic.org's Antony Bruno, a rather stiff slap on the shoulder. "The music part of this equation" -- meaning the revenue equation -- "is not going to ever be what it was."
Ray didn't want to hear it. He launched into long, combative, and occasionally very entertaining tirades about pimps, data-mining, and how "the Internet is not the weather -- it was created by humans." Thus, he argued, it should be improvable by humans.
Future of Music Coalition's Kristin Thomson, who offered the only non-anecdotal data about how musicians today make money, didn't get a chance to say much. But she did helpfully remind Ray -- who recently made news for criticizing YouTube's paltry payouts -- that even in its golden era, MTV didn't pay royalties, either.
That midmorning panel was the liveliest we saw at the 12th SF Music Tech Summit, which gathers artists, techies, industry execs, and wannabes to Japantown twice a year to shake hands, argue, brag, pontificate, drink coffee, and shake more hands. Yesterday's summit, more than previous editions, offered a broad slate of interesting-sounding panels. (Full disclosure: Your author missed several of those interesting-sounding panels while he hosted a mellow afternoon session about the history of Noise Pop with festival founders and longtime techies Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland.)
One afternoon talk offered Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, RelativeWave software wiz Max Weisel, and others pondering "How We Will Experience Music in the Future." Weisel started fireworks among the large audience when he suggested that it is (or will soon be) possible to write software that learns an individual person's taste and can write music they would enjoy -- maybe more than any other music.
Audience members, some of them visibly astonished, quickly defended the necessity of intangible human intent in creating any "real music." Weisel countered by played a few seconds of of the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 from the tinny speakers of his laptop through the table microphone. It turned out the music was actually being "played" by a piece of software, he said. And hearing the computer's slurred, ungainly take on what should be a fluid, balletic passage, you could easily tell.
As longtime Gang of Four nuts, we were rapt hearing Dave Allen briefly recount an early show at the Temple Beautiful in S.F. with the Buzzcocks. (He said it was '78, but judging from the band's gig history, it looks like it was actually '79.) Allen said the band was exhausted, and asthmatic frontman Andy Gill collapsed onstage -- but was saved when the fans threw him their inhalers. Allen then asked, hopefully, if anyone in the room yesterday had been at that show. No one had.