PCMag: Indie Music Panel Can’t Help Talking about Copyright

By Brian Heater

“I think it’s very telling that we’re talking about copyright,” Geoff Ralston, Lala’s new chief executive, began a panel discussion Thursday morning. “Every musical panel, you have a topic and then you start talking about copyright.”The topic for this one, held the morning of the CMJ. Music Marathon’s third day is “Music and the Digital Mobile Space.” Things started off well enough, but matters soon veered into the murky and sometimes mind-numbing world of copyright and music publishing.

“Don’t worry,” moderator Ted Cohen said, “we’re going to get back to mobile at some point.”

I don’t begrudge anyone the abrupt shift away from the scheduled topic, but Ralston’s comment was arguably the most astute of the panel. I took an hour off of work this morning for a very specific reason: to attend a panel about music in the mobile space – in retrospect, however, it was a little absurd to have expected that a music panel in the year 2009 would revolve around anything but publishing.

Whatever romantic notions you may or may not harbor about the music industry, ultimately it’s like any other business – it’s driven by the need to make money, so when you get representatives from record companies and mobile services on your panel, it’s ultimately going to lead back to the same root discussion. In the end, the fascination with the mobile space is rooted in its potential as one of, if not the major revenue sources for the music industry, moving ahead.

CMJ panels are also unique from a number of other musical forums in the diversity of its representatives. Judging from audience participation, I was one of the few audience members present who was approaching the subject from a largely technical point of view. There were a number of attendees from the publishing industry, labels, and bands; naturally, they all wanted to know how to make money off of these new technologies. Even indie rockers have to eat.

Ultimately the consensus was the same as it has been for the last several years at panels like this – mobile is the future – the issue is that no one knows exactly how to get there, which is a large part of the reason the progress has been relatively glacial in that space, and why Tunes still rules digital music.

Tim Quirk, a vice president at Rhapsody, stood by his site’s subscription solution as a viable alternative to the iTunes model. “iTunes was yesterday disguised as tomorrow,” asserted Quirk. “There’s no reason to walk around with 10,000 songs in your pocket.”

Lala, on the other hand, splits the difference somewhat, letting users buy streaming versions of songs that are accessible online at any time, but can’t be downloaded. “I agree that no one ever had a personal connection with a bit,” said Ralston, explaining his company’s stance on post-MP3 musical ownership, “but when you put a bunch of them together, they can make a beautiful sound.”

Cohen, for his part, went so far as to bet panel members that Apple will be rolling out iTunes subscriptions in the next 12 months – a bold prediction for a company so infamously tight-lipped about its business plans.

What really seems to trip up those in the position to make predictions about digital music’s “next big thing,” however, is this concept that there need be a next big thing. The thing is, it’s the technology itself that’s fragmenting our consumption. There will likely never again be a music platform as all-consuming as the radio, and that’s just fine. Given the option, music fans and casual listeners prefer to consume music in a way best tailored to them – which means, ultimately, that there’s a place for Rhapsody, Lala, and, yes, even iTunes, so long as – to beat that old drum – all are capable of demonstrating their ability to make money for all of those involved.

Whatever romantic notions may have first enamored people with the industry, in the end it’s hard to keep making music when you’ve got no money for food.


Posted by Ted • Friday, October 23, 2009 .