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Musicians, Record Companies Ponder Future of Music - 2003-01-11

With media consolidation, the advent of the Internet, and online music piracy, many musicians and record companies are wondering how their industry will continue to operate, and even what it may sound like in the years to come. VOA's David Clements attended the Future of Music Conference at Georgetown University to see how the recording industry plans to tackle these new challenges.

The conference opened with a rousing gospel song featuring Lester Chambers and the incoming Chairman of the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, Jonathan Adelstein. The chairman was on harmonica.

Chairman Adelstein in his suit and tie juxtaposed against Lester Chambers dressed casually in a leather jacket, set the tone for the entire conference. The audience was made up of artists with unique clothing and hairstyles next to professionals in business attire. Chairman Adelstien encouraged the diverse group to unify and make their voices heard. "It's critical that artists like yourselves become involved in the policy battles here in Washington," he said. "While the FCC doesn't oversee copyright law, the industries we oversee play a key role in distributing copyrighted material including: music, movies and television."

The FCC oversaw the 1996 Telecommunications Act enacted by Congress, which among other things - loosened radio ownership rules. After the 1996 act was enacted, Clear Channel and Viacom went from a combined 130 stations to more than 1,400.

In a study conducted two months ago, The Future of Music Coalition examined how consolidation in the commercial radio industry affected the music Americans hear. Ric Dube was one of the researchers for the coalition. "The argument for deregulation was that if one person was allowed to own several radio stations in a specific market, then they're going to want to counter-program, because they're not going to want to compete with their multiple properties," said Ric Dube. "It's actually a pretty compelling argument. Even though it might look like there are more and more different formats in a given market, they're playing many of the same songs. So even though the appearance is that radio is more different and varying, instead it's more and more homogenized."

If radio is really less open to new or more diverse music, where can musicians turn to be heard and promoted? Does the Internet hold a key? According to John Flansburgh of the alternative rock band "They Might be Giants," the answer is yes and no. "I don't think there's anything dangerous about a semi-professional or amateur songwriter posting his MP3 on the net and getting an email from some guy in Ireland saying, 'I like your song.' I think that's kind of great," he said. "But after a certain point, it seems like there's so much cultural noise that it's hard to figure out what could possibly be good. If you're inundated with a bunch of websites and bunch of home produced things that all look like they're home produced, there's something unappealing about trying to work your way through it."

Sites like offer a free outlet for independent musicians to be heard and promoted. While this is a nice service, the consumer is the one who has to find that rare musical gem. And with more and more people uploading recordings to independent music sites, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find that musical gem.

Is there any hope for new musicians? Internet radio, while small now, is expected to grow especially once wireless Internet becomes a common service. Unlike FM or AM stations, Internet broadcasters aren't limited in number and can be heard around the world.

However, new music licensing fees and reporting requirements have already discouraged a number of would-be Internet broadcasters from continuing. Another opportunity for up and coming musicians has its roots in the filesharing service Napster, the free music-sharing service that was shut down and deemed illegal by record companies. Rhapsody is a legal music streaming and downloading service. For 99 cents, a person can copy a single track to a recordable CD. So for about the same price as buying an album in a record store from a single artist, a Rhapsody user can create his or her own compact disc with just the songs they want to hear. In addition to the per-song copying charge, there is also a monthly fee that allows users to listen to any song in Rhapsody's catalog that they choose. You can think of it as an Internet jukebox that you control.

Tim Quirk of Rhapsody says that this jukebox service really offers an opportunity for new musicians as well as established ones. ""The first two weeks that someone signs up they just listen to all the people you'd expect them to," said Tim Quirk. "And then from the 15th day on, they just spend their time exploring and listening to new stuff. Once you're paying the $9.95 a month, basically it cost you zero dollars. It costs you nothing but time to check out stuff."

Every time a song is played or downloaded on Rhapsody, the publisher of the music is paid a royalty fee.

At the Future of Music Conference, the FCC chairman and Lester Chambers both noted, "There's a big train coming," indicating more changes are on the way for the music industry in the near future. There is the possibility that Congress will allow further consolidation of radio and television stations. Also, the opportunities and pitfalls the Internet presents will spur continued debate about copyright law and ways to protect digital content.