In the second part of The Guv’nor’s conversation with Casey Rae,Chief Executive Officer of the Future of Music Coalition, Casey takes an in-depth look at the death of the old music business model and the uncertain development of future models. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Casey ends with the optimistic belief that the struggle between competing models may well result in a new elevation of music’s social value.
THE GUV’NOR: I don’t want to defend old business practices, but it can be argued that the demise of the record companies may not be altogether a good thing. People point to their gatekeeper function as negative, yet the old system created quality control in many areas of the industry—recording, production, musicianship and so on—that some argue has all but disappeared these days. Good labels also nurtured acts, giving them advances that enabled them to grow as artists. This has all but disappeared now. What is your take on this?
CASEY RAE: I hear this perspective a lot, and to some extent I can identify with it. Of course, quality control cuts both ways—I’m not sure I’d want to return to the days when a coked-out A&R guy made decisions about what my records should sound like. Some of the old guard seem to engage in a kind of classist thinking. Only “professionals” are worthy of esteem, and everyone else is just in the way. I think that’s just dead wrong. I do, however, share the sentiment that investment in music is severely lacking, especially when it comes to career development. I can think tons of acts—from Springsteen to Bowie to the Pixies—who never would have had the chance to make a second album for a bigger label had they come out last year.
So once again, the question is more about how we as a society value artistic expression and whether the engines of capitalism alone are sufficient to sustain it. In America, there is obviously a strong market bias. Even so, our laws and business practices can likely be adjusted to be a rising tide that lifts more boats.
THE GUV’NOR: Of course, the flip-side to that question is this: now the gates are open, the amount of bands out there is staggering, which is a great thing for music fans but tough on the bands themselves having to operate in a congested marketplace. How can bands avoid being needles in haystacks? More, once bands get visibility, how can they stay solvent? (See these articles on Grizzly Bear and Pomplamoose as examples.)
CASEY RAE: The promise of the digital revolution was that, if you eliminated the bottlenecks and middlemen and facilitated more direct connections between artist and fan, the business models would follow. That’s probably true for some, but is the new lottery model (accidental virality and/or crowdfunding) better than the old (chance discovery by gatekeepers and the transfer of rights for nearly four decades)? I suppose the jury is still out on that one. One thing is perfectly obvious: it’s a crowded, noisy marketplace with a lot of less-than-stellar acts competing for people’s attention. But since we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, we need to figure out more efficient ways for artists to capitalize on whatever attention they can attract. My guess is that there are younger artists and would-be impressarios who have a head start here, and that they will end up shaping tomorrow’s music ecosystem more than those of us with one foot in the old system. My work involves making sure they are adequately informed about today’s realities—from public policy to legal and marketplace conventions. That way, they’ll at least have a leg up.
THE GUV’NOR: Time to trade in your crystal ball for a magic wand. What would you like to see happen to the music business in the next few years that would keep it vibrant, relevant and above all, entertaining? Do you think it will happen?
CASEY RAE: I’d love it if more creative people had the opportunity to take a shot at music as a vocation. And I don’t just mean musicians. There is still so much positive energy that flows from music that people really just want to be part of it. I’d love it if that energy could find productive channels for our broader cultural enhancement. I mean, “Gangnam Style” is pretty awesome, but I refuse to believe it is the zenith of musical expression. Business models and legal mores will have a lot to do with what kind of future we inhabit, but so will our attitudes towards music itself. I guess what I’m talking about is a kind of restoration—the return of music to the top of the cultural food chain. As a certain well-known musician once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. …”
(Originally published December 29, 2013)