BY MATT DAVIS
As many Harvard Law School students had their own taste of local celebrity during Parody week, the Recording Artists’ Project brought two real-life celebrities to campus last Thursday. RAP is a clinical program (as opposed to a student organization, by insistence of the administration) devoted to providing legal and other assistance to recording artists. RAP co-directors 2L Marina Bonanni and 3L Nubiaa Shabaka helped panel organizers 3L Yvonne Botchey and 2L Jeff Leven plan the event as a way of addressing broader interest in the music industry both from RAP participants and others.
The panel’s nominal topic, “The Future of the Music Industry,” was intentionally broad to accommodate the range of expertise among the panelists and different interests among attendees, according to Leven, who also moderated the discussion. “Essentially, it’s a chance for students to interact with an eclectic group of music professionals,” Leven added.
Featured panelists were Ornetta Barber, consultant at Hidden Beach Recordings and former Vice President for National Sales and Marketing at WEA Distributions, and Ian MacKaye, founder of Dischord Records and central figure in the seminal bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. Daniel Lugo, who represents Chuck D of Public Enemy and his record label, was also scheduled to attend but was forced to cancel by the snowstorm that evening.
Despite the snow and the last-minute cancellation, around 40 students piled into Austin North to hear Barber and MacKaye share their thoughts and experiences at RAP’s last panel of this school year. The discussion began with the panelists’ talking about their backgrounds. Until recently, Barber had been working with major labels for about 25 years, beginning as a management trainee at Elektra after graduating from UCLA. Barber worked her way up the ladder at WEA (the conglomerate parent of Warner Brothers, Elektra and Atlantic) before leaving to consult at Hidden Beach, a smaller and more artist-centered label started by a friend of Barber’s. She has worked with a long list of popular and important artists, including Prince, Quincy Jones, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole and Miles Davis.
MacKaye founded his first successful band, the Teen Idles, while still in high school, and created Dischord Records upon graduation to distribute his band’s music. Soon after, MacKaye formed Minor Threat, a hardcore band whose fiercely straight-edge political message was as unforgiving as its loud, fast and angry sound. MacKaye disbanded Minor Threat in 1983 because he was wary of the band’s growing popularity. He now plays in Fugazi, a mellower and more complex band that remains unapologetically independent of the mainstream music culture. MacKaye’s bands have sold over two million records combined and Dischord has been one of the most successful independent labels in the U.S. for years.
Acknowledging the diversity of the panel, Leven said, “there is not always a lot of natural dialogue between these corners of the music world, and the conversation they had was exactly what we were hoping for when we invited them both to the panel.”
Two-L Mike Bruso agreed that the panel benefited from its variety and in particular the non-traditional choice of MacKaye. “It’s hard to imagine at a Minor Threat practice 20 years ago, [MacKaye] saying ‘I’m going to be on a panel at Harvard Law School.'”
The main topic of the discussion was file sharing and technology. Barber pointed out that in 2002, blank CDs outsold pre-recorded CDs for the first time. She noted that the entire market culture has changed now that younger people have become accustomed to free digital music. She said WEA has shrunk from ten offices to four, and that industry-wide music sales were down 10 percent over the past year — the biggest decline ever. According to Barber, the labels really are ailing, and they are not sure of a solution.
Barber was not wholly sympathetic to the big labels, however. Years of experience have left her willing to frankly acknowledge the problems within the industry. She blamed labels for charging an exorbitant average CD retail price of $18.98 when, in her view, the quality of artists is declining. “Labels are not as interested in developing ‘career artists’ anymore,” Barber lamented. She claimed that labels tend to invest in artists only long enough to see if they catch on immediately, getting a “flavor of the week” from time to time and leaving the others in the dust before they have a real chance. Attendee 2L Jith Meganathan characterized this approach as “sloppy thinking” and pointed out that such an approach would have deprived the world of many excellent acts — such as Bruce Springsteen — who did not catch on with the public immediately.
Regarding the digital age, Barber blamed the industry as a whole for its arrogance in reacting too slowly to file sharing, and conceded that it may be too late now to save the old business model. Barber pointed to smaller labels like Hidden Beach as a favorable alternative because of their emphasis on sustaining artists and ensuring a high level of quality for consumers. However, she admitted that her smaller label still must look to a large conglomerate (Sony) for effective distribution.
As if using Barber’s more moderate jabs at the industry as a ramp, MacKaye then offered a sweeping indictment of the corporate greed behind the music business. He said that he did not mind people downloading his music for free, feeling that music is always free and is not itself a commodity. MacKaye, one of whose songs contains the chorus, “You are not what you own!” compared music to a river — arguing that some people may want to buy bottled water because of factors like convenience and quality but that the river is always there and always free. Meganathan was among those swayed by this metaphor. “It really brought home how the debate over file swapping is an artifact of the very brief period of time in which we’ve had recorded media,” Meganathan said. “That time is passing, but record companies are determined to make it as painful as possible… like a kidney stone.” Meganathan further implored, “technological change has disrupted hundreds of industries — what makes record companies so special?”.
MacKaye claimed that digital music sharing truly affects only the major labels. He pointed out that Dischord CDs cost $10, postage paid, and that the band’s loyalty (they insist that their shows be open to people of all ages, with a maximum $5 entry fee) ensures reciprocal loyalty among its devoted fan base, who will continue to buy CDs and come to shows. MacKaye emphasized that he makes what he considers a comfortable living and that the real problem in the industry is that “labels are screwing the artists.” He compared the cartel of the five major labels to the mafia, saying that they insert themselves as an artificial middleman between consumers and artists, “wetting their beaks” in the process. He sees the current revenue problems as the inevitable backlash of a newly empowered group of consumers.
Despite the fiery rhetoric and his disdain for “the collision of art and commerce,” MacKaye claimed not to be a revolutionary but merely an artist asserting his right to a parallel, independent existence. He did concede that labels like Dischord and Hidden Beach might be used to provide models for an improved music industry, however.
Addressing what the future likely holds for music and the attendant industry, Barber and MacKaye agreed that the key problem is the “suits” who don’t care about the music they sell. Barber pointed out that artists like Jay-Z and Puffy are entrepreneurs and have enjoyed a great deal of self-sufficiency without sacrificing popularity. Both panelists were clearly music lovers and expressed optimism that music itself would persevere regardless of the labels’ difficulties. MacKaye noted that jazz, while not the cash cow it may have been once, is still played and enjoyed worldwide. The panelists agreed that at worst, music may stop being excessively lucrative for labels,
but this will not faze the true artists who respond to inspiration, not economic incentives. More optimistically, they agreed that some money can still be made in the music industry, but only with a newer, smarter business strategy that is less exploitative of artists and consumers.