Living Room Roundtable: ASCAP, IBMA, RIAA, NMPA

Pictured Left To Right: Dan Hays, IBMA Executive Director; ASCAP's Earle Simmons, RIAA Chairman & CEO Mitch Bainwol, NMPA President & CEO David Israelite and ASCAP VP Dan Keen.There is much uncertainty in the business of music these days. The continuing decline of CD sales, the steadily increasing, but not sufficiently so, sales of digital downloads, the continuation of illegal music downloads, and rising price of gas, all cut into the bottom line for bluegrass performers and creators. We see a lot of statistics and speculation about downloads vs CDs, and the continuing efforts to clamp down on illegal file trading, but what we don’t often see is the efforts being made behind the scenes, by those who love the music and work in the business end of things, to come up with solutions. Solutions that will allow content creators, namely songwriters and performers, as well as the record labels, who finance a lion’s share of the cost of bringing that content to consumers, to continue to earn a living while doing what we all enjoy so much, making music.

These efforts are underway, even if we don’t often see them. What follows is the account of one such effort.

Earlier this month, ASCAP hosted an informal “living room” discussion at their Nashville office, with some of the movers and shakers in the larger music business, along with a few key persons from the bluegrass music industry.

Dan Keen serves as the Vice President of ASCAP Nashville. Dan was my Music Publishing professor when I was attending Belmont University. And more importantly, Dan is a friend of bluegrass. He wrote in to let us know what the meeting was about.

In an effort to help our bluegrass friends embrace the opportunities that the future holds for us all, we thought interaction with some folks who engage in futuristic discourse about music could be helpful. So we invited Congressman (she prefers “-man”) Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) – who co-founded the Songwriters Caucus on Capitol Hill, RIAA head Mitch Bainwol and NMPA President, David Israelite to meet with Dan Hays and other bluegrass leaders for an informal “Living Room” discussion about matters before Congress and the Courts that will have significant impact on Artists, Songwriters, Musicians and Music Execs.

The complete list of those in attendance at this meeting is as follows: Dan Hays (IBMA Exec. Dir.), John Grady (Red Light Management and former head of Sony Records, Nashville), Buddy Cannon (award-winning writer/producer), Alison Brown (1991 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year) and Garry West (owners, Compass Records), Missy Raines (7 time IBMA Bass Player of the Year), Ben Surratt (award-winning engineer), Charlotte Scott (Skaggs Family Records), David Crow (attorney, former IBMA Board Chair, fiddler with the Osborne Bros), Mike Drudge (Class Act Entertainment), Karen Byrd (publicist, fmr manager of the Grascals), Nancy Cardwell (IBMA), Ron Cox (Avenue Bank), Jon Weisberger (journalist, songwriter, and bass player), Dan Keen, Earle Simmons and Chad Green from ASCAP and of course – Rep. Blackburn, Israelite (NMPA) and Bainwol (RIAA).

All these folks sat down in the ASCAP offices and had a candid exchange about the future of the business. I exchanged emails with several of those in attendance to get an idea of the topics of conversation, and a general consensus of outlook for the future. Karen Byrd seems to sum up that consensus with this statement she made about the prevalent attitude of those involved.

I’m thankful to Dan for arranging, and to Mitch Bainwol, David Israelite, and Congressman Blackburn for sharing their time and input on key issues.  It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the issues at stake.  I was heartened to hear differing perspectives that were united by a common desire to protect intellectual property rights.

So what did they actually talk about? David Crow shared a list of the topics he found particularly interesting during the discussion.

There was a good bit of discussion about the legislative process as it relates to a new performance right for sound recordings (e.g., a general right that mirrors the limited digital performance right). There was also good discussion about piracy initiatives, section 115 reform, the pending mechanical royalty rate setting proceedings, justice department policies as they relate to infringement and international relations and trade related aspects of intellectual property enforcement. To me it was helpful to hear the perspectives of David Israelite and Mitch Bainwol. While these two don’t always agree, they are brilliant men who understand the issues and can clearly articulate the policy issues driving the debate. David and Mitch are not the only voices that speak for creative folks in DC, but they are two of the most powerful and two of the most respected voices in the business.

I thought it was a great forum, a great discussion and a candid exchange of ideas. I really appreciate Dan Keen taking the initiative to put it together and moderate the event. ASCAP was a gracious host and I think everyone left with a new found appreciation for other points of view and for the complexity of the issues we face as a creative community.

Dan Keen shared another topic that interested him during the course of the discussion.

One thing that stood out to me was that Bainwol seemed extremely confident that we are moving quickly to a “subscription model” for recorded music; that consumers will not actually OWN recorded product. They will be willing to give that up in exchange for INSTANT ACCESS to the music they want to hear. So, for example, the fan who wants to hear Cherryholmes newest music will dial it in on some sort of handheld device and play it right then wherever they are. They will pay a monthly fee like your cable tv bill.

I’m not sure I can agree with Bainwol on this issue. It seems to me that most of the subscription models that have been tried so far have not produced results that would lead me to believe the industry was heading that direction. It seems to me that consumers currently assume ownership, even when not legally obtained. And ownership can be had almost instantly as it is. Whey would they give that up for subscription? I just don’t see the incentive. I am encouraged though to see leaders in the industry taking the initiative to share ideas and discuss solutions to the complicated mess we call the music business.

Dan Hays (IBMA) expressed his thanks to Dan (Keen) as well and then commented on interaction between those of the larger music business community with those of the bluegrass persuasion.

As I mentioned at the meeting, IBMA’s membership is made up of professionals with a variety of positions and stakes in these times of significant change. It’s incumbent on us all to listen and try and develop and understanding of as many of those positions as possible. Maybe even moreso if we know there are significant differences about what the final outcomes should or could be.

Mitch, David and Congressman Blackburn all impressed me with their grasp of issues, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. But I also sensed in their language a sincere interest in positions different from their’s which is a positive sign and tells me there is a genuine desire to find solutions…not simply to be heard, but also to listen.

I appreciate their time to get better acquainted with the bluegrass world and we (IBMA) continue to be open to ways to gain and share information with our members and represent their varied interests in these matters when possible.

I realize discussion is only the first step, but these guys are at least headed in the right direction. And like I said at the outset, much of the work guys like Dan (Hays) and Dan (Keen) do for the bluegrass community day in and day out, is out of sight to most fans and even many business people in our community. I think they deserve a hearty round of applause for their efforts and accomplishments. Thanks guys! Keep up the good work.