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An Interview With IMSTA President Ray Williams

by Max Willens on September 20, 2010 · 3 comments

IMSTA president Ray Williams

This Saturday, September 25, the International Music Software Technology Association, or IMSTA, will hold its third annual IMSTA Festa at the School of Audio Engineering in New York. Whether it takes place in Tokyo, Berlin, or New York, each Festa gives the world’s top audio software companies the chance to offer their wares, in some cases for free (all attendees get $100 worth of free software), and discuss the changing industry they work in.

In addition to the free goodies, attendees can compete against their fellow producers in song competitions, take in seminars featuring luminaries like Hank Shocklee and Clyde Stubblefield, and generally just learn more about the software landscape, all in the name of IMSTA’s very simple mission statement: Buy the software you use.

Obviously, most software companies approve of that concept, but unlike certain other companies, IMSTA doesn’t beat consumers over the head with its message. They view themselves as being part of a battle for hearts and minds, and they intend to take their time winning it. I spoke with IMSTA President Ray Williams about this last week, and here’s what happened.

IMSTA started with the intention of reducing people’s appetites for pirated software, and you aimed to do that through education. The RIAA has taken a lot of flack for trying to do that through litigation; they’ve since broadened their approach but for the most part was done through litigation. First off, why do you take that approach and what specifically do you mean when you say “education?” What, specifically, are you alerting people to?
Ray Williams: We believe that people can change. We believe that piracy is just behavior, and it’s just like smoking or drunk driving or not wearing a condom during sex. These are things that people do, they may not be good, you don’t necessarily take their place that they will come to that understanding on their own. The fact that people were drinking and driving for years, I don’t think it would be just an automatic thing that they will ALL wake up one day and say “This is not good.” I think it requires advocacy by people who are very very passionate about that being a very bad behavior. And so the people that did that, they could not be in every car, they could not be at every bar, they had to appeal to people on a sort of mind level like, “Okay, you may drink and drive for 50 years and not kill anybody, but you might.”

The IMSTA Festa logo

Some people go back and say it’s an issue of rights, some people used to say, “I drive better when im drunk! What’s next, you’re going to stop us from speeding?” But eventually people realize, “Wait a minute, you know what? Yea, that does make sense. I could kill somebody, I may never, but I may, so im not going to drink and drive.”

That education has taken 30 years, mind you, but that education has come into legislation and stuff. But people have to remember back in those days, it was kind of weird, like “What do you mean? My dad has been drinking and driving my family for years, everybody in this town drinks and drives, we don’t have any accidents here.” It’s that same kind of mentality that we’re fighting in piracy. People think piracy can never be solved through any other means other than litigation or never solved, period.

It’s like the environmental movement that you have. People who are throwing out their trash and saying, “Just put it up north,” or “There’s so much space in the United States, what’s the problem?” Why not recycle? Three years later, people were doing it on their own. Why? Purely through education. It’s not illegal to not recycle, you could throw away bottles and paper in the trash, I know people that do it. But a lot of people just don’t want to do it. We’re hoping that, we’re one of those dreaming companies that if we put the word out there that “If everybody did what you’re doing, there would be no software industry.” That’s a tough argument for anybody to fight.

The Internet has started to mature as a place where people are building things for free; the culture surrounding free software is growing all the time. How does that growing culture impact the members of IMSTA? How closely do they watch that space? Do they try to beat free, do they try to create a better product, do they try to make things that will supplement what’s out there already?
I don’t think they worry about it too much. I think that most people would agree that the full blown products that are for sale are generally way more professional, way more feature rich, way more sophisticated than the stuff that you can freely get. That’s not to say that the stuff that’s free is hokey or crap, its not at all, a lot of it is very very good. But I don’t think the two models are mutually exclusive, I think you can have a very healthy thriving community where stuff is free and you have another community that’s also healthy and thriving with professionals that want products that may be different or unique

If somebody wants to give their stuff away for free, I don’t think anybody should stop them; and I think if somebody wants to charge for their product, I don’t think anybody should stop them either. It’s your choice, you are the builder. I built this cabinet, I built this piece of artwork, this painting. I think its worth a thousand bucks. The guy next to me, he did a painting on the street and it’s beautiful. He thinks it’s good for you to work out and have the rain wash it away. There are two different things, one doesn’t cancel out the other one. I think both could coexist. We don’t look at it as an either/or or a fight against free. We look at it as “It’s a big world out here, there are a lot of tools, and the people who make the tools have a complete total right to set their price and to get it for it.” If you don’t like the price, don’t buy it. Just say, that’s too high.

A sample of this year's IMSTA Festa presenters

Let’s talk a bit about price. The growing amount of free software out there can obscure the issue of how much time and money goes into developing some of the music software that so many people use. Could you maybe speak just some statistics on just how much money goes into developing?
I do have an example. A lot of people know about the norg lead (?) synthesizer, it’s a popular synthesizer that has been popular for many many years. It took two guys eight months to develop that. So imagine having to pay those guys for eight months and you get this norg synthesizer. Sonix and Sony have worked on this suppresser plug-in and that took two engineers and several other people, not full time, but two engineers two years and a lot of people, graphics people, testing people, about five other people, over two years of work to produce that plug-in. At the end, yeah one of them is a digital device, but theres a lot of complexity, hundreds of thousands of lines of code that somebody had to write and check and make sure it worked properly. It now presents a user with a tool that was never available in hardware, that they can use for new creative things that weren’t possible before. So the artistic value of the creation, you can’t put a price on it. If the manufacturers, the person who wrote that code, says “I want a hundred bucks for that.” I don’t know if you could debate that. I think you could say “That’s too much and I’m not going to buy it.” But I don’t think it should be “That’s too much, im going to steal it.”

Just some final things about this week’s festival: how do you settle on the presenters? Are they just people who had the money for booths or did you sort of attempt to curate the people that are coming? What goes into who appears there every year?
Most of them, they are either members or sympathizers. IMSTA is a grass roots organization, it’s not a huge concern as far as we don’t have a huge staff. We basically have one person that is working most of the time and the rest of us are volunteers. There’s a lot of volunteering, donations of time, which makes it even more fulfilling to be a part of because there’s so much positive energy. Most of the people around IMSTA just like being around IMSTA because IMSTA is a grassroots organization, we’re all positive, everything is about positive reinforcement. People want to be associated with that.

These are mostly members of IMSTA that  have been given an opportunity to show their product in a free event to customers. We’re going to have the IMSTA message throughout the event in a very soft way, we’re not going to be overwhelming people and hit them over the heads with slogans and stuff. We’re basically inviting them to go to the website when they have time and read about it and think about what theyre doing, and think about what their friends are doing and think about what other people are doing and give them some insights that they can sympathize with and some things that they can do to help us spread the word.

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