Rethink Music Recap: From Board Rooms to Ballrooms, Missing Connections

In some ways, music industry conferences are all the same. Over the course of several keynotes, panel discussions, and presentations, a gallery of experts, industry veterans, and insiders discuss topics related to sales, licensing, touring, and copyrights while subtly selling themselves.

At the inaugural Rethink Music, a large portion of the audience seemed to hunger for something different.

Born of a partnership between MIDEM and Berklee, and produced in partnership with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Technology and Society, there was a great deal of excitement surrounding this conference. Rather than taking stock of the present, the mentions of topics like an artistic middle class, alternative compensation schemes and new business models implied that Rethink Music would look toward the future.

And at the outset, that certainly seemed to be on the cards. An astonishing keynote address by Tod Machover, the head of the MIT Media Lab, introduced the audience to new instruments (the Trimpin, the Orchestrion), music composition methods (Hyperscore), and apps.

“We’re going to be able to design music that’s intended to make an impact on you in a particular moment for a particular reason,” Machover promised, a comment that set the audience all atwitter. Indeed, at its crux, Machover’s research and products it described, focused on taking music’s key characteristics – its participatory, social nature, its effect on our emotions at both an individual and collective level – and evolving them.

But as an academic and scientist, Machover was part of a minority at Rethink, and the majority – the aforementioned industry insiders – was more fixated on the business and its current models. Even in panels like the Next Generation Record Label, Ancillary Revenue Streams for DIY Artists, and Fostering Creativity in an Age of Technology, many panelists seemed more focused on tweaking existing frameworks than growing new ones.

“It is very evident that the people important enough to invite to a conference like #rethinkmusic are in no position to really rethink,” professor Nancy Baym tweeted on Tuesday.

Lawrence Lessig, the intellectual property crusader who has been arguing for changes in copyright structures for over a decade, offered an even more blunt assessment the next day. “Ideas have nothing to do with this fight,” Lessig fumed. “This is a fight between the people who make money under the old system and the people who might make money in the new system.”

At the legislative level, where both the content and technology companies have legions of lobbyists at their disposal, Lessig is undoubtedly right. But in almost every single Rethink Music panel, there were small signs that Lessig could be wrong about the individuals caught in the conflict. In a conversation about microfunding and VC investment in music, panelists noted that patronage is, at its heart, about participation rather than reimbursement. In his presentation describing a copyright exception for file-sharing, Volker Grassmuck framed his “sharing license,” which he described as a “bridge technology,” less as an opportunity to get paid, and more as the chance to start a dialogue about art’s place in society.

“People do not respond to being called pirates,” Grassmuck said. “They do respond to the call to get involved in the formation of a social contract for the arts.”

Indeed, for all the arguments about licensing difficulties and copyright reform, about the extent to which fans should be involved in the creative process, about whether the Internet has made middle class living even more elusive, about whether the technology companies should start parting with bigger chunks of their profits, it became apparent that the issues most in need of discussion were the ones illuminating Machover’s keynote.

At Wednesday’s final panel, Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland noted that the relationship between artist and audience was so important that “companies that have even a shadow of that relationship are being valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

“Despite the [recording industry's] downward trajectory,” Garland continued, “we have that, it is our core asset. It is our future.”

Hopefully next year, it will be discussed in more detail.