Rethinking Music: A Solutions Focused Conference

Posted on April 26, 2011 at 7:31 am by
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An interesting conference for musicians will take place on April 26-27, 2011.  The presenters call it, “Rethink Music: Creativity, Commerce, and Policy in the 21st Century.” It’s billed as a “solutions-focused conference,” and the presenters are the Berklee College of Music and MIDEM in association with the Harvard Business School.  Get more information here.

Allen Bargfrede is the Executive Director of Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music Initiative, and in a guest blog in Billboard he sets the stage for what to expect at the conference. The issue of copyright and the changing manner in which music is delivered should concern all musicians. It’s not just a commercial or pop music problem. Certainly the creator of a song or a symphony that is pirated is most impacted, but there is a trickle down effect that impinges on all musicians in direct or indirect ways.

Below is Professor Bargfrede’s take on the current situation or read it here in Billboard.

Rethinking Music

Few people would argue with music’s impact on our lives, so it should be of tremendous concern to everyone that the recorded music industry continues to be in trouble. Global sales of recorded music fell another nine percent last year, according to the IFPI (International Federation of the Recording Industry). Various estimates put the drop in annual sales over the last decade at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, and IFPI estimates that 19 of every 20 tracks downloaded is pirated.

Fewer new artists are breaking through, too. Sales by debut artists in the global top 50 album chart in 2010 were just one quarter of the level they achieved in 2003. Those that do succeed are frequently lamented for a perceived lack of talent. Given all this, how can a young performer hope to live his or her life through making music? At Berklee, this is a specific concern to us, as we want our graduates to not only survive, but also thrive in life as musicians.

These trends clearly indicate that the music industry needs to adapt to a very changed world. New music business models are dependent on several things. First, there must be a ready adoption by consumers of new methods of music consumption. While digital sales continue to grow, some business models, such as unlimited music access on-demand for a flat fee, continue to languish. Among new business models, Pandora is a bright spot; around since 2005, the company has spent the past few years dealing with losses, licensing hassles, and technical challenges integrating into different devices, but recently filed for an IPO. The company now has a user base of 80 million people and “adds a new user every second,” according to SEC filings. Despite continuing losses, investors seem ready to rally as rumors swirl that the offering will be oversubscribed.

There also must be willingness by rights owners to venture into unknown, yet promising, waters. Radiohead has experimented with distribution, most recently announcing on a Tuesday that their new album would be available the following Saturday, rather than waiting for a Tuesday release date weeks in the future. This offset piracy of advance tracks by those who didn’t want to wait to acquire them through legitimate means. However, criticism of many rights owners for failure to embrace new technologies is valid despite the fact that there are a number of different legally licensed distribution mechanisms.  They must go further, competing with “free” and adopting even more creative approaches to licensing and rights exploitation, while working hand-in-hand with distributors to ensure listeners have the ability to experience music via all technologies.

Finally, there must be a movement to update copyright law. The Internet has brought with it an unprecedented capacity for the distribution of content on an instantaneous basis. Copyrighted material is now the largest export of the United States. In order to sufficiently protect our creative works, any changes to copyright must be technology-neutral, global in nature, and place some responsibility on those who control the gateway to access (Internet service providers) for the content that flows through their pipes, without impacting net neutrality. Licensing must be also become an easier process. While Pan-European licensing and the proposed Global Registry Database (which will provide a long awaited database of rights owners) are steps in the right direction, Pan-European licensing still seems an experiment rather than a reality, and in its currently designed form, the GRD doesn’t go far enough.  It should offer the ability to actually license those works.

I firmly believe in music’s ability to impact our lives, and I believe that it is impossible for us to remain silent at this critical juncture in music’s history. Whether a song is provided as a product or a service, people will always want to listen. We must find a way to give them what they want. We must rethink music.

(Allen Bargfrede is the Executive Director of Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music Initiative and Assistant Professor of Music Business. He can be reached at


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Make Friends—Your Peers Are Your Best Resource

Posted on February 28, 2011 at 9:00 am by
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Think about it. It’s only human nature to recommend a friend for a job. Putting aside the fact that if you recommend him or her, he or she may reciprocate one day, it just feels good to help out a friend, provided they are a good fit for the job. Even though music is a highly competitive business, it’s best to put rivalries aside. You and your buddies may be going for the same type of work, but the pie is usually big enough to accommodate the good players. I have often joked that I’ve made a career of collecting the crumbs off the table after everyone has left. I’ve had some good composition and arranging commissions based on recommendations of others who were either too busy or not that interested in accepting the work. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Who said that?

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Unions Are a Musician’s Friend

Posted on January 19, 2011 at 12:37 pm by
in Being a Professional

This past spring I received an email signed by a dozen or so Eastman students. It was sent to Eastman School jazz students and faculty. This group had met out of frustration. It seems that within the student jazz community at Eastman, there has not been much discussion or communication between them about how to contract gigs, or for that matter how much to charge. This had resulted in a wide range of prices charged for the same type of work, and as a result there has been a considerable amount of unintentional undercutting going on. Some bands were not rehired to play at certain clubs because another group would play for less. The musicians who met and drafted the email proposed several minimum wage scales. It occurred to me that they were, in effect, forming a union.

This is what unions do. They establish minimum pay rates and working conditions. They help organize and protect the musicians. They have standardized contracts, and if an employer tries to renege on paying, the union will stand behind the musicians. The other major function of a union is to gain legal representation on behalf of a group of workers (read: employees), and then negotiate directly with the employer on their behalf. Examples of this are orchestra contracts, contracts with specific performance venues, and various recording agreements such as: Sound Recordings, Industrial Films, Theatrical Motion Picture, Television Film, Basic Cable Television, Commercial Announcements and National Public Radio

Unions help take the “Wild West,” every man for himself, mind-set out of the mix. One often hears the comment, “What has the union done for me? They haven’t given me any work.” That could be true, but the union’s job is not to hand out work. It is to protect its members from what I just described.

Now, there can be great variation between locals in their effectiveness and service to the rank and file, but in general, I think unions are good. I have a nice little pension due to the recording work I have done, and I have good working conditions in the orchestra in which I play. For a professional musician, unless you are a soloist, most of the “good work” is union work.


Do Your Own Thing, Then Figure Out How To Get Paid For It

Posted on January 2, 2011 at 8:38 am by
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I once was invited to be part of a panel discussion at the International Trombone Association’s annual convention. The subject was orchestra opportunities for trombonists. When I arrived at the venue, I looked at the sessions and concerts that had gone on in previous days, and I saw that a sackbut quartet had given a concert the night before. (The sackbut is a precursor to the modern trombone and dates from the fourteenth century.) I thought to myself, “What is that all about? Those guys must get together once a year and haul out their sackbuts and jam. They can’t make any money at it!” I voiced this thought to the trombonist friend of mine who invited me to the conference, and to my surprise at the time (but not now in retrospect) I learned that those guys are in demand all over the world! They were on their way to Europe right after the conference. They are doing their own thing. Their music is too specific to do it full-time in Des Moines or Denver or even New York City, but they apparently dominate the sackbut world market, and they do very well playing the music they love, on these old instruments, for lots of people.

Think about Bella Fleck or Jake Shimabukuro—banjo and ukulele virtuosi, respectively. They have taken their particular instruments and put them into musical contexts that were previously unimagined. The lesson for me is to do your thing, very well, and then figure out how to get to the audience that wants to hear you and is willing to pay for it. It’s not that big a stretch if you are very, very good.

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Hello, World

Posted on January 2, 2011 at 8:33 am by
in Being a Professional, Uncategorized

It’s the first week of 2011 and this is the start of my new blog, Street-Wise Lesson of the Week. Many of the posts that you will read here in the coming weeks, months, and hopefully years, will come from my new book, Lessons From a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools, but there will be lots of new lessons too. I hope that some of them will hit home and resonate with you. For you high school students just thinking about a career in music, these posts may open your eyes to the musical world before you. For college students, they may help you fine-tune your career path and get you thinking about other options you might have in the music profession. And for professionals already in the business, this blog might remind you of why you decided on a career in music in the first place. In any case, I hope you will find these lessons helpful and interesting reading.

Ramon Ricker

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