Montreal -- I like wearing hats, and at the Future of Music Coalition (FMC) conference running October 5 to 7, I'm wearing two.
My plan at this gabfest on the music biz everything from cyber issues to arts funding is to be a panellist and then spend the rest of the time gathering info for the article you're reading.
But things get strange right off the bat and then stranger still as a spectacular plan is unveiled that could finally solve the puzzle of how musicians can make money out of those digital 0s and 1s.
But first the panel. I'm sitting in front of the mic representing the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (CMCC) when Larry Leblanc, Canadian correspondent for music industry bible Billboard magazine, chucks the tradition of moderator impartiality and goes for my jugular.
He's apparently been harbouring a laundry list of criticisms our out-of-date website, our lack of Quebec representation. I try to stick to my point: we need a monetized system of distributing music on the Net that doesn't restrict fans and allows creators and labels to get paid.
Leblanc won't let go. Oh well, things were bound to get surreal anyway. After all, the FMC, a U.S. music business think tank, has never before held a policy conference outside Washington, DC, since its founding in 2001. What does this group of policy wonks, lawyers, tech-heads and music biz refugees dedicated to creating a musicians' middle class in the U.S. know about Canada, or Quebec?
There is common ground for sure. To paraphrase writer James Michener, the U.S. and Canada are countries in which a musician can make a fortune but not a decent living. But there are differences, too. If you're on tour and your van goes off the road in Wawa, for example, you won't have to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills if you end up in the hospital.
There are also Canada Council and FACTOR grants and a host of other government assistance programs which prompts electronica musician Bernadette Houde during one panel discussion to say, "You've gotta love a country where the government will fund my band even with a name like Lesbians on Ecstasy."
But FMC's done some homework. "We realized we needed to reach out to arts organizations in other countries," says Kristin Thomson, FMC's deputy director. And with that classic American mix of naive decency and an overreaching sense of entitlement, the group hosts a very kick-ass conference.
The star presenter is David Byrne of Talking Heads, who in a talk entitled Record Companies: Who Needs Them? uses wry, quirky humour to say pretty much what others have.
"The Internet can't do everything, but it has made it more possible for artists like me to survive," says Byrne, looking extremely youthful, his white, spiky hair notwithstanding.
Sandy Pearlman, legendary producer of Blue Oyster Cult and the Clash, who's been singing from a different hymn book than other industry honchos, says more than once this weekend, "The genie is out of the bottle. It is utterly illogical not to implement a monetized peer-to-peer service."
Ideas on how to do this are not in short supply, but none is as comprehensive and exciting as that of William Terry Fisher of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In a Saturday-afternoon session, Fisher maps out the Digital Music Exchange (DMX) a sophisticated scheme for the unlimited exchange of media over the Internet minus digital locks or other technical protection.
DMX software can track how often, for example, a song is listened to and whether it's copied to a CD or shared in other ways (all legal in this system). A royalty based on usage and types of usage divides the revenue and pays out 85¢ on the dollar to content providers. This is a for-profit model, and much of the other 15 per cent goes toward infrastructure. Whatever is left over kicks back to investors.
Revenue comes from a variety of sources: as a small addition to student fees at a university using a particular ISP, for example; or perhaps an ISP pays a licence fee to use content and decides whether to cover the cost by passing it on to subscribers in the form of an additional charge on their bill or through an ad-supported system.
By the way, this isn't just another back-of-the-envelope scheme. Fisher's plan is being implemented in China. You can almost hear a group exhalation of relief from the full seats in McGill University's Tanna Schulich Hall.
There's more. Fisher's company, Noank Media, is looking at Canada next. This is really surprising given the aggressive attacks against anything like this by major record companies here. But Toronto music and technology guru Paul Hoffert, who heads Noank's Canadian operation, says the tide is rapidly turning.
Canadian Independent Record Production Association (CIRPA) president Cori Ferguson says that while her members haven't outright endorsed the plan, "board members are indeed supportive of the idea."
Hoffert says he's talking to ISPs and is even getting positive signals from the major labels. "They are more open to doing business with us than they were just a few months ago," he says.
Wow. Hold on, folks, this is a head-spinner.
I have visions of never having to go to another copyright conference, talk to another policy wonk or blank politician again. At least not on this issue anyway.