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Gerd & co.

So I didn’t quite get to Chicago yesterday. You may recall that I “won” a trip to attend a blogging conference. Well, I missed my flight. And since I was in Manchester for an extra day, I went along to Futuresonic, which seemed a pretty good use of my time.

The conference was interesting. If I wasn’t heading to the States, I’d have loved to have stayed and attended more sessions. Bigwigs from Last.fm, The Orchard, Dopplr and a bunch of other organisations were in attendance, as was my ‘nemesis’, Swiss media futurist Gerd Leonhard.

Gerd and I have had debates online in the past. At first, my problem concerned the very nature of what he purports to do. It’s like he’s selling himself as a music business fortune teller. I’m automatically distrustful of people who start a sentence “In the future, we will all…” — because a) it’s entirely speculative and unprovable; b) it’s bumper-sticker thinking; and c) it’s always wrong and usually unhelpful.

The online debate between us has largely been about the ‘Music Like Water’ concept — and this was the first time we’d sat face to face to have the discussion.

‘Music Like Water’ is the idea that music should be treated as a utility. Now that we have digital music, we will all just pay a monthly fee and have hot and cold running music. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. I’ve heard some really smart people I really admire put forward some really convincing arguments in its favour. Cory Doctorow stands out particularly here.

In some ways, it solves some things for one sector of the music business, and in that respect it’s an attractive idea, but it’s an overly simplistic one that doesn’t understand how people consume music — and it just keeps the status quo on life support, when what’s needed is a radical rethink and a completely different scale.

I mean, adjusting the ways in which the record industry is recompensed for its work is treating the symptom rather than the cause. I’d start with throwing out copyright in its entirety and rewriting the whole thing from scratch from a set of agreed first principles. Like the idea that this is supposed to be about incentivising creativity, for a start.

There have been a number of occasions on which Gerd and I had publicly disagreed on this point, and so it was a strange privilege to be sitting and having the talk in person.

Interestingly, he seemed to have softened considerably on the topic of music like water. First, he distanced himself from the term (“of course, I didn’t come up with it – it was actually David Bowie’s phrase…”) and then he made it clear that he’d moved on considerably since he and David Kusek had written ‘that book’.

“It’s more about the pipes,” said Gerd somewhat cryptically. “When you move into a house, the water mains are already all connected up. You don’t have to choose to have that done.”

I’m not sure I entirely understood that analogy, but he still managed to work the phrase ‘In the future, the record labels will all…’ into the conversation, which automatically made me set my filters quite high, and he probably sensed that.

Gerd’s company Sonific had just closed down the day before (a real shame, actually – I think it was a really great service), and he was being reasonably philosophical about the whole thing, but I couldn’t help but think that ‘music like water’, which has been central to his public profile, and which he’s really pushed in print and online as ‘his cause’ has now become tarnished by the term ‘music tax’ and might be something of an albatross for him these days.

There’s been a lot of press about the topic since the major labels (somewhat unexpectedly) have decided it might be a good way to generate revenue. The idea is to simply impose a levy on Internet Service Providers and make all people pay a single flat rate that pours straight into the record industry coffers, on the basis that you’re going to steal their music, and this is the only way they can get paid for it.

Which to me feels a bit like paying a compulsory fine when you fill up the car with petrol, because chances are you’re going to double park or speed. It also strikes me that the record industry has a bit of a cheek asking another industry to act as its police force and revenue collection agency. Again, that’s another conversation for another time.

Anyway, the conversation went as well as you could probably expect. I think we both figured out quite quickly that we were unlikely to persuade the other, and Gerd had far more people to talk to than just me, so we kept it reasonably brief.

But the important thing is this: although we disagreed on some things, we decided that we clearly had the same interests at heart: the success of musicians, and the prioritisation of music fans over music corporations as a strategy for success for all parties concerned.

The key difference between our positions, if you were looking for one, is this: Gerd believes in a solution for the music industries and I don’t. I don’t believe it’s that simple. If there’s one unifying factor here, it’s the ongoing increase in complexity. The way to fix what’s happening in the music business (as much as it needs fixing) is not to develop some future one-size-fits-all model, but instead to adapt to things as they are — which means a much more tailored approach.

To me , it’s about taking your unique situation, figuring out what tools, technologies and approaches will be appropriate, and speaking directly to your fans in a way that appeals to them specifically.

It’s not rocket science — and it’s not clairvoyance. It’s the fundamentals of marketing coupled with an understanding of how people make meaning from music. That’s why this website is New Music Strategies – plural. I don’t believe in The New Music Strategy.

That said, I’d love to be wrong. It’d be nice if there was a simple and clear solution that would just make everything better for artists, audiences, music companies and all the other stakeholders. I sincerely hope Gerd is right and that if he is, the right people listen. I just happen to think we have to be smart about the fact that he’s probably not, and make suitable adjustments.

But it was nice to talk to him. We inhabit similar territory, though he clearly has far more profile than I do. I like to think I have a small and elite professional readership, but the reality is he’s just more successful at this stuff than I am.

It’s a discussion I’d be more than happy to continue any time. Feel free to book us on the same bill…