It was the perfect setting for revolution-rock rhetoric. Crammed into a few rooms at the New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a healthy crowd of anti-corporate music and Internet fans -- rock and rap artists, Web site producers, media types and everyday people -- lambasted the major record labels, vented about the artistic injustices perpetrated by said labels and invoked the "power to the people" polemics reminiscent of the Sixties counterculture.
This wasn't empty criticism; these people came to learn how the Internet can help them overthrow the current music system -- or at least make a few bucks off their records. Conference attendees sat on floors, leaned against walls, and wormed their way through crowds to hear quasi-pundits in panel-groupstackle questions about the digital distribution of music -- in between perusing the fifty-five exhibitor tables and listening to quick sets by the twenty or so bands that played in between the panel discussions. Organized by a one-man operation (former music journalist Steve J. Zuckerman), the 1999 New York Music & Internet Expo, in its first year, proved to be part trade show, part talent night and part soapbox. If one thing was constant, it was the grassroots, neo-radical vibe dedicated to helping artists regain control over their music.
"I think it's great that the revolution is happening," said Hock Leow, vice president of Creative Technology's multimedia division, before introducing his company's new portable MP3 player (due out by summer and code-named Project Nomad). Leow was one of only a handful of executives from major music or technology corporations present at the expo. There were no Microsoft, Intel or Apple representatives -- nor any from themajor record labels. Instead, the CEOs and presidents of Goodnoise, MP3.com, Webnoize, Spinner.com, Billboard TalentNet and other companies promoted their sites, networked like crazy, and praised the power of MP3, the compression technology that allows people to shrink music files into a format small enough to e-mail or download quickly without significantly compromising audio fidelity.
Whether artists sell directly to their fans or sign up with a Net-based record label/distributor, the agenda seems to be clear: Artists deserve a higher percentage of sales, the rights to their own music, and more input into how their music is released and marketed. And consumers deserve more music options (not limited to major-label rosters) at lower prices. While it's hard to argue with these noble goals, it's too bad no major-label executive was present to defend current industry practices.
"I went to the majors and the majors didn't want to get involved with this," said Zuckerman. "Then, all of a sudden it got really big. And when they wanted to jump on the bandwagon, I couldn't accommodate them."
Zuckerman did land keynote speaker Chuck D of Public Enemy, who has become the ubiquitous MP3 poster-boy ever since he riled his former label, Def-Jam, by posting unreleased tracks on his band's Web site (www.public-enemy.com). Chuck entered with an entourage including Flava Flav, and then spoke to a fullhouse, launching into a humorous diatribe against the music industry peppered with clever catch-phrases, exasperated expletives and a great deal of insight into the plight of artists forced to sign their rights away. In a similar vein, legendary jazz musician Gary Bartz suggested that there are "house musicians," "field musicians" and "free musicians" -- only the latter actually own their master recordings and publishing rights. Both artists hope the Net can grant them more control over their music.
But lest these artists forget, not all Internet companies will be progressive defenders of artistic rights. "I got a little bit of a suspicion that [these Net evangelists] are just gonna replace the record companies," said Les Sampou, a folk artist attendee researching Internet options while waiting to see where her contract with Rounder Records takes her. "They're all vying for our buck and our art -- it's just a whole new crew. Everyone says the artists will have power now. Do they really mean it or are they just saying, 'Come with us ... we're just another wolf in sheep's clothing?'"
Those who missed the expo can still catch it as it travels across the country. Zuckerman plans to "take it on the road," starting with a trip to Los Angeles in August of this year. Until then, he plans to repay the loan his father gave him for the event, take a week off, and rethink the logistics of the next expo. After a full weekend of watching bands squabble over stage time, he's got one idea already: "Next time, I'd have less bands."