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The Future of Music Distribution

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz
Tom Tom Club founders, former Talking Heads members
Monday, May 24, 2004; 3:00 PM

Internet music downloading, online piracy and other changes in the way people get their music present unique challenges for independent artists. Join Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, founders of the Tom Tom Club and former bassist and drummer of the Talking Heads, discussed these issues with washingtonpost.com reporter David McGuire.

A transcript follows.

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (Egan Frantz)


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David McGuire: Hi guys, thanks for taking the time to join us today. Both of you sat on a panel at the recent Future of Music Coalition conference in Washington where you discussed the challenges of being independent artists in a world where everything you've ever recorded is available at the click of a mouse to millions of computer users. How has that affected your life as artists? And what have you done to adapt to the new challenges posed by digital distribution?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Tina Weymouth: Luckily for us, we started writing songs 30 years ago, so those and others we wrote at least 20 years ago are still earning fractions-of-pennies royalties that began to trickle in some years after we wrote them. For our younger songs, we have little hope that they will earn what they cost us to record and promote. We do fear that songwriting will go the way of other "classical" arts, i.e. become an obsolete "craft" or arty activity, o, worse, be used strictly for commercial ads, porn, exploitation of kids to sell jeans, cola and the counterculture back to kids. Which is happening now. This is primarily a worry for young songwriters. Personally, to make a living now, I will turn to other arts, perhaps paintings, writing copyrightable/paper publishable books, and/or live performance.

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Arlington, Va.: What is you take on the Nick Hornby article Rock of Ages from the NYT last week? Can there be great rock and roll anymore - or must we suffer through popular music that stinks or critically acclaimed pretentious, serious, navel gazing or mopey screaming?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz - I think Nick Hornby has a pretty good point...he's a true music lover and he has to suffer through the same shameful radio programming as the rest of us. Maybe someday soon an artist or a group of artists will make a breakthough that recharges our interest and our music industry.

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Boulder, Colo.: In what way has the ability to share music on a large scale affected you as musicians?

As an member of your target audience (and admittedly a huge fan of both the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club), I find that I now spend more money on DVDs and concerts than CDs. Have you found that some musicians have to restructure the way they reach an audience by releasing DVDs and touring more, just to keep making a profit, or is this all just icing on the cake?

One last note, there seems to be a growing cry against the so-called "superior" technology of digital recordings as many audiophiles find it far inferior to analog recordings. Will this force the industry to find a better format for releasing music?

Thanks!

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: DVD's are great. It's so hard to turn a profit for a band these days by touring or be selling merch. DVD audio is really fabulous....but you have to buy a DVD audio player and 5.1 speakers to enjoy it. We just remixed Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues for DVD audio....

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Alexandria, Va.: It seems to me that independent musicians would welcome the internet and file sharing with open arms. Most radio stations won't play music from unknown bands, the internet is one way for young or unknown bands to get their music out there. Do you find that this is the case?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: TW: Independent musicians welcome streaming internet radio airplay, yes. But free file sharing of a primary source of income, no one can welcome that. The internet radio streamers need loyal followings and financial support, too, to keep doing what they do. Many bands and web radio operators are "sponsored" by their parents, so I can't see them doing it for free for long.

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Bangor, Me.: Do you think the rounds of lawsuits by the RIAA will put a dent in on-line downloading?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: Evidently these lawsuits do have a powerful effect. Not my style, though. I understand more just happened.

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David McGuire: Recording Industry Sues 493 File-Swapping Suspects

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Alexandria, Va.: What is your opinion of Internet-based music stations (non-downloadable of course)? Personally, they have allowed me to experience many artists local radio stations fail to play (Aimee Mann, Damien Rice, etc.). In this sense, the Internet has helped this kind of music - don't you think?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz - I love the "underground" radio in any form ...internet or otherwise. This is the format that breaks new music. Heck, remember when FM was "underground"? That's where I first heard Jimi Hendrix!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tina and Chris, I thought you were great at the Future of Music Summit. I also want to pass along my thanks for so much wonderful music both with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Can you speak to the impact that consolidation or changes in commercial radio have meant to artists -- especially artists that don't fit in a particular "niche" or "format"? And what role could expanded non-commercial radio play in the immediate future?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: Thanks. We have a big problem with big business controlling what we are able to hear on the radio. Also, huge companies are are only interested in the bottom line. How can we break though if we are weird or "artistic?"

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Arlington, Va. : Hi Tina and Chris, thanks for so many years of great music. I've always been a huge fan of Tom Tom Club-I grew up in Pittsburgh and as you know, you have a big fan base there--your music was always the perfect antidote to the cloudy skies. What are you guys up to now, and when can I catch you live?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Thanks:-) E-mail us TomTomMail@aol.com for reply

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Durham, N.C.: Are we returning to an emphasis on live performance? A recent Prince concert in nearby Raleigh included a copy of his new CD Musicology with a ticket. A local artist, Torch Marauder, used his CD release gig to include a copy of his CD for the price of a ticket. Do you see more of this type of souvenir-fetish object role for recorded music? PS: when is TTC coming to NC?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: TW: I hope so. If he can sell copies of his work after the show, it would help offset his expenses, too. Prince is famous. So now, how do we get to see and hear new music from unknowns if there are no labels to break them to the public? Cutting out the middle men is not an answer if and when they are doing a great job as part of a team to get the music to you. Artists cannot do all this work themselves once they get beyond their little drive-able circuit AND still find time to create new work.

The problem, as I see it, is deregulation, which comes from laws made by our congress and our administration. As long as a lobby, such as AAA, NRA or RIAA, (cars, guns & music, all stuff we like, right? ha ha!) can have more impact on a representive to congress's vote than the people he/she is supposed to represent, i.e. THE VOTER, then we are ALL in deep trouble. When the band Live wanted to do shows with an affordable $10 ticket, Clearchannel (who I understand own most radio stations as well as the monopoly on live concert promotions and ticket sales affiliates) tacked on an extra $35 per ticket. And that does not include parking and $4 bottled tap water at concessions..... So you have to wonder how a kid can afford to take a girl to a concert on a date these days... It's time for a new counterrevolution of the counterculture.

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Solomons, Md.: How come "The Name of This Band is Talking Heads" has not been released on CD?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: TNOTBITH will be remastered and released in August if everything stays on schedule. This will be the first release of our entire remastered TH catalog. There will be extensive bonus tracks.

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Alexandria, Va.: It's great to have this opportunity to chat with you. I've loved your music from the first time I saw you with Talking Heads in the pouring down rain at the Philadelphia Zoo. The electricity of the crowd left no doubt that this was a band headed for greatness. Thanks for making music of the eighties bearable. I'm sure you are asked this all the time, but is there any chance of a T.H. reunion? Any chance you might show up at a David Byrne show at the Birchmere next week?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: Thanks...I remeber that show well. We have tried in vain to get David to reunite with us...but he won't. He has his solo thing and that's all he seems to care about doing. Too bad.

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Washington, D.C. : This may be a little off the topic, but Genius of Love has to be one of the most heavily sampled songs of all time. I've heard the hook in what must be a dozen popular rap tunes. Is that good for you? Bad? Indifferent? Do you make any money from it?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: "Genius Of Love" is one of the most heaviily sampled track... right up there with James Brown and P-Funk. Who could imagine that the hip hop kids would did it so much? Still it has been very good for us financially, if the sampler has a hit. (like Mariah Cary or P. Diddy) We only refuse permission when the song is particularly racist or offensive in some other way. It gives our song a new life each time. We are thankful for that!

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the post-punk revival? Are there any new bands (or individuals) that you particularly like?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: Chris Frantz: I dig the old punks and the new punks. My kids love Converge.

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Arlington, Va.: Any tales you can share of your band or friends in the music business who have had success selling their music online or giving away some songs online for free, in lieu of working through a label?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: TW: Personally, I don't know a single musician/songwriter who's had success this way. I have seen artists seem to have success by appearing to do well, but I wonder if their success is concrete.

It appears to be good for someone who does a good live business. I believe Phoebe Snow has said that she has benefitted since her career relies on live shows to a loyal following that began 30-plus years ago. It appears to be good for those just getting started or those already firmly established, but a stumbling block for those in the middle. Ani DeFranco (sp?) is said to do well, having set up about a decade ago with a team of people doing the work for her while she tours, much like a label. It is essentially an on-line label.

If popular music is to have new injections of creative blood that isn't a repackaged rehash of what has come before, there will need to be safeguards to protect the good from those who would exploit them, same as it ever was.

Websites, because they cost relatively little, are great for bands to self-promote and to distribute music artists choose to share for free. The best websites appear to be run by the artists themselves. Getting people to go to the website, however, is just as hard as getting them to go to shows.

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Ashburn, Va.: How do you feel about online music stores, namely, the iTunes Music Store? Also, do you use Macs to produce your music? What software?

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: TW: At this time I am liking iTunes and it presents are pretty fair model of the evolving future: Getting the music to the consumer easily and affordably while paying the creators fairly.

We've been using DigiDesign ProTools software on an already old PowerMac G3. Heard that Logic is fine, but am used to ProTools.... I am thinking the Roland WorkStudio is cheaper and more portable, tho...

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Washington, D.C.: Tape trading's been around for years. Isn't sharing files on-line very similar? Aren't we're misguided to think that the internet is, or has caused the industry to become more difficult for independents? Hasn't it always been? More to the point, I feel that the music industry has really made poor choices in commercializing an art form. What's popular and accessible is most often NOT what's the best thing going now. I look to events like South by Southwest to find that there are GREAT artists out there, even if they're not getting airplay. Do you think that there is hope though? Your first two responses sounded a little bleak.

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz: TW: Making a cassette tape is like making copies of pages from a book at your library for your research paper -- the librarian and the author do not think of you as a pirate for doing this. Likewise, tape trading is considered harmless. It initially in the 70s cut into sales somewhat, but that was a collateral damage the companies that sell the hardware -- most of which also own the software, i.e., the labels (Sony, Phillips, BMG are just 3 examples)-- were willing to accept. However, after the creation of CD burners, and then the internet, digital file-sharing raised that collateral damage to an unimagined and intolerable level that corporations, including the giant Sony, could not withstand. In fact, despite their cries to the contrary to assuage their worried shareholders, the label end of the business appears to be going out of business altogether. Well, not altogether, just almost: To get it out cheaper and faster will before it is killed by filesharing is fast becoming the objective of the businessmen. Hence, more disposable teenybopper burlesque. Or reruns of those oldies your folks grew up with. At least for a while.

So you have to ask, What actually new software (songs) will be around to play on the fabulous new technology if there is no incentive to songwriters to write quality (often time-consuming, hence, costlier ) songs? Quality requires a great deal of hit or miss. They don't call it a "hit" song for nothing. There is no metaphysical formula for transforming lead into gold. For every success, there is far more failure. (Do you really want to hear all the failures? What do you think "filler" is but failure on 72-min. CDs when we were once happy with two sides of 3 min. 20 sec. on a $5 vinyl single (1930s Great Depression pricing)?

Furthermore, a cassette tape is like a Xerox of a photograph with reduction in quality. You used to make tapes in a friendly personal way as a cheap favor to give to a friend or to have in the car. You make mixtapes and CDs to show and sell your DeeJay skills and awesome taste, maybe get a job. You can even make cassettes and/or burn up to a 1000 CD-R "mixtapes" to sell and I can about promise you that no label or artist (in his right mind) will trouble you!

The big problem the RIAA (or artists like Metallica) have a beef with arises not from small-time personal sharing but from real piracy. (BTW they have no idea when they file suits if the account holder is 12 yrs old or a multimillionaire pirate from China, and they do deal with each appropriately, I understand.) Digital file-sharing provides the real pirate the ability to make a virtual master of the original recording that can be rapidly replicated by pirates in the millions of units for sale in countries you never even heard of BEFORE an album hits the stores. They even replicate artwork this way. (The bad news is all this will also affect the quality of the film industry for a while until this is sorted out, too.)

Do the math. If only 5,000 albums out of 30,000 label albums released last year sold 1,000 copies or more, you see the label hasn't even been paid for CD production costs let alone recording (which are getting lower, thanks to artists DIY & cheap recorders from Japan) and the UNBELIEVABLE cost of promotion (read "Pay for Play" at Salon.com and thank the monopoly of Clearchannel, TicketMaster, et al, for this payola racket, folks)

In digital file-sharing, the artist loses, too. Not only does he lose the ability to get paid, to make a living and to get re-signed to make future albums because his label never recoups on his first couple of albums, but his songs get re-"distributed" in poor quality mp3 format under stupid names like "sonds like kraftwork" [sic]. So much for fame and glory, ha ha!

Consider this: How in the future would we know who REALLY belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for inventing a new music style -- that everybody else enjoys and gets rich emulating -- if we vote from now on by Grammy Awards (purely based on sales) and Star Search criteria?!?

I guess the future for songwriters is looking a lot like what we see now with the slender publishing of poet laureates. Future Bob Dylans and Beatles will be thrilled to get a poorly paid job teaching an ancient craft in a school because they are bumped from the cultural roster by a public that "appears," according to a media monopoly, to prefer an American Idol.

The way it stands now, if the copyright laws are not enacted to be equally fair to songwriters, labels, artists and performers, as they are to large corporate web interests represented by richly funded lobbies, it will be the consumer and, ultimately, our culture that will suffer. Fair copyright laws to govern the internet are our best hope for every one of us to keep the voice of music truly free.

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