NEW YORK -- Not surprisingly, censorship was a major topic at the recently concluded 11th New Music Seminar, right from the opening speech by Giant Records President Irving Azoff, who called for a South African-style cultural and economic boycott of Louisiana should its restrictive record-labeling legislation be signed into law this week. Azoff shared the keynote duties (and sentiments) with performance artist Laurie Anderson, who, saying she was there because "I'm finally afraid," spoke out against the rising tide of actions she and others see as infringements on First Amendment and free-speech rights.

NMS founder Tom Silverman (of Tommy Boy Records) also used the opening ceremonies at the Marriott Marquis to attack the music industry for its general complacency and, more specifically, for its voluntary labeling system, saying it has "confused peace with justice. It's not acceptable to have an unjust peace with a loud, fearful minority which would like to silence us. ... Yes, 2 Live Crew is degrading to women, but these people must be allowed to speak out. ... If you don't like their record, don't buy it, or turn the radio off."

At the annual "Rap Summit" panel, Ice T called for members of the music industry to create political action committees by pooling not only their financial resources, but their lawyers as well (he even offered his fax facilities as a clearinghouse for information). "I got a million fans. So do other artists," Ice T noted. "We've got a posse. We've got a crazy posse. We just gotta mobilize 'em."

Also on the panel was Luther Campbell of the 2 Live Crew, whose "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" album has set off a series of arrests on obscenity charges (and a new round of government-fueled attacks on rap music and black culture in general, according to Virgin Records, which unveiled a most unusual Uncle Sam poster: The old red, white and blue sleeve leads to a hand clamped over a black man's mouth).

While free speech was a rallying cry, the sexist, racist and homophobic content of much rock and rap music was attacked on a censorship panel that sought ways to "criticize bigotry ... without serving the forces of repression." Along those lines, gay panelist Victoria Starr of Outweek magazine attacked rappers who claim to challenge the existing social order, saying "you aren't challenging {expletive} with the way you talk about women and gays."

Though both Campbell and Ice T were soundly criticized on these grounds, the latter suggested that "when Luke {Campbell} goes on trial, he should be sitting with 30 lawyers, any juice we can supply him. We're all in this together. After they've finished prosecuting 2 Live Crew and {me}, they'll be coming after you. ... As the walls come down in Europe, the walls are going up in America. ... This is war."

Actually, the New Music Seminar is mostly business, sort of a countercultural convention, much of it taking place in hotel hallways and lobbies, and particularly at the huge revolving bar, where re'sume's, publicity photos and portable stereos with headphones (for instant auditions) were the norm. This year, more than 8,000 rockers, rappers, producers, deejays and aspirants gathered for five days of networking on the fringes of the industry, where the financial rewards may not be as large, but the climate for risk-taking is right. It's not so much outsiders looking to become insiders as it is entrepreneurs validating their efforts. "Like it or not, you're tomorrow's mainstream," Silverman said, hopefully.

Almost 30 percent of the delegates were from foreign countries, reflecting not only the coming European Community market in 1992, but the emergence of a global music business (one cynic saw recent events in Eastern Europe not as an Iron Curtain coming down but as untapped markets opening up). In terms of modern pop music, from rock to rap, world music has been mostly a one-way street favoring the Anglo-American powers that be: Even in the United States, with the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, the Hispanic market has been little more than an afterthought for the major labels. According to Silverman, "we are participants in, not dictators of, the music. ... Cultural imperialism is bad culture and bad business."

As always, dance music, which suffers least from a language barrier, was voted most likely to succeed in eliminating borders and creating a true melting pop (witness bands like Urban Dance Squad and Mano Negra). At the New Music Seminar, the French were celebrating several minor breakthroughs, watched by wannabes from old Axis-powers Italy, Germany and Japan, as well as Spain, assorted Benelux/Scandinavian countries and a delegation from the Soviet Union (in the spirit of the times, one part of that group taped "Estonia" over the "USSR" identification on the obligatory name tags). Still, for a convention, this one had not only many languages, but a significant representation of African Americans and women. BMI and ASCAP provided walk-by showcases for perspiring artists, and the exhibition hall housed 100 booths, most of them blaring rap, rock and house (the operative word at this convention). With the perpetual cacophony, on-the-edge fashions, vanguard hairstyles and odd name tags (Zippy, MC Mars etc.), no one would mistake this for the Beethoven Society.

As the NMS continues to expand -- the first convention drew 200 to a rehearsal studio -- there is the question of who can afford the $330 registration fee to access the mostly minor movers and shakers who attend (one wag suggested calling it the New Money Seminar). The single largest contingent is made up of artists (1,100), followed by the media (1,000). Although major labels are represented, they are not the driving force or energy at the NMS. The focus here is on aspiring artists (350 bands offered their services for showcases in clubs around New York, and 700 more were turned down); the small, independent labels most likely to sign them; and the alternative entrepreneurs most likely to pay any attention to them -- what NMS co-director Mark Josephson calls "the neophyte and insurgent elements" of the music industry. When not schmoozing or club-hopping, they gathered at more than 80 panels covering everything from production, distribution and marketing to video production and contract law (sign of the times: Many of the panels had corporate sponsors). Besides censorship, record labeling and rap, panels addressed social issues ranging from AIDS to eco-activism (including banning the wasteful long-box packaging for CDs).

Other panels talked about the future of alternative music in an era of mergers, major label acquisition and development deals; the challenge for small retailers to carve out a meaningful niche in an era when huge chains are dominant; whether major labels with commercial bottom lines would respect, much less encourage, the kind of creativity, risk-taking and experimentation that inspire the people at NMS; and the emergence of deejays and producers as artists in their own rights (and often someone else's copyrights).