George Howard: We’re really happy to be talking to Dick Huey, someone that I’ve admired in the music industry as an innovator, as someone, that I don’t think, there’s anybody out there who doesn’t have a nice thing to say about Dick. He goes about his day with a tremendous amount of grace, dignity, and intelligence. So Dick, thanks for taking the time to sit and talk with me about Music2020.
Dick Huey: George Howard, my new PR agent!
GH: So let’s dive right in. We at Music2020 want to advocate toward a universe in which there are more winners and less losers in the music industry. My partner, Scott Kirby, always says we don’t know what fair is in the music industry, in terms of compensation for a whole host of reasons, but we know that right now it is not fair. I would love to get your thoughts on that and what we could be doing. Also, I know you’ve been and are very, very involved in the Future of Music Coalition and would love to get some insights about what you guys are doing and how you’re trying to address this issue, as well. Actually, before that, please talk a little bit about your background.
DH: OK, well, sure, to give you a real quick background, I started out as a performer playing in the clubs of Charlotte, North Carolina. I was able to make a career’s worth of transitions out of that. I transitioned that to managing some great bands and signed them to some great record labels, including Glitterhouse Records in Germany, and I signed a couple of bands to Beggars Banquet, as well. That was the connection that brought me to New York. We had a marketing guy quit at Beggars right before my record was supposed to come out, so I panicked and we decided that I should come in and run marketing, because no one else was going to do it.
I did that and then, about a year into it, we started doing these meetings with the chairman and several other label heads, and they were in the area of New Media, which didn’t really have a name at the time. It was just sort of this new digital area, and I remember a meeting where we were talking about who is going to do this, we need a full-time person, and does anybody want to volunteer? And, it was a silent room! There were about fifteen people, and I said, “I’ll do it!”, and that’s how I got into New Media.
GH: The right answer always is, “I’ll do it!”. Even when you don’t know that you can.
DH: And five years later, Beggars had acquired Matador by that point, and it was just a real thrill ride, and an awful lot of fun. I kept my relationship with the label and started my own company, ToolShed. ToolShed was a digital marketing consultancy, so we did very early digital marketing – this is before iTunes. I was on the Soundexchange Board at that time for 9 years, with Matador. Fifteen years later brings us up to the present. A lot has happened in between there, but I have had the good fortune to work with hundreds of different artists, many, many different independent and major labels, and also to work with companies like Spotify [https://www.spotify.com/us/] and 8tracks [http://8tracks.com/] and Jaksta [https://www.jaksta.com/] and many others that I have a great deal of respect for. So, that’s my story.
GH: It is such a good one. And it enables you, more that most, who are wrestling with the current music industry challenges and opportunities to have a line of sight and perspective that most others just don’t, both because of the amount of time you’ve been involved as well as the particular vertical you’ve been in. The challenges facing the business are myriad. We believe for instance things like collusion, antitrust issues, payola, all of these things, have not allowed for a music business ecosystem to evolve in a way that would have more winners than losers. We also believe there are big technological advances, as everybody knows, we and I are big blockchain proponents. But, what do you see, either as Dick Huey, or as a representative for Future of Music Coalition moving forward? What are we doing? Some things have arguably not worked, that we’ve tried. I’m interested in what you think we should be doing.
DH: Well, I think what we should be doing is focusing on the person at the end of this chain, which is the artist. What does that mean? Well, I spent several years on the CASH music board [https://about.cashmusic.org/]…
GH: Jesse is a mutual friend.
DH: Right Jesse von Doom, CASH music, Maggie Vail.
GH: I was on the board at one point too. At the early days…I think we may have overlapped. I love what they do, what they have been doing, Jesse is a force of nature. Sorry, go ahead.
DH: CASH is great, what I love about CASH is first of all Jesse’s personality, but second, where his head is at. It is a great mix of watching out for artists, while at the same time, enabling great art. So, there is this measure of personal responsibility and personal care that comes into what CASH does. It would be great to see more of that in music.
GH: Can you elaborate on that? Personal responsibility from the artist’s side, those making tools like Jesse’s making, or all parties?
DH: No, not from the artist’s side, although artists need to take personal responsibility too. I mean people from the standpoint that are working in music. It is very easy to look at your own particular vertical and say, “My vertical is doing great”. I have many friends who are mid-level musicians, who have made a pretty decent living, not a crazy living for a number of years, that are really challenged under the new paradigm of streaming. It is not that streaming is the problem, but it is upon on all of us, to look at not how a collection of artists under a label is doing, but how can an individual artist do well in the streaming economy? Not only can an individual artist, but also well known artists with established fan bases. Do the payout processes in the music business allow them to make a good living? In many cases the answer is no. I don’t think the answer is unless you follow this set of rules, you shouldn’t be able to make a living in music. I think that is really problematic. So what I meant when we are talking about personal responsibility, it is making sure that when we build things in music, we build them so they don’t disadvantage parts of the music community. The music community is something we have in this country that is one of our greatest treasures, and it is vitally important that we explore options. In the last two years, for instance, I have been talking at length about a distribution concept for revenues call Subscriber Share with a guy named Sharky Laguana. It is a different way of looking at slicing up revenues that come from streaming services. In some respects we don’t know if that is right or wrong. But I think that kind of talk is very important, not just accepting prorated or particular distribution of revenue that’s in place right now is the one we ought to stick with. It is important for us all to ask who are the losers, who are the winners, and how can we help the losers become winners?
GH: Man, that is just so great, we agree. And one of the fundamental agreement points is this arbitrary idea that originally downloads will be $10 and songs will be .99 cents and this becomes the architecture because Steve Jobs deemed it that way. We, distribution services, will take 30 percent of the revenue, not based on any type of market economy, but just because…that’s what we’ll take. And then, that starts to flow down. That’s arguably collusion, or antitrust, I don’t want to throw around legal terms, but this system is problematic. Would you expand on that a little more on what you and Sharky think that is? We are looking for insights on how that might happen.
DH: Well, I think one of the things, forgive me if I bounce around here, this is a little bit of stream of consciousness discussion anyway. I feel like there is so much focus today on having a massive catalog. Everybody has to have a massive catalog, you have to create economics that work where everyone has a massive catalog. I would love to see it, you are starting to see it, but I’d love to see more specialization, more focus on niche, and more development on niche. I mean, I had the good fortune to work closely with Peter Gordan, over at Jazz Connect. I do a panel over there every year.
GH: I was on one of those panels a long time ago.
DH: I’m not personally a huge jazz fan, although there’s some of it that I love. But I still love doing it because I get to speak to a niche of artists who are really having a challenge in this streaming economy. So, I get to hear what their concerns and problems are and I feel like people are looking for guidance. Nobody really needs access to a catalog that is as huge as the catalogs that are out there. I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist, but I think there is a lot of opportunity for people to put together a catalog that is a couple million tracks or one hundred thousand tracks, or a thousand tracks, whatever it is.
GH: My friend Andy Weissman, who’s one of the smartest guys I know, he’s a venture capitalist, as well as a massive Grateful Dead fan, show me the VIN overlap of those two people. He said, “We shouldn’t have 4 or 6 streaming services, we should have 4000.” I would subscribe to Dick Huey streaming service in a heartbeat. And, so those types of niches, ways in which we can shift that burden, disintermediate, decentralize, whatever, and I keep throwing around terms that are so resonant with blockchain. Blockchain to me is a technology, I don’t care what you call it, I think it does address some of these issues we think it could. So, your modeling, is one if I’m understanding right, there should be a plurality of different streams, niches, and a different type of compensation to artists than the current modality, which is really just inherited from downloads, they really just took that and said we’ll just fractionalize it and/or tie it to revenue. Can you expand on that, and is that where the Future of Music is going or is that advocacy from that side or more yours or are they conflated?
DH: I didn’t explain in my preamble that I am the interim Executive Director of the Future of Music. The name, Future of Music, we should be talking in that organization about what is going to happen, what might happen, what could happen in the future. No it isn’t the position of the organization, it is my position and something I think is really interesting. I think in conjunction with creating more focused opportunity, a better ability to aggregate “birds of a feather” within the community, I think that’s really important. The music industry, historically, has not done a very great job of personalizing music outreach. It has been very broad. Digital music services tend to get bigger and bigger, generally (I’m not saying this is happening right now), and they’ve attracted more and more large major label size artists. That doesn’t serve niche communities. I think in conjunction with greater focus on niches…by the way, this focus on niches comes from my background in music, with some great companies I have seen have done a great job with this. I don’t know if you remember CDuctive, the CD company run by Tom Ryan, it was a great company. It was really focused on electronic music, he really did such a great job with that.
GH: I thought you were going to say Merge…
DH: I’m not even talking about labels.
GH: Well, but, it is the same thing. I ran Ryko[disc], and some of these things, well everything, starts as a niche. Some things stay in niche, anything big once started as niche. Hip hop was a niche in South Bronx in 1978. You can call them niches, you can call them early adopters, you can call them whatever. Boy, that’s certainly where my personality lies, and that’s where your career is a testament to that too. You tend to identify the early stage things and sometimes those things pop up.
DH: An awful lot of them have popped up, and I’ve spent almost all my entire career in independent music. I love independent music. I love independent record labels. I love independent artists. That is where my head is. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done at Toolshed, we had scores of artists that started really small and got really big. But, getting back to the other point, we need more diversity in offering, but on top of that, that’s part of it. The other thing that we have done a terrible job in the music industry is utilizing the tools that are available, to really understand who our audience is. What is our audience willing to pay? Take me as an example. I’m a huge Guided by Voices fan. I generally stream whatever is out there, I usually buy whatever I happen to see. But the question is, do I see it? Does anybody ever, and I’m not picking on Guided by Voices…
GH: Robert Pollard’s gonna come banging on the door at your house, he’s gonna karate kick you!
DH: There is a very funny story about a ToolShed episode that happened many years ago, but we worked it out. So, knowing that I personally might be willing to spend a couple hundred dollars on Guided by Voices, that is really important. Just extrapolate that out, pick your artist, pick anybody, OK? If all I’m going to offer is a CD and maybe a shirt, you’re missing this pool of money that I have sitting burning a hole in my pocket, and I want to give it to you but I don’t know how. I don’t have time to pour through your website, to find every sales opportunity. I want you to recognize me, as someone that is willing to give you money. And that’s something that I want to spend a lot time on.
GH: So, I would push on this a little bit, I couldn’t agree more as a person that an REM hoody sweatshirt will be arriving at my door sometime imminently, because as soon as they put something out there, of course I’m gonna buy it. These value extraction opportunities right now are somewhat limited because artists don’t do a great job of monetizing their assets, but also because the burden is too high. There’s no good way for those artists to do that without a good person like you helping them do it. And also because the databases of information have become too verticalized. Who knows who owns Guided by Voices email list? Who knows if Guided by Voices gets streamed on Spotify’s playlist, and if that information ever finds it’s way back to them? Who knows all those things…etc.? We’ve got to decentralize that, we’ve got to distribute that. They’ve got to be able to have a much more direct relationship back and forth with you; in terms of transactions, too. You want to buy that Guided by Voices thing? How many different layers of intermediaries are between you and Bob Pallard getting new beer? And also, why is the data so consolidated around these things, why are they not able to shift the burden to you? I didn’t know you were a huge Guided by Voices fan. I’ve known you for a long time in various ways, and I know certain things about you, but I should know that. Given how connected we are given social things, there should be some sort of way that you are pushing that out there, shifting the burden. Imogen Heap talks about that with the Mycelia concept, rewarding you for doing that. And that’s blockchain, I hate to say it.
DH: We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about everybody.
GH: I’m using “you” as a metaphor.
DH: I don’t want a reward for giving somebody money, I just want any consumer who focuses on any band I’m looking for a connection of some kind, and it doesn’t have to be a phone call from the artist. I’m looking for a connection, for a way to superserve my own niche, that’s what I want, I want to superserve my own niche.
GH: So I have this theory and it guides my consulting work, which is by preserving your own niche you build information asymmetry. You know something about something that drives tremendous value to you, and it makes your life better. A natural human impulse at that point is to share that with others. Hey, Guided by Voices makes me feel really good, I want to share that. That, in and of itself, is your reward. I’m not saying you should get paid, that’s the reward, in and of itself. We’ve done very well with that with things like Facebook, “Hey, I took this photo of my kids singing at the Christmas holidays and that makes me feel good, I’m going to share it”. We do that so badly with music.
DH: Those are the two parts to the answer to your question, and to get back to CASH again, I’m really pleased and excited that the commitment there has been around creating tools to make it easier for artists to do some of this kind of work. They have a long way to go, but I have nothing but praise for the efforts they’ve made up to this point. But, they’re not the only ones. There are a lot of companies that are trying to do something. Take, MailChimp, for instance! They are really, really basic.
DH: They are creating better and better tools, so it is getting easier and easier for this. I think that today on the marketing side it is all about finding the right set of tools that can help artists monetize whatever it is they do in the most efficient and best way possible. And, I love some of the tools out there and hope we gots lots more of them. And on the other side of it we have the policy side of things, and that is what the Future of Music is concerned with.
GH: Talk about that a little bit. The Future of Music has been around for a long time. What is the Future of Music going to do to address that same question, like when I asked about what Dick Huey is going to do?
DH: Well, the Future of Music, at the moment, is highly focused on policy. We, like everybody, are curious about what’s going to happen with the new administration. We have had victories that the organization has contributed substantially to, things like net neutrality and healthcare for musicians. We’ve focused on issues that are important to artists, whether directly or indirectly.
GH: I’m terrified net neutrality will get rolled back, terrified.
DH: I think like everything else, we in the music world, have the advantage of a great platform to stand on and lots of people watching and listening. The thing that artists do better than almost anything else is that. I’ve had the great fortune to work with a lot of really political artists Melissa Ferrick, Ani DiFranco, or Amy Rae. Who have taken really strong, great stands on issues and you just want to sit and listen. Course, Ani always says, “I really wish you’d join in”. So, we’re going to continue on the Future of Music side of things on education on helping artists understand what the new economy is, how they can be a part of it, things they could be doing, or what they might be doing that they’re not doing now. We’re going to focus on educating lawmakers, focus on educating people in the government about our positions on these issues and why they are important to artists and trying to develop, and focus even more broadly on local initiatives in the city. In the past, we’ve done a variety of different artist retreats, getting artists together with policy makers and/or speakers. I’d love to see more of that happening in local communities. There are lots of great places for the Future of Music Coalition to fit in in the broad ecosystem that impacts the artist. Last, but not least, we want to provide a forum, where people can discuss things like subscribe share, whether or not it’s the right thing to do for distribution. Or where people can discuss ideas that they have about how they’d like to see any number of topics related to marketing artists, developing in a way that doesn’t have to require a label or brand attachment. I have no problem with labels, at the same time, I have no problem with somebody going it alone, either. I’d like to see both very viable options, for the majority of individuals that participate, not just a select few.
GH: That is well said. And one of our key tenets is that the distribution platforms, labels, Spotify, etc. need to provide real value back to the artists, not just building shareholder value or share numbers on the backs of artists. And, I think they would admit, that they need to continue to evolve and reinvent themselves in the same way the individual artists do. You are doing great work on so many angles. I hope there are ways we can work together. We are rolling out some initiatives where people can demand inquiries from representatives about issues like anti-trust issues. These need to be looked into. We need the artists to get activated. My partner, Scott Kirby, always says, “You need to get activated, or you’ll get the music industry you deserve.” The time is now when we are redefining these things, and the old modalities are going out of place. There has never been a better time to redefine this. We believe with technologies emerging, blockchain or otherwise, in education, all the things you’ve been saying. I hope there are ways we can cross-pollinate on this. You’re a font of information and a force of good.
DH: I’d love to talk about another project I’ve been involved with for about the last eight or nine months. It’s a digital liner notes project, music in the transition from physical to digital became a little sanitized. If you look at the information that’s available in most digital music players, not all, but in most, it’s pretty much name of song, name of artist, name of album, and number of plays. It’s very, maybe there’s a bio attached to it, but it takes a village to make a record. It takes a producer, engineer, four band members. All of these individuals have got [digital] connections. I’m fascinated by that data, and by that information and by the fact that it largely is not present in digital music. I’m working with a company now, Jaksta, that is trying to change that. I’m working with them because I think the music industry has to change. Music is multidimensional, music is the fifth dimension and we’re only looking at two dimensions of it, only a representation of it.
GH: Agreed. The liner notes…I think what you are saying is through all those second levels and beyond the performer, and even the songwriter is left out of the metadata a lot, you don’t know who wrote the song very frequently, you just know who performed it. But then you go down below that to the musicians themselves, and then to the Performance Rights Organizations, so there is the metadata layer of creating new interesting combinations. So, I love that saxophone player I’d like to click on his name and, I don’t know your product, but that should then link to other records he’s played on. That’s an interesting discovery. So you can have more than one standard deviation where if you like the Who, then of course you’ll like the Rolling Stones, but I want to know who played saxophone on that song because he probably played on other records that aren’t directly related to the [Rolling] Stones, like Bobby Keyes. And then, second to that is the legal ramifications. Believe it or not, there are certain service providers out there who say it is impossible for us to match back the performer of a song and the underlying writer. And therefore, if you can’t do that, you can’t track performance rights plays. That’s a huge value loss for writers and the economy, generally. One of the ways that was done in the old days was just look at the back of the record, and you could see who the songwriter was and what their performance rights society was. That has gotten lost. So, reattaching that, in a digital way, which I think should be easier, is imperative not only from the discovery element, but also from the performance rights issues. Good luck with that and please keep us informed of how that goes for you.
DH: We could literally talk about this forever. We could talk for the next three hours about all this, but I’ll stop now. I appreciate having the forum to talk about these things with you, it’s been great. You ask great questions. I know you’re well respected in our industry. We’ve talked about the policy side today, we talked about the marketing side and we didn’t talk all that much about the underlying rights side. The issues that are present there, I know you’re deeply involved in that. We are mutually interested in that, as well. I’m really pleased to see that there are ideas that are springing forth, like blockchain, that are conceptualized around this broader thinking that this is not an unsolvable problem: the issue of rights, the issue of who owns what. There are a lot of reasons it hasn’t happened up to this point. It doesn’t mean our future has to perpetually be a fight and a lack of proper resources for digital services to refer to. I’m not one to pick winners and losers out of new ideas. I just love that there are new ideas. Those ideas can then grow and either fall under their own weight or flourish.
GH: I agree, I’m with you. The analogy I use is that the people that did the best during the gold rush in California weren’t the people that actually looked for gold, it was the people that sold them picks and shovels. I view the blockchain as the picks and shovels. I view technology as the picks and shovels. You can replace blockchain with social media, you can replace social media with the internet, you can replace the internet with digital technology, all of these things are platforms upon which things should be built. I like to, and my career has been one of creating environments where creative people have a sandbox to create things on. In order to do that in this industry, we really gotta break through some challenges around legislation, around transparency, all the things Music2020 is fighting for, and candidly the things I’ve devoted my life to, and I know you have to a degree, too. Let’s have more of these, either in person, hopefully, or more of this. But I think we’re going for the same stuff here. I love that you started with the artist, because you take them out of this equation and what do we have? What would the labels have?
DH: Really bad music.
GH: Take the artist out of Spotify and what are they left with? Increasingly, take music off of Youtube, and what’s left?… Cat videos! As always, Dick, thank you very, very much.
DH: Thanks, George.