The future of music is now

By:
11/14/2002

A young woman with short, dyed-red hair, dressed stylishly with a hint of thrift-store nonchalance, stands confidently behind the podium among Gaston Hall’s stained-glass-and-oak-paneled grandeur. Names of great thinkers are etched on the wall behind her, and a herd of dark-suited lawyers, powerful businessmen and curious musicians sit in front of her.

“Isn’t this cool?” she says to the herd coyly, before continuing her remarks.

This is definitely cool. Amid a fierce debate over how music will be made, distributed and listened to in the future, Georgetown graduate Jenny Toomey (CAS ‘90), is at the very center. A respected, practicing musician and one-time independent record label honcho, Toomey has brought the debate over music and technology back to the Hilltop as the leader of an activist organization fighting for musicians’ rights.

Making the scene

As an activist and a musician, Jenny Toomey grew up in the right place at the right time. The independent music scene in Washington in the early 1980s was known as much for its near-militant independence as for its music. The band Minor Threat, in particular, emerged as the idols of a generation of alienated youth. Central to the idolatry was a philosophy eschewing alcohol, drugs and promiscuity: “straightedge,” after the title of a Minor Threat song.

Growing up just across the District line in Bethesda, Md., Toomey immersed herself in this burgeoning punk rock scene. She attended the same high school as legendary indie figures Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, as well as members of D.C. hardcore outfits Dag Nasty and Rites of Spring.

Attending Georgetown was an unlikely choice for an artistically inclined, intellectually curious person like Toomey. Georgetown had, then as now, a largely pre-professional reputation. Her parents advised Toomey against enrolling, but the lure of the punk scene kept her from leaving the D.C. area. Bands like Fugazi, the now-legendary successors to Minor Threat’s do-it-yourself mantle, were leading the scene’s revival, and Toomey wanted to be right in the middle of it.

As a as a straightedge, liberal arts first-year, Toomey found it difficult to fit into a pre-professional, alcohol-oriented social scene, and moved off campus after one semester to a group house in Arlington. Except for her involvement with WGTB, Toomey was rarely involved in campus culture.

“There were only three kids in the entire University majoring in art at the time,” Toomey recalled. “But everyone got a show.”

Toomey’s academic life was more inspiring. At Georgetown, she met English professor Daniel Moshenberg, who became her mentor and awakened a passion in her for social activism. While still in college, Toomey became deeply involved with Positive Force, a still-active D.C.-area group that seeks to bring punk music together with social activism. It was at a Positive Force benefit in 1989 that Toomey met future business and musical partner Kristin Thomson, who had come to the District after graduating from Colorado College. Right away, Thomson saw something special in Toomey when she confidently addressed the crowd at the rally.

“I thought, who’s that really cool girl that’s so brave!” Thomson recalled. “She was very comfortable talking up on stage. Her confidence was clear to me, even as a stranger.”

Toomey was further disillusioned during her senior year when Moshenberg was controversially denied tenure by the University and subsequently took a job at the George Washington University. Said Toomey, “This did a lot to overshadow my enthusiasm for [Georgetown].”

“Georgetown is a bittersweet thing for me,” Toomey said. “[Moshenberg] never felt loved at Georgetown; I never felt loved at Georgetown either.”

The “bittersweet” relationship continued to the end?Toomey was nearly kicked out of Georgetown for stealing the press run of a controversial April Fools’ Day issue of The Hoya, before finally graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in Women’s Studies, Philosophy and English.

Mixed business

By the time she graduated, Toomey had already begun making her mark on the scene as a musician as well as an activist. During the summer after her sophomore year, she began singing in her first band, Geek, which debuted at Georgetown the next spring.

After she met Thomson, the two started making music together, resulting in what would become Toomey’s best-known musical project, Tsunami. Alongside bands such as Unrest and Eggs, Tsunami’s tempestuous sound stood at the vanguard of the 1990s D.C. punk resurgence. Though the sound was less aggressive than the hardcore of an earlier era, Toomey’s music attracted national attention to a thriving scene.

And like the first wave of D.C. punk, “do-it-yourself” was the overriding philosophy. Even during the indie-signing boom precipitated by Nirvana’s success, the new bands remained committed to releasing their music independently. To release the first Geek records, Toomey and Thomson began a record label, Simple Machines, out of their Arlington home in 1990. The label released its first series of 7” singles, each named for a different simple machine?Wedge, Wheel, Pulley, Screw and so on. Geek appeared on the first record, and Tsunami on the last.

Neither Toomey nor Thomson had much of an idea how to run a record label. Toomey described it as “a real make-it-up-as-you-go-along operation” There was one familiar model, however?Dischord Records, owned and operated by Minor Threat/Fugazi guitarist Ian MacKaye. Dischord doesn’t keep artists’ copyrights, doesn’t demand perpetual royalties in return for a large advance payment and doesn’t even have bands sign contracts?all practices anathema to major labels.

With Simple Machines, Toomey and Thomson did Dischord one better, releasing “The Mechanic’s Guide to Putting Out Records,” a 24-page booklet detailing the process of making and distributing music, making do-it-yourself a less intimidating proposition.

Over the decade, Simple Machines released more than 40 7” singles and more than 20 full-length albums, which included the work of more than 75 artists, becoming one of the most successful and respected independent labels in the country. But by 1998, things began to fall apart. Both Tsunami and Simple Machines were as successful as ever, but together the success was too much for Toomey and Thomson.

While Tsunami had made plenty of money while touring, Simple Machines grown to the point where so much work was required to keep the label operating that Tsunami simply couldn’t tour. Toomey was forced to work at an Arlington Kinko’s in order to make ends meet. Toomey and Thomson decided to end Simple Machines on a positive note, retiring while still financially solvent?a rare occurrence for an independent record label.

Thomson and Toomey were free to go their separate ways. Thomson left to pursue a master’s degree in urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware, settling for good in Philadelphia with her husband. Toomey stayed in D.C., landing a copy editing job for the Washington Post’s advertising desk.

The Future of Music beckons

After working in the Post’s advertising department for several months, Toomey began writing on music and technology for the Post and the Village Voice. In 1998, she was given a new gadget to review?an MP3 jukebox program.

With the click of a mouse, a user could “rip” a CD’s contents into relatively small MP3 files, which could be easily transferred essentially for free across the Internet.

“It struck me immediately,” Toomey said. “All I had to do was put the CD in the CD-ROM and it instantly told me what songs were on the CD and transformed them into a format that I could attach to an e-mail. I thought, this is going to create chaos. Good chaos. I wanted to be right in the middle of it.”

Technological innovations are not uncommon in the music industry, but this one was different.

“You could own the factory for nothing,” said Toomey. “And the minute you can own the factory for nothing is the minute that things get very interesting.”

Toomey started to see just how interesting things might get. She phoned contacts at independent record labels across the country to see what they were doing with Internet-based technology. Almost no one had done anything to take advantage of the Internet’s possibilities to break the major labels’ stranglehold.

“No one knew what the answer was, and no artists were talking,” said Toomey.

So she decided to re-partner with Thomson to create a website, “The Machine,” to jumpstart a discussion of music and technology. It was a time of great promise that would quickly fade. By 2000, numerous Internet-based music providers had consolidated into three?Napster, MP3.com and eTunes, which signed its bands to exclusive contracts. This decidedly major-label-esque behavior demonstrated to Toomey that something more than talk was necessary to prevent the Internet’s potential from being swallowed.

“We realized there was an opportunity to move forward at the moment and actually do more public, activist work,” said Toomey.

Coalition building

Toomey began by teaming up with Michael Bracy (CAS ‘90), a D.C. lobbyist and fellow Georgetown graduate. Bracy also had a background in music industry activism as the head of the Low Power Radio Coalition, which supports measures to open the FM airwaves to thousands of non-commercial broadcasters. The partnership expanded to include General Counsel Walter McDonough, an attorney who sits on the board of the SoundExchange, which determines digital royalty rates for the music industry, and Technologies Director Brian Zisk, who founded a California webcasting outfit.

From the beginning, the idea was to foster a multifaceted dialogue.

“We built this very divided board where everyone feels that music is valuable, everyone wants to make sure musicians get paid, but we all come to it from very different perspectives,” said Toomey. Essentially, by encouraging differing views among the board, real-world compromises can be quickly reached.

Together, the group, dubbed the Future of Music Coalition, released a manifesto in June 2000. The manifesto begins, “The history of the American Music Industry is a disheartening one, which largely details the exploitation of artists and musicians by opportunists and those without the musicians’ best interests at heart.” It goes on to decry both increasing industry consolidation and the lack of artist compensation in the face of file sharing.

The solution, the manifesto reads, is to “draw together the strongest voices in the technology and independent music communities to address questions of music in the marketplace with a clear-eyed focus on the interests of the artists.”

That is the purpose of the organization’s yearly “Policy Summits”?to bring together artists, lawyers and industry insiders to engage in constructive dialogue. For the past two years, FMC has hosted two-day events in January in Gaston Hall.

In spite of Toomey’s seemingly tenuous relationship to Georgetown, she’s brought her fight back to the Hilltop?but not without reason. Most music and technology conferences are held in drab hotel conference rooms, explained Toomey, FMC’s Executive Director. Gaston Hall provides an aura of majesty that fits with the FMC Policy Summit’s reputation as the “most intellectual” of all music and technology conferences.

Even more importantly, Toomey sees a strong connection between FMC’s work and the Communication, Culture and Technology graduate program. CCT students volunteer to help organize and run the conference every year, and are in turn are allowed to participate in the conference and see the panels.

The panels are the Policy Summits’ raison d’?tre?they bring together the best and brightest minds from all sides of issues ranging from copy protection to the government’s role in the debate, moderated by journalists smart enough to separate spin from the real story.

“The whole idea is that there’s no better way to figure out who’s making the most sense than to have two very articulate people argue publicly,” said Toomey. “There’s no better way to quickly get your head around the issues than to watch people argue about them.”

And though Toomey remains loyal to her fiercely independent roots, the decks aren’t intentionally stacked against the majors?that wouldn’t create a productive dialogue. The very first panel of the inaugural summit matched Hilary Rosen, head of the record industry’s 800-pound gorilla, the Recording Industry Association of America, with hip-hop’s iconoclastic Chuck D of Public Enemy.

“We always try to make it balanced,” said Toomey. “We get people matched intellectually, matched in experience, matched in power, and we try to build a bigger discussion.”

FMC tries to build a bigger discussion in between the yearly summits as well. On a day-to-day basis, the group coordinates with other artists’ organizations. Recently, FMC has submitted testimony to Congress concerning the pending debate over webcasting royalties.

Like any other Washington think tank, the Future of Music Coalition also conducts research. This coming Monday, FMC will release its first major study, “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” the result of a $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and nine months of research by Thomson and FMC board member Peter DiCola.

The study aims to show the results of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eliminated limits on nationwide radio station ownership and increased the number of stations a company might own in a single market. Though leaders in government and music industry claimed the new legislation would increase competition, critics contend it has instead led to massive consolidation. One corporation in particular, Clear Channel Communications, now owns more than 1,240 stations and has a nationwide revenue share of 27.5 percent.

“No one had actually done fiscal analysis of how that would have an impact on citizens and musicians,” said Toomey. “They do a lot of research about what is demographically attractive to them and their listenership, but that’s not the same thing as looking at how it affects democratic principles or access for communities or musicians.”

The record industry claimed consolidation would increase format diversity. The study shows that claim is a sham?there are more formats, but they are more similar than ever.

“It’s like I have a choice between a red jelly bean and a green jelly bean, but what if I want a hamburger? What if I want bluegrass?” said Thomson. “Is this diversity? I don’t think so.”

Taking it to the … classroom

Toomey has recently begun to integrate an academic component into her efforts with the FMC Policy Summits. Last summer, Toomey was asked by Georgetown’s Art, Music and Theatre Department to organize a class for the fall. Toomey team-teaches the course, titled “Music, Technology, Copyright and Public Policy,” with Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a group devoted to protecting freely available information from corporate encroachment.

Toomey and Sohn’s students tackle issues of music, technology and policy through readings and a research projects.

Adam Marcus (GRD ‘03), a student in the CCT program, is impressed with Toomey’s handling of esoteric issues in the class, which he calls “one of the best classes I’ve had.”

“She knows her stuff, and she has definite opinions,” said Marcus. “There’s probably just a handful of people in this country who really know how recording contracts work, and she’s one of them.”

Toomey said the process of teaching the course has helped her efforts.

“It forced me to read all of things that I’d only read parts of beforehand,” she noted. “I think with some contemplative time we could really write some books, and create more documents that we could use to build better structures in the future.”

And what about the future?

“It’s up for grabs, really, right now,” says Toomey.

As for the Future of Music Coalition?

“Our main goal is to try to build the structures that allow for a musician’s middle class,” said Toomey. “We want artists to be able to meet a mortgage payment, have basic health insurance and get on local radio.”

After working for the last year on radio consolidation, Toomey plans to focus FMC’s efforts next year on conducting a health care survey, aimed at finding out just what the health care needs of musicians are, and if they are being met.

And in the middle of all of this, Toomey managed to release her second solo album, Tempting, last month on Misra Records. She is planning to tour behind the album next spring.

But first, Toomey is preparing for the third Future of Music policy conference, to be held once again in January in Gaston Hall. Artists including Ian MacKaye, former Husker D? guitarist Bob Mould, This American Life’s Ira Glass and punk godmother Patti Smith have already committed to panels, along with the standard gaggle of lawyers and policy experts.

Guaranteed to be in the middle of it all is a punk girl with dyed hair and thrift-store clothes, who will stand up in front of all of them and say exactly what she thinks. And student, musician, lawyer and policy expert alike will listen to Jenny Toomey.

Isn’t that cool?

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