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An interview with Jenny Toomey

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When Jenny Toomey was front woman of '90s indie-rock stalwarts Tsunami and co-owner of Simple Machines Records, one of the most staunchly independent labels of that era, some in the music business may have had just a hint of what was to come for her. It's unlikely, however, that anyone saw the revolution: As executive director and co-founder of the Future of Music Coalition, Toomey has helped change the way music-biz legislation and policy are written and enacted. The FMC is the first organization to represent musicians as artists, rather than merely as business people, in the debate forming music-related law in the information age. (The FMC, for example, played a key role in arguing against the FCC's rollback of radio-ownership limitations.) Toomey stops in Pittsburgh this week -- playing, rather than talking about, music -- on her way to the first ever National Conference on Media Reform, in Madison, Wis., Nov. 7-9.

What is the National Conference on Media Reform?
A loose movement has gathered around [FCC Chairman Michael] Powell's cynical [rollback] decision. Madison is about trying to organize a movement around media concentration -- to make it like the women's rights or civil rights movements, to make sure it's not just a flash in the pan.

What role has the Future of Music Coalition played in preventing more media consolidation?
When we stepped in there was a vacuum. Huge opportunities fell into our laps. We got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study the way radio consolidation since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had hurt the music business. [Around the same time], Powell announced he was doing an inquiry into the value of some of the FCC ownership rules -- he felt they were antiquated; he wanted to allow more ownership. In the FCC hearings, they would accept no emotional or anecdotal evidence [about consolidation's effects] -- but we had empirical evidence of the effects of the Act on localism, diversity and competition. Those were all statistics that people hadn't put out before. Because that [study] came out just as there was a political firestorm regarding the FCC, we spent all of last year on that, testifying before Congress and the FCC, writing op-ed pieces.

Is there a transition occurring in the independent music world from rejection of the system to activism within it?
We started FMC to make sure that underdog artists would have a stake, a seat at the table, when people would discuss what new structures were going to be developed [with the advent of high-tech music sharing]. If only major labels are represented, we know the structures probably wouldn't serve indie artists at all, and likely not major-label artists either. The majors admit themselves that 90 percent of their artists are in debt to them. [Now], one of the things we talk about a lot is, if we don't fix things for the major-label artists, it'll never get fixed for independent artists. The [standard] major-label contract effectively takes away an artist's copyright and paralyzes them from negotiations for a number of years. It allows labels to control the licenses of the most valuable copyrights, and also ensures that most artists are indebted to them, so they don't organize for better structures. Until we get rid of unfair contracts, fix that structure and radio consolidation, all artists who can will sign major-label deals.

Too often, the rhetoric of the music downloading debate pits Luddite money-grubbers against anti-artist technologist -- a polarization that only serves the major-label status quo. Is that changing?
For one thing, clearly the media is better at writing about it. Think of what has happened in the last four years: [FMC] is not generally a lobby organization, but what will happen now is that the major labels will go in and tell a congressman something, and we'll get a call an hour later asking, "Is this true?" The second thing that's changed is the idea that these technologies are just simply bad. Seventy-six percent of citizens don't give a shit about copyrights -- it's becoming parallel to prohibition, where the law says don't drink, and no one stops drinking. How do we give everybody what they want? How do we give the citizens what they want, and how do we get the artist paid? There are parallels for this -- like the moment artists started [being paid] for radio airplay. Radio existed for 30 years before ASCAP started getting people paid for radio play -- the idea that after four years, this would get fixed, none of us thought that would happen.

Does activism get in the way of being a musician yourself?
That's one liability -- I think sometimes the activism overshadows the art. I don't get to record much, I don't make a lot of records, I don't sell a lot of records -- all the things I tell indie artists they have to do to make it as an independent artist. But every one of these decisions is one I make for myself.

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