Live In Conversation: Kevin Erickson Part I of II

Kevin Erickson

Director: Future of Music Coalition

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips. 

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem. 

This episode’s guest was Kevin Erickson who is the Director of the Future of Music Coalition 

The Future of Music Coalition is fighting the good fight. Our next guest, Kevin Erickson is their director. He works at the intersection of DIY music, community organizing, and policy. His experience spans the full range of the music industry, from community radio to live show booking and promotion to brick & mortar music retail management.

Kevin Erickson has contributed opinion pieces to outlets as disparate as The Nation and Pitchfork. He volunteers with Positive Force DC, and remains active as a musician and record producer, with Swim-Two-Birds recording studio in DC.

Future of Music Coalition (FMC) is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization supporting a musical ecosystem where artists flourish and are compensated fairly and transparently for their work.

Fairness in Future: Compensation & Advocacy for Artists

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Kevin Erickson took place on Wednesday, the 30th of November, live from Washington D.C. 

Kevin Erickson is the Director of The Future of Music Coalition (FMC).

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In part one (below), Marc explores how Kevin came to realize that the musician’s community desperately needed a voice. Things change, and technology is incredible but musicians still seem to be losing out. The big players have created a situation where there are just fewer options available now to people at all levels of the music business. That is where The Future Of Music Coalition comes in.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc Brown: Kevin! Welcome to #HowWeListen Live. Nice to see you!

Kevin Erickson: It’s good to be here!

Marc: Before we got started you were complaining about the weather. Where are you located?

Kevin: We had such a lovely autumn and all of a sudden it’s become winter. I’m based in Washington, D.C. There is also a mad scramble right now to get as much done before the end of the year. Before the US Congress adjourns for the holidays.

Marc: When does Congress go on holiday?

Kevin: It’s kind of in flux. Sometimes they barely make it before Christmas, sometimes they come back after Christmas etc. We don’t entirely know yet.

Marc: Let’s put all of that into context and why it relates to what you do.  

Kevin: Sure! I’m Kevin. I direct the Future of Music Coalition, a not-for-profit. It has been based out of D.C. for over 20 years now. I’ve been here for about 10 years. We work at the intersection of music, technology and public policy. The work we do covers research, advocacy and education. We try to make sure that musicians have a voice on all of the issues that impact their lives and livelihoods. Sometimes that means talking to the federal government or regulatory agencies. We help them understand how they can be most helpful to musicians in the field.

Marc: How big is the organization?

Kevin: We’re pretty small. I’m the only full-time employee. We have different projects that scale up or scale down, if up we bring contractors on. The nice thing about being small is that we can pivot quickly. When we see an opportunity we can jump into it. Running a small public policy agency has that element of a startup. You kind of need to hustle all the time. It’s a good place to be. We’re small. So one of the things we can do, through coalitional work is find common ground with industry partners. Likewise in other parts of public policy. Sometimes that’s labour, civil rights groups etc. We try to be the connective tissue and help folks see where their common interests lie.

Kevin Erickson Live In Conversation

Marc: So we chatted a few days ago. You were saying that you were going to do this interview from your studio. If you have a studio, does that mean you were a musician at one point?

Kevin: On some level, music and advocacy have always been pretty closely intertwined in my life. In college, I ran a radio station and then I started booking shows for touring artists and promoting them. I first encountered Future of Music Coalition through my radio work. I realized that my idea of what it meant to be a working musician was very different from the kind of messaging I was getting through mainstream media. If you think about something like MTV Cribs – it gives the illusion that everyone is rolling in money but the reality is much different. At the time, Future of Music was doing some of the first research that ever existed on musicians’ access to healthcare. After college, I spent some time working in various parts of the music industry. I ran a venue, promoted shows, managed a record shop, and continued to produce records.

Through all of that work, I got involved in an organization that was helping share resources for young people who were trying to run all-ages venues in their own communities. Both the systemic challenges and the day-to-day challenges were pretty similar from community to community. I helped to create some resources and best practices and talked about what others had learned and I really focused on sharing that information with others. I came out to D.C. to speak about some of that work at the Future of Music Coalition’s conference and I met people there and started to think that this might be my next step. Future of Music was founded by musicians and record label owners who had worked hard to try to understand and navigate these complex systems.

Marc: Getting tricks and tips, insight, is really important. It’s always been a problem for artists so having someone to trust to get advice from, and a roadmap is so valuable.

Kevin: Exactly. Now we have more access thanks to technology, but before most of this information was communicated in ‘zines. Technology has made some things easier, but the basic dynamics haven’t really changed. We still have a lot of systems and practices in the music industry that are not designed for the little guy. That can feel intimidating. Documenting what you’ve learned and sharing it can also help make progress with policies. It’s a similar idea – you learn by doing and navigating complicated processes by jumping right in with curiosity and humility.

Marc: The idea that everything is digital is true, but the hustle remains the same. There are all of these people interacting together and different organizations that occupy different places in the music landscape, but the dynamics are the same. For example, there’s always been an issue where too much power is in too few hands. Is that something you’re fighting against?

Kevin: Yeah. I’d say in some ways it’s gotten worse since the 1990s. Before there were about 6 major labels but now we’re down to 3. In some ways, it’s easier to get around them and they don’t have the same kind of monopoly on the markets, but they do have leverage over the way the marketplace is shaped. It is a thread that has run through all of our work over the years. Increasingly, it’s become the main story – where too few companies have too much power which hinders musicians’ ability to get fair sustainable compensation and reach potential audiences.

For example in ticketing, Ticketmaster has a monopoly over the live space, so artists don’t have a lot of alternatives that are available for musicians to choose from. Same with radio, especially in the US. iHeartRadio bought up all of the local radio stations, fired the DJs and replaced them with robots.

Marc: Well, robots…that’s pretty futuristic – what a change!

Kevin: Exactly. That also paved the way for some things that are happening in streaming. Curation is now more about the algorithm and is largely data-driven so it becomes less about relationships within music communities and more about extraction from music communities for the benefit of the largest firms and their investors. None of this is inevitable – these are all products of public policy choices that have been made over the years. When we understand that, we can also understand that it’s fixable.

Marc: Can you explain how the minimal competition affects people starting out as musicians?

Kevin: I will start with the live space. One of the things that has happened is that Ticketmaster and Live Nation own and control more and more of the venues. I don’t think anyone is trying to screw over these small music communities, but their decision-making is increasingly data-driven, so unable (or unwilling to put in the work) to incorporate local community concerns etc. Independent venues are finding that they are being pressured to work with Ticketmaster, or else they might not get those Live Nation tours. They might just open up a venue nearby that’s a direct competitor. The reality is that there are just fewer options available now to people at all levels of the music business. Ideally, you’d have a ton of companies that are out there competing. With consolidation, things move towards a one size fits all model. In music that’s just not feasible.

Kevin Erickson Live In Conversation

Marc: Yeah. It goes completely against where things are at with releasing music. Music is becoming more and more diverse because the barriers of entry for releasing music are much lower. People are listening to music a lot more broadly.

Kevin: Exactly, there’s so much more interest on the consumer side and we’re seeing a lot of exciting new innovative movements and scenes. Yet, on the sound recording side, we increasingly see economic models that are only able to be profitable for people who are able to achieve a mass-scale audience. If you compare streaming to physical sales, it puts artists in a position where they constantly have to be chasing after a larger and larger audience. This isn’t sustainable for the smaller, niche genres of music that are not likely to go mainstream. The way that we fix that is by addressing the range of market and policy failures that got it to that place. We have to look at technologies that are built with small-scale artists in mind.

Marc: This is what I find so fascinating about your organization! You spend a lot of time talking to lawmakers because there are a ton of rules and regulations that come into play in the music space. Is that accurate?

Kevin: Yeah.

Marc: That’s not what I would expect in the U.S.A., I am surprised.

Kevin: Like in many industries, there are many regulatory structures, licensing and copyrighting systems etc. that can shape what is or is not possible for businesses. A lot of these processes are invisible to the consumer, so the systems by which these decisions are made are not that accessible. This has led to a situation where the laws that end up governing these structures tend to happen without musicians themselves even being present to advocate. The only way that we fix that is by showing up and claiming that place at the table whenever we can.

Want to read on? Head to Part II here!