Live In Conversation: Kevin Erickson Part II of II

Kevin Erickson

Director: Future of Music Coalition (FMC)

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 two (below) Marc digs into Kevin’s process and how he explains a thing so complicated as the music industry to politicians. Puppets and fancy hats help relay and convince congressmen and lawmakers that a policy change is good for everyone. They also discuss what musicians can do for themselves to help.

Miss part I? Click here to read.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc: So you go and talk to politicians but I’m assuming they often aren’t as knowledgeable as you are when it comes to this stuff. You have explained it as lawmakers are very busy, and so they need to understand systems in a fast, simple, succinct way.

Kevin: I’d say that’s true. There are different populations that you’re talking to. Some government specialists focus on one particular issue or area, but in other places (especially Congress), the amount of bandwidth they have to talk and think about music industry issues is very limited because they have hundreds of requests and so many other things to worry about all the time. For the subset of elected officials to whom live music is important. Helping them understand the underlying power dynamics as quickly as possible is especially challenging because music and music licensing are very complex. One thing we’ve started to do is use puppets.

Kevin Erickson Live In Conversation

Marc: Visual aids!

Kevin: Yes! In 2018 we were working on a piece of legislation that required a base level of understanding of certain structures that most people we were talking to just didn’t have. A few people asked us to explain it to them like they were 5 years old. So I invested in some puppets. I also had different hats for different people in the industry: backup dancers, singers etc.

We divided it between the two copyrights relevant to music licensing. So, in every piece of recorded music there are 2 copyrights in the U.S. There’s the sound recording, which is the actual performance and the lyrics. Money from that goes to the artist and/or the copyright owner. The second copyright is the music composition. The royalty generated from this goes to the publisher and the songwriter. Sometimes a single individual operates all of these roles. But when you’re thinking about how the money flows, it’s important to think through each one of these “hats” separately, which is why we colour-coded our hats! We did this for a C-SPAN video a few years ago.

Marc: That C-SPAN video is super important. You explained some things very quickly and in a really simple way. That is the problem in the music ecosystem – it’s super complex. The things you mentioned with who owns what side – that is syncs! People need to know all of these things and have access to the information. Since you spend so much time working in this space, what do you think musicians need nowadays?

Kevin: The main things they need are access to audiences, fair and sustainable levels of compensation and a social safety net – things like access to healthcare, unemployment benefits etc.

Kevin Erickson Live In Conversation

Marc: Have you succeeded in that area? I remember a few years ago there was a series of articles on how the majority of musicians lived with no healthcare in the U.S.A.

Kevin: We did the first research into the disparity in musicians’ healthcare. We found that in general musicians were going without healthcare at around 3x the rate of the general population. Already in the U.S. the general population is not well served. Healthcare reform is not something that happens with just one population in mind – making changes in these systems requires work from a lot of stakeholders.

What we were able to do was identify some of the systemic barriers that were preventing musicians from having access to healthcare. Often it was because of the employment relationship. Musicians often have multiple employers and income sources. We took that research and brought it to the larger policy conversation so that it could inform that. Although it’s far from perfect, we’ve seen some success there and have helped thousands of musicians gain access to healthcare. We’re going to continue to advocate for the next steps since it’s far from perfect. We understand that these are long-term fights, but we need to work with as many allies as we can.

Marc: A question: Have you been involved in the conversation to get artists paid when their songs are played on the radio?

Kevin: Have we ever! I sometimes joke about how this issue is one of our greatest hits. There’s a bill that Congress is considering right now called the American Music Fairness Act which would help ensure that musicians get paid on the radio the way it is in the rest of the world. That would have an impact on the musicians who are played on the radio in the U.S. of course. Then also those who are played in the rest of the world. Right now U.S. musicians who get played overseas are not able to collect those royalties often because international artists who get played in the U.S. are not paid their royalties. Through agreements and policies we have what is called a reciprocity obligation so until we fix that here, no one is going to get paid.

Marc: Really? So if you have a band in the U.S. and it gets played in Sweden, that money doesn’t flow back to you?

Kevin: Yeah!

Marc: Wow, I had no idea.

Kevin: Exactly. I am hopeful that we’re making real progress. Partly because we’ve worked with allies in the non-commercial space who represent the small community stations. We may have a markup of a bill in the judiciary committee! If it advances out of the community and goes into the full house, it’s certainly indicative of real momentum in the industry. Even if you’re at that level where it doesn’t matter that much to you, it will still impact you because although streaming services don’t pay artists a lot, it’s still more than radio. Until we fix the systemic problems that cause this, it won’t get resolved.

Marc: That is fascinating. Unless you know the behind-the-scenes, it’s hard to see how it’ll impact you as an artist. Do you ever get beaten down by this stuff? Do you find it intimidating or rewarding?

Kevin: I would say that there are still aspects of public policy work that are very common to the experience of being a working musician or creator of any kind. There’s definitely imposter syndrome and the frustration that comes along with that. At the same time, some of the skills and ways of thinking that you develop through trying to build a creative career or vocation help you work with a kind of long-game thinking. To simultaneously identify the opportunities and challenges that are in front of you, but also be thinking about where you’re going long term.

The reality is that policymaking is a lot of slow, methodical work over time. It can be hard and boring sometimes. So is touring – so we’re equipped for this stuff! You have to trust and see some reward from it further down the road so that you’re not miserable while you’re getting to that point.

Marc: It’s worth the wait! It feels great to know that you’re doing what you’re doing because you’re passionate and articulate. What can artists do to make it easier for themselves within this landscape?

Kevin: I think one of the main things is just making it part of your practice to show up and engage. Especially because of the pandemic, a lot of our work at Future of Music Coalition has been a lot more lawmaker and policy focused and less about pushing messaging out to the artist community. So for artists, generally, showing up and being part of the conversation, even if it’s just listening, goes a long way.

Marc: You have also mentioned the notion of DIY except you have changed the message slightly: it Do It Together. I think that was a really valuable way to look at it. How would new artists learn how to exchange information?

Kevin: It does require a shift in your thinking. The DIY model now has a sort of entrepreneurial feel to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can’t be the only frame in which you’re looking at musicians. As a musician, you need to look at the choices that are available to you in terms of how you’re going to do your business, play shows, put out records etc.

Start to see your choices as not individual but rather as a shared community of peers and values. Seeing other musicians as comrades, not as competition is really important in this. It’s a collective struggle towards a more equitable and just system. Also, proceed with curiosity and with the assumption that you’re not the only person who has experienced these curiosities. Look around at the whole array of music organizations out there and see who’s working on what and what you can join in on.

Marc: Also, proceed with caution! You want to make sure that you don’t get stuck in any situations you can’t get out of. I feel like a lot of artists worry about that contractually these days.

Kevin: Right. In terms of individual contractual arrangements and business deals, I would say absolutely be careful, and methodical. Ask questions to your peers who might be further along the artistic journey than you. There are also great resources out there that you can tap into whether it be information on the internet, volunteer entertainment lawyers etc. Of course, the other side of all of this is that as you learn things, be generous with your knowledge.

Marc: Absolutely!

Kevin: So much grief can be saved by sharing experiences good and bad with other musicians.

Marc: That’s super interesting. 

Kevin: I have a video coming out about that soon actually.

Marc: With the puppets?!

Kevin: I will add that we are also re-launching an up-to-date website soon,  which is really exciting.

Marc: All of this has been really helpful and a lot of things about which I had no idea. Thanks so much for joining us today!

Kevin: Thanks so much for having me, this has been lots of fun.