Interview: Michael Bracy

Director of government relations, Future of Music Coalition

Director of government relations, Future of Music Coalition

Michael Bracy is a man with many hats.

His daytime job is president of Bracy Interactive Group, a firm focused on new media strategies that deals with telecommunications issues. He is a partner at Bracy Tucker Brown that owns Bracy Interactive Group and deals media and PR relations and business consulting, among others. In addition to his work at the FMC, he has been a garage musician, college radio DJ, and a partner in an indie label Misra.

Bracy participated in an e-mail Q&A session with PRWeek.com to discuss the FMC's communications strategy, how the various players in music landscape have fared in media coverage, and his ideas about the best paradigm for musicians, record labels, and listeners to benefit from new technology and distribution streams.

Q: Tell us about the Future of Music Coalition.
A: The Future of Music Coalition is a non-profit think tank that explores policies, technologies and business models that can benefit musicians and citizens. Our basic premise is that the music industry is broken in a very basic way. New technologies create unprecedented opportunities for the creation, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of music, but if musicians are not at the table as these technologies are designed and implemented there is little hope that the new structures will be any better than what dominates the music landscape today.

Q: How have the coalition's mission, strategy and public relations efforts evolved over time?
A: When the FMC formed in 2000, we were very conscious to structure our organization not as a trade or membership group but rather a think tank. This gave us the ability to focus our agenda internally - to pick and choose the issues that we thought were most important then design strategies to try and make a difference. We knew that we would be dealing with limited staff and limited money, so we have focused on becoming known and respected as an independent voice with interesting information and perspectives on what are very complicated issues. One of the primary benefits of our organizational structure is that the many different perspectives that form the music/technology debate are represented on our board - artists, label owners, technology innovators, copyright specialists, economists and policy specialists.

We are able to talk through many of the issues internally, which helps us when we go public with a piece of research or analysis. Over the past four years, the biggest difference in our strategy is that we've evolved from being an unknown start-up organization into a group that is respected by policymakers and reporters. We are often called upon as a resource for our perspective on issues, and when we publish a piece of research or analysis it tends to get read. The other major change is that there are simply more players in the space - on an issue like media ownership there are a whole range of organizations who represent different perspectives both on a local and national level. This is almost exclusively a positive - more bodies with more data, resources and constituents.

Q: What do you think of the mainstream media's coverage of the digital piracy issue?
A. The music/technology space is incredibly difficult to cover on a number of fronts. At a very basic level, a reporter is asked to have working knowledge of the music industry, copyright law, technological innovation and business strategies. It's a very tough menu. Once a reporter has their head around the different factors at play, they have to distill this information into limited amount of print in a way that is both informative to readers who follow these issues but not so far inside that it leaves behind readers who only understand bits and pieces. Tough, tough beat. Over the years, the reporting has improved significantly. Back in 2000, many articles tried to reduce the debate to black and white terms - are you pro technology (a la Public Enemy's Chuck D) or against it (a la Lars Ulrich from Metallica). The reality is that musicians are all over the map - very few (if any) are "anti" technology, but they are rightfully concerned about the implementation of new structures that will turn their existing revenue structures on their heads. The rise of blogging culture also helps inform the mainstream media.

Sites like Washingtonpost.com (my hometown paper) allow their (extremely smart) technology writers ample opportunity to explore issues at a much higher level than they could in the traditional paper. The Post also does a great job of allowing readers to interact with reporters in a live discussion setting. Rather than reducing these complicated issues to sound bites, the Post (to give just one example) is able to go into much greater detail. My personal sense is that the growth of organizations who work in this space like Future of Music (including Public Knowledge, EFF, Peer to Peer United, Recording Artists Coalition, AFTRA, AFM, Recording Academy, Just Plain Folks, etc.) along with the continued emergence of articulate corporate spokespeople and academics has helped the media articulate the different positions that are being debated. This is nothing but a positive development - even when we don't agree with an organization on an issue, it is much more helpful from everyone concerned when that point of view can be articulated in a strong, reasonable fashion so their point can at least be understood. This is one of the core problems with the NAB and Clear Channel - on so many issues they refuse to engage in honest dialogue, instead hiding behind platitudes and misinformation.

Q. Please rate how you feel, in general, the following groups have come off in the press during the last couple of years. Record Labels: They've pretty much been kicked around, it seems.

Largely successful acts: Mixed bag.

Independent/lesser known acts: Everyone loves an underdog.

Companies enabling digital music (Apple, Real Networks, etc.): Mixed.

Lobbyists and non-profits in the space: Mixed. [The Recording Industry Association of America] RIAA has been hit hard in most quarters... As I said above, I do think that most organizations are doing a pretty good job of having a point of view and getting it out to the media.

Q. What message - if any - do you feel is getting lost in the noise?
A. The realities of the music community - [that bands are] local, independent, working in genres that aren't even remotely eligible for airplay because they are deemed "not commercial" by radio gatekeepers (and because these artists don't have hundreds of thousands of promotional dollars behind their projects).

Q. Please assess the FMC role of educating Congress on issues of technology and the progress it has made thus far. Is Congress up to speed with the technologies of today (and the future) and do members truly understand how it will influence the careers of musicians?
A. This is a great question that I may not be the best one to answer. My sense from inside our bubble here is that there is a growing awareness that the musicians have serious problems with the major label structure, and therefore have an independent voice on issues that concern the industry. That piece is crucial. I think many members of Congress (and certainly their staffs) are tech savvy, and recognize the impact that technology will have not only on the music community, but on our country as a whole. We are entering an era where the entire rulebook that governs our communications networks will be re-written - it is possible that the 1996 Telecommunications Act will look like child's play when all is said and done (likely years and years from now).

The fight over the FCC's efforts to roll back media ownership rules is an early skirmish in this battle. My gut [feeling] is that the very troubling experience of musicians as they relate to our communications structures/public airwaves (radio) and copyright law (leading to the rise of the copyright aggregators) will be a fascinating prism for policymakers to contemplate what values to build into the new telecommunications policy framework. Does that mean that the artists/consumer groups/technology innovators will win out over the major industries (both content and communications)? Only time will tell.

Q. In what ways will technology grant musicians the power to control more of their careers? College radio, the touring circuit, underground magazines and mail order (and Internet) stores have been around for years. What will change the status quo so musicians do not have to, as your website says, "resign themselves to working with indies and a life in the shadows?" A presence on the internet is like a shop at the end of a dark, one-way street. How will independent musicians get the foot traffic they need to survive?
A. This is a complicated question with a somewhat simple answer. The fundamental flaw with today's music industry is the attempt to squeeze what is a cultural/artistic phenomenon into a commodity. This structure - the attempt to leverage corporate synergies to manufacture pop stars at a high level, thereby mimicking the movie or TV industry - fundamentally doesn't reflect the reality of the music community. To a certain extent, because the major labels have historically controlled means of production, distribution, promotion and sales, musicians have been faced with the difficult choice of signing with a major (and giving away your copyright and control over your career) or staying independent.

Technology allows for democratization of all these factors, lowering the cost of doing business and creating new opportunities to promote music to smaller audiences in a wider (in fact, world wide) geographic space. For many artists, the goal won't be the major label deal (with all of its plusses and minuses); rather the goal will be organically building a large enough (and committed enough) fan base to sustain a career. Technology can be a significant facilitator to that end.

Q. In a 2000 interview, you said, "One reason FMC will influence the debate is because of the role technology now plays in lobbying. No longer is lobbying simply a function of smoky back room deals. Rather, through websites and listservs it is possible to educate and mobilize entire communities to participate in the process." Four years later, do you find that to be the case?
A. This is absolutely the case. Look at the example of the media ownership fight at the FCC. For decades, the question of who can own radio/television stations has been an inside-the-beltway debate controlled in large part by the broadcast lobby. In 2003, FCC chairman Michael Powell attempted to push through a sweeping deregulation of many longstanding rules concerning how many broadcast properties can be owned nationwide and in specific markets. Considering he had the support of the White House, leaders in the House of Representatives and some key Senators, the common assumption was that this initiative would be a slam dunk. Instead, this entire process became derailed. To a large extent, the credit goes to two visionary FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who strongly opposed both the process and the policy direction advocated by the Chairman. But the reason this issue really caught hold was the unprecedented involvement of the public.

The web and email helped educated hundreds of thousands of citizens about this FCC debate, leading to over 2 million public comments in opposition to Powell's plan. Thousands of citizens appeared at forums and hearings to express their outrage at the state of corporate media. And citizens contacted their elected officials in significant numbers - Senator John McCain (R, Arizona) said he heard more on this issue than any other he'd been involved with as chair of the commerce committee. This education process was facilitated by the internal communications processes of numerous organizations - Future of Music, Prometheus Radio Project, Media Access Project, Consumers Union, Consumers Federation of American, Free Press, AFTRA, AFM, AFL-CIO, Parents Television Council, National Rifle Association and many others. This outpouring of concern validated the positions of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein and inspired the Senate to veto the entire rulemaking. Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals essentially agreed with the coalition's position and remanded the rulemaking back to the FCC, keeping the existing rule structure in place.

The basic notion is this - information combined with constituent interest can effectively counterbalance the traditional lobbying money machine. The widespread adoption of the web and email changes the fundamental nature of policymaking here in DC.

Q. How do you go about publicizing the coalition in general?
A. We don't spend a great deal of energy publicizing the coalition itself - we get a ton of traffic on our website, lots of inquiries from the public and a steady stream of inquiries from journalists and policymakers. As a result, we haven't felt the need to spend resources publicizing FMC as an organization. We do expend a lot of effort getting the word out about specific campaigns or events. Our key audiences include the 3,500 folks who receive our electronic newsletter, the dozen or so organizations that we partner with on various issues, and our core list of reporters who are interested in our work. Sometimes we will issue more general releases, which we will post on the wires. Often, we'll place phone calls to key outlets to make sure they are aware of an event or a development on an issue. We're fortunate, however, that in most cases the reporters who we need to reach are already [aware] of FMC and interested in our point of view.

Q. You're a partner at Bracy Tucker Brown, an organization that combines federal lobbyists, grassroots organizers, media specialists and communications experts. How is your work at FMC similar to your work at BTB?
A. My work with FMC was informed by a great deal by the broader work my firm has taken on over the years. There are certain elements that you can replicate from coalition building - identifying key stakeholders, building an agenda, identifying key messages then getting these messages into the media or policy community. We've benefited greatly from my partners' work in coalition building and managing over the past two decades. At the same time, the key to FMC's success is the collaborative relationship between the entire FMC board, including Jenny Toomey, Kristin Thomson, Walter McDonough, Brian Zisk and Peter DiCola. They all make unique contributions to FMC that are fundamental to what makes the coalition special.

Q. What still needs to be done to create a more perfect model where labels, fans, and musicians all benefit from the technology and distribution streams out there?
A. The future music industry will be determined by a combination of technological innovation, adapting copyright law, innovative business models and an awareness of the problems of simply replicating the flawed structures that dominate today's industry in the future. This is no easy task, and it will take years and years to shake out. Some of the keys will be to ensure the macro issues are resolved. As we move into an era where the government will essentially rewrite the Telecommunications Act (thus giving shape to the next generation of communications technology) it is critical that we value what is truly special about the Internet - the ability for citizens to get around the traditional gatekeeper control of news, information and entertainment.

The trick for a more perfect model is to ensure basic respect for intellectual property (and the ability for an artist to be compensated from their work) without allowing the "internet" to devolve into a proprietary high speed data network controlled by three phone companies, a few cable companies and a wireless provider or two. If technological innovation is allowed to flourish, artists and citizens alike should be able to benefit.

Q. With Tower Records filing for bankruptcy protection, superstores like Wal-Mart selling tons of CDs and talk about the death of the retail music shop, what advice would you have for small, independent music shops?
A. This issue goes well beyond the music community - the big box retailers are hurting main street businesses across the country in all industries. I guess the country really has to make some hard decisions about the value of localism and individual service vs. getting a super cheap t-shirt imported from overseas. One thing the music community can do - and is doing in places like Seattle and Austin - is to quantify the economic value of the local music community to the local economy. It is important for local (and national) policymakers to consider the entire range of economic life that is linked to music, beyond the artists themselves there are retailers, clubs, booking agents, managers, concert halls, etc.

I don't know what the government can do to stop the "Wal-Mart-ization" of retail, but I do know that the FCC can enforce rules that can open up local airwaves for the kinds of local, independent and niche music that have been dropped as a result of the radical consolidation of commercial radio. If the FCC (and Congress) pursued a policy path that emphasized the local elements of broadcasting, it could bring significant pieces of music back on the airwaves - particularly the kinds of music that small, independent retailers specialize in. This could be a significant counterweight to the dominance of the big box stores. Is it enough to "save" retail? I simply don't know. But we have to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the music community.

Q. Has the FMC done any outreach to blogs or use any new, new media techniques to publicize the message?
A. One of the most exciting aspects of working in this space is the variety of journalists and news outlets that we get to deal with. Most of the FMC board first came together as a result of reading each others' work on the Pho discussion group, a list of 300 or so individuals working in the music/tech space and in many ways, a precursor to blogs. As I indicated earlier, our contacts range from the most informed bloggers to the most general wire reporters. Blogs serve as helpful filter to help provide context with the amazing range of information that comes across the computer screen every day and a helpful way to get the word out about important developments or upcoming events. Often, the key factor is not the blog itself, it's the individuals who follow a specific blog or what comes up in a Google search weeks later.

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