Last week a friend invited me to visit the Popkomm, using the press pass of a colleague. Who am I to refuse a free invitation? Having never been at the Popkomm, I was curious to see what it actually was like.
Another friend had already warned me that the general attraction was to meet business partners and potential clients, and that it wasn't really a place to experience new forms of culture, or a place where a lot of new bands got signed -- so my expectations were rather low. And still I was surprised by what you find there -- it really is all about the business. Old Media business, that is. Yeah the Internet is omnipresent, but not the way you might expect.
- Wireless connection everywhere, but as a commercial service. Imagine paying EUR 150 for the ticket and still having to pay for the Internet connection... There were some Internet terminals in the press section, but I didn't use them.
- The booths were rather boring. None of the larger independent labels seemed present; MTV was there, and some of the majors (but even Sony was missing). At least 50-70% of the booths were small to mid-sized companies offering various products and services; the rest were largely big media using this as an opportunity to spread PR.
- Some interesting products, of none of which I wrote down the comany's name: a new technology to cut your own records (for approx. EUR 5.000), a German-made copy of Final Scratch with custom hard- and software (they didn't license Traktor, although their software looked remarkably similar). Many smaller labels, but I doubt their presence paid off except for the slightly increased probability of getting some media attention.
- The De:Bug booth was really cool. Not a real booth, just stacks of old and new editions of their magazine for takeaway (I finally have their #1 issue!); and nobody from the magazine present, because everybody knows it would just be a waste of time.
- On that note: I usually avoid the excitement some people get when they start stacking up free stuff (the obligatory ball-point pens and candy), but I ended up taking home several kilos of printed paper (several issues of De:Bug magazine, a Gema info-book, a free issue of the taz of that day, etc.) And free booze everywhere.
- The Gema had a booth too, which got me excited; so I grabbed a senior representative and questioned him about the incompatibility of Gema membership and Creative Commons licenses. He admitted to not knowing what CC actually is (which I was rather shocked to hear), but assured me that artists surely can put their music under arbitrary licenses even if they have a Gema membership. I left the booth a bit unsatisfied, but with a copy of the generic Gema membership contract to check out later.
- A couple of minutes later I had a chat with another guy from a rather large shared booth of independent record labels (forgot his name as well), and he assured me that while the Gema guy had been technically right, in practice you really can't be a Gema member and license your stuff unter a CC license. More on that below.
- I then was at a booth of an IP licensing service that helps track down copyright holders of original works. I asked them how they could guarantee that they didn't overlook license holders, but got a lame assurance instead. Didn't ask for pricing, and forgot to ask if they knew about the current state of German law regarding sampling.
Commercial vs. Noncommercial Markets
I have now heard of the Gema-Creative Commons incompatibility from three unrelated sources, one of which is the Creative Commons Germany FAQ itself. The gist is that German artists have to decide between two positions that are artificially separated: do they want to be a commercial artist, which means taking part in the commercial media jungle to promote their art, and using the Gema's services to collect money gained from airplay; or do they want to use Creative Commons licenses to promote their art, and do all the rest themselves. There is no in-between.
It is clear that the second option is more attractive to younger artists who still have to build up some public awareness; as soon as there is money involved, protagonists start losing interests in Creative Commons licenses, and start to rely on Old Economy methods to make sure they get their paycheck. The general consensus seems that because of this, even independent labels of rather moderate sizes are not really interested in CC licenses.
But I've now met several artists who are starting to question this artificial segregation of markets, and some react by quitting their Gema membership status; but Gema contracts take two years to expire, which smells even more like a weird attempt at content lock-in.
The basic problem is that this artificial segregation of markets (commercial vs. noncommercial) is here to stay; the noncommercial side of business doesn't really have a lobby that could weaken the artificial limitations of their means of participation in the market. If you don't have the money, you don't have the voice.
This serves as a nice analogy to the role of the Popkomm in the German and global music market: it's there for the business-side of things, and nothing else. We attended some panels that sounded interesting at first, claiming to discuss new methods of content promotion and self-management, but which in the end were just discussing methods to improve a major label's business while decreasing their liabilities towards the artist. I took notes during the panels, and I'll post them later.