Richard James Burgess
May 10, 2016
At first glance, London-born, New Zealand-raised Richard James Burgess seems an unusual choice to head A2IM, succeeding President Rich Bengloff and interim President Molly Neuman earlier this year after three years on the trade org's board of directors and six months as its Chairman. He is an alumnus of the Berklee School Of Music, Guildhall School of Music, earned a PhD at the University of South Wales' Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries, and is a MENSAN. He headed up business strategies at Smithsonian Folkways, where he produced the box set, "Jazz: The SMITHSONIAN ANTHOLOGY," and has written a series of books on music production and recording, including the 2014 tome, "The History Of Music Production" for Oxford University Press. Burgess actually got his start a musician for the early British synth-pop outfit Landscape, which had early '80s MTV hits with "Einstein A-Go-Go" and "Norman Bates" on RCA. His production credits include an eclectic list of artists from Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, Nina Hagen, Thomas Dolby and Milli Vanilli to Lou Reed, Youssou N'Dour and Jimmie's Chicken Shack.
You somehow seem overqualified for this job.
Actually, on a daily basis, I feel underqualified. I've been in this industry my whole life, and apart from actually playing and writing songs, I use everything I've learned from my prior experiences. What is great about this gig is that I have a deep empathy for the people who are the essence of our business -- the artists, writers and musicians. I wasn't always crazy about record labels when I was an artist, but I started my own, Event Horizon Records, in the '70s as a survival mechanism and that gave me a broader perspective. Subsequently, I worked for both majors and indies as an artist and producer, as well as at Smithsonian Folkways, and I developed appreciation for all the different aspects of the business, which gave me more understanding of everybody's situation. I become concerned when entities appear to view music as a commodity or content that simply fills their pipelines that they want to pile high and sell cheaply. Music, to me, is a precious and mysterious thing, and the artists who create it need to be able to sustain themselves.
What was it that convinced you to take this job?
I was on the board for two-and-a-half years and I was Chairman for six months. I was very close to [former Pres.] Rich Bengloff and [interim Pres.] Molly Neuman. I realized that it would be important for whoever got the job to have a heart for the independent world, and I believed that I did. I believe in the mission. It's a tough job; you get pulled in a lot of different directions. I've had a very fulfilling, fun artistic career, and I thought this was an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the next generation of creatives. There are forces at work right now that don't really understand the music industry, and are in danger of destroying opportunities for young musicians. Having lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, I learned what it was like to function as part of a large bureaucracy. I was at all the meetings when the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) was originally being written, which is interesting because that's become a hot topic again. I also have a sense of how little the music industry understands the way in which "the Hill" sees it -- as a very fragmented place that can't make up its mind as to what it needs or wants. It is a complicated business. We have two distinct, separate copyrights at work, and then the owners and creators are sometimes unable to agree on things. So we have indies against majors, publishers vs. labels, artists at the center of it all, and so on...
As a trade association head, it's your job to present a united front for all those factions.
That's my goal. To try to smooth over those differences, to try to be in constant communication with all parties, so that we can air and settle our differences. While writing my most recent book, "The History Of Music Production," I realized this is the first time, since 1877, that the record industry isn't fully vertically integrated with regard to distribution. Now we have the likes of Spotify, Apple and YouTube. There's an interesting parallel between the problems of the past 16 years to the beginning of radio in the 1920s, which was, essentially, a version of Napster - offering free music. Radio didn't have a business model at first, either; there was no advertising. It was, clearly, an amazing invention; it was disruptive, and caused a similar kind of crisis between the record and broadcast, or virtual distribution, industries of the time. Record sales dropped about 95% between 1929 and 1933; of course, there were other factors at play, like the Great Depression, but we have seen two major recessions in this period also. The labels refused to allow recordings to be played on the radio. In 1942, there was the Petrillo recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians, which may have been partly responsible for the end of the big band era and for launching the singer era, because musicians couldn't make records for more than a year, but singer could. There were, of course, other reasons, including the Great Depression, World War II and the emergence of electric instruments. But you see similar parameters if you look from 1999 onwards after the introduction of Napster, when music also became free for a time. The dotcom bubble and then the housing crash were elements, too, and here we are still trying to recover from the idea that music should be free and we never solved that problem with U.S. terrestrial radio despite the fact that the rest of the world did.
Technology always seems to be at the heart of the music industry's evolution.
Without the invention of the phonograph in 1877, we wouldn't have a recording industry. We might have a music business, but we wouldn't have any recordings. Technology is disruptive on the one hand and on the other, it's the very basis of what we do. The key is, as an industry, to spot these potential disruptions before they happen, understand them, embrace them and make them part of our business model, or some outside force will end up dictating what takes place. That's what happened with radio in the '20s and it's happening now, 100 years later.
With all the consolidation, the independent labels are virtually a fourth major at this point.
We're more than a third of the market. But there are anti-trust considerations. You can act in tandem, but when you're a coalition of many different labels, it's a little tricky. There are certain things you can't do. I've described our industry as an eco-system. The majors today are, for the most part, a collection of indies that they have acquired and merged into the conglomerates. It's a natural evolution.
Will you be doing much lobbying?
Yes, definitely. What I've tried to embrace is the idea of talking to everybody to see where our commonalities are, and see how we can resolve our differences. We need to get rid of the unhealthy soil so we can grow some great new music and labels. It hasn't been a healthy environment for at least the past 15 years.
You mean the problems with the compensation offered by YouTube and the free streaming services?
I'm a huge fan of streaming. The level of accessibility for music is phenomenal. I had Spotify the first day it was available in America. One of the things that grates on me is when people say music has lost its value. Music is undoubtedly more valuable than ever. More people listen to music today than at any time in human history. I would say music generates more money today than ever.
In America, radio has never been seen as a form of distribution, so musicians, artists, producers and record labels don't get paid performance royalties when a song is played. That's just plain wrong. And this is something that's been going on since the '20s. We're very much in favor of the "Fair Play, Fair Pay" Act or any movement that will get artists paid every time their music is used. I'm cautiously optimistic because this is a blot on the reputation of America in the IP world. And it denies American musicians hundreds of millions of dollars a year, because we don't get reciprocal rights in other countries. Music is generating revenue, but that value is being appropriated and used outside of the creative community for other things.
It's an extractive economy. When you consider how the revenues are split, it would be like an oil pipeline earning 95% of the value of the oil going through it. Clearly, there is no point in building a distribution mechanism if there is nothing to put through it. I'm a big fan of Google and YouTube; I'm just not a big fan of the way they treat IP and musicians. They're not doing the right thing. They're starving the music community. The opportunities are not available for creatives today that were there when I started in this business. The consolidation of radio allowed in 1996 by the FCC hasn't been a good thing for the industry, either. Local bands can no longer get played on their hometown radio stations.
What is the current relationship between the majors and the indies? It would seem you share many of the same concerns.
One of the conversations I've been having with the majors is that we should stop worrying about shaving a quarter of a percent off each other's market share and start growing the industry as a whole. And I put that out there to the tech companies as well. If we can make more good music available, and enable musicians to get paid at a level that is sustainable for their lifestyles, we can end up with a healthier recording industry five-10 years from now. Let's stop thinking of this as a zero sum game. Digital music is incredibly scalable. You have no inventory, no returns, etc. We're moving towards high resolution streaming; bandwidth is increasing, as is storage. The future is rosy; the only problem is making sure the income is shared fairly between the distributors and the creators.
Finally, what's a MENSAN doing in the music business?
I don't know if it makes a difference, honestly. My brain is taxed on a daily basis. And we don't really know what IQ tests indicate anyway. If there is an advantage, I don't necessarily feel it.