WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Wayne Kramer, the famed MC5 guitarist, stood and surveyed his audience Tuesday at the Future of Music Summit. He was glad to be here, he said, "part of academia" in a room full of "well-groomed people."
The line got a laugh. As the wonkiest and also the most cutting-edge of music conferences, the summit has helped artists, agents and entrepreneurs navigate an industry through a decade of declining revenue and immense, if risk-laden opportunity. The night before, Kramer had closed down an awards dinner for these well-groomed thinkers and creators with a fierce version of his MC5 anthem "Kick out the Jams." On Tuesday, he talked about his time in prison during the '70 for drug-dealing, how he healed himself and now tries to heal others in a similar predicament. His "Jail Guitar Doors" program, named after a song the Clash wrote for him, brings music lessons and guitars to inmates at penal institutions around America. With the highest incarceration rate in the world and more than 2 million prisoners, the U.S. penal system keeps Kramer busy.
His personal tale brought a social perspective to a conference that a day earlier focused on numbers, policy and technological innovation. Tuesday belonged to the dreamers.
College professor and music critic Josh Kun used the art of the crossfade, in which a hip-hop DJ merges two strands of music, as a metaphor for social integration. In this worldview, the "melting pot" ideal is a 20th Century relic, a homogenizing of culture. The crossfade, in contrast, mixes disparate elements and retains the character of each. It posits that "existence is always co-existence" and creates "bridges where none exist."
In today's music, Kun said, "everything is a remix" with musical parts in constant flux, merging and re-merging. The crossfade is also a philosophy. Just as the DJ listens for places to connect music, society is a living organism that thrives when cultures connect.
The notion that no piece of music is ever truly finished also inspired rhapsodizing from former Clash and Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman. "You really haven't lived until you go through the entire corpus of 'Land of a Thousand Dances,'" the frantic R&B track recorded by everyone from Cannibal and the Headhunters, with its window into mid-'60s New Orleans, to Patti Smith, who folded it into the epic "Land" on her 1975 debut album, "Horses."
The song "is not solely defined by its score, or any single recording," Pearlman said. "It unfolds."
That philosophy prompted Pearlman to say he would push for John Oswald's "Grayfolded" for inclusion in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress (he's already successfully nominated Smith's "Horses" and Love's '60s song cycle "Forever Changes"). Oswald's "plunderphonic" reimagining of the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star," a tapestry that weaves together hundreds of versions of the song spanning decades, is like "a sonic spunge stack," Pearlman exulted.
Pearlman, his ubiquitous cap shading all but the wicked smile on his face, was still spinning fanciful theories as his panel ended. Imagine, he said, the potential profit margins if the industry capitalized on the current mini-boom in vinyl album sales -- a micoscopic but nonetheless thriving sub-culture. "An alternative vinyl economy that could return more to artists than the current deprived and depraved music economy," he said. "Think about it!"
Even Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel got into the act of celebrating the underdog, extolling the imminent arrival of low-power FM stations in the nation's biggest markets, after a decades-long legislative struggle. "This will be a boon to local voices," she said, a small victory for diversity amid mega-watt commercial radio juggernauts.
For many artists, their dreams were more contained, more practical, defined by years of struggle that had tested their resilience. Aspiring artists and activists, said Stephen Brackett of the Denver hip-hop group Flobots, must "stumble" into their true voices and callings. "There is a synchronicity in failing, and then finding yourself again," he said.
Jazz saxophonist Matana Roberts could relate. "I once played a show for one person -- my friend who asked to be on the guest list," she said. "She was a poet."
Dessa acknowledged that her earliest dream was to get signed to a big label, but she's now glad she didn't because her first album didn't measure up and her career might've been over even before it began. Since then, she's made two acclaimed albums and tours regularly. Still, her aspirations remain modest. "I'm sitting here," she said, "hoping someone (in the audience) might Google me."