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Jenny Toomey: Defending Artists' Rights

Jenny Toomey can’t seem to sit still. I can hear all manner of clanking and shuffling in the background as she answers my questions over the phone. But that’s the kind of activist she is: never resting, never quitting. It’s how she was raised: “My parents were very political,” she confides. Since those formative years, Toomey has gone from a Georgetown grad to the manager of DIY-friendly indie label Simple Machines to an artist in her own right (with records released on SubPop, 4AD, and other heavyweights) to a journo at the Washington Post and the Village Voice to the foremost defender of the independent music industry as the current executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. And she’s dedicated to keeping you and yours from getting screwed by corporate consolidators.

XLR8R: What do you feel the most pressing concern is for the music industry?

Jenny Toomey: There are tons of things to worry about. The House just passed a piece of legislation that fines performers for violating indecency on the airwaves. Before, if an artist said “fuck” on a song and the broadcaster played it, the broadcaster was liable. But under this legislation, the artist can be fined. What’s crazy is that the artists have no control over keeping their so-called indecent material off the airwaves. To hold them accountable for something they can’t control is simply insane.

So what happens to the broadcaster?

They still get fined, along with all of their affiliates. Another big issue of the day is the Supreme Court’s consideration of Grokster, which could have serious ramifications for the peer-to-peer networks. They might not even be allowed to exist in the future. As for sampling, it’s already nearly impossible to legally license samples without paying more than the artist would make. Which means that the majority of artists who want to use samples can’t do it legally without signing a major label deal.

Talk about the Future of Music Coalition.

We’re a nonprofit, and for that reason we’re making partnerships around ideas rather than basing our activity on what groups or parties we’re aligned or associated with. When democracy is working properly, people respect those who have different ideas and can build coalitions around areas of common interests. What’s so frightening about the structural divisions that are taking place in our society today is that it is becoming more and more difficult for those across the aisle from one another to agree or disagree on issues in ways that are reasonable.

Are we in trouble with the rampant consolidation of the media?

It’s incredibly dangerous, and not just for musicians but for the entire country. The fact of the matter is that radio stations and conglomerates operate under different rules than other businesses. They are required to serve the public, and serve them in a diverse manner. It’s a shame. I don’t know how we’re going to recapture what we’ve lost over the last six years.

Tell us your favorite book, film, TV show, and historical figure.

I read Don DeLillo’s book Underworld three times–although not all the way through. I usually made it to page 600 before putting it down–I did eventually finish it. DeLillo has such amazing insight into where the country is going and where it has been. I love the feminist French filmmaker Catherine Breillat. She made that controversial film, Romance, which I didn’t find controversial at all. She’s one of the only directors I know of that actually understands the way young girls feel. And they are usually the subject, not object of her films. TV show? Probably Project Runway. It’s just fascinating to watch people who can be given grocery supplies and in five hours make dresses that actually look like dresses. And I admire Walt Whitman–his idealism, generosity, grace, and joy. Many artists build their work from a place of sadness, but all of Whitman’s work, even that which is overtly melancholy, is optimistic.

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