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Hey Obama: Reboot the music industry!

If we can bail out the auto industry and spend at least a trillion dollars to save the financial system and reinvest in infrastructure, surely we could spare a dime for the music biz.

Yesterday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a post suggesting that president-elect Obama needs to do more than throw money at ailing industries, but actually needs to "reboot" America by investing in infrastructure and education. In Newsweek, law professor and intellectual property thinker Lawrence Lessig argued for a more narrowly focused reboot of the FCC, which should be encouraging technical innovation but instead tends to favor big incumbents.

But what about the music industry? Yes, the big labels have earned a lot of scorn for their technophobia and suing their customers--a practice which finally ended last week--but music is a multibillion-dollar industry, responsible for employing hundreds of thousands of people, and in the midst of several years of steep sales declines. If we can bail out the U.S. auto industry, and spend at least a trillion dollars saving the global financial system and reinvesting in infrastructure, surely we could spare a dime for the music biz.

Serious economic thinkers might scoff at the comparisons--finance touches everybody, and our entire infrastructure has been designed around the automobile--but music's more than a lark or a luxury. It's a core part of the entertainment industry, which is one of the few areas in which the United States is still an exporter and world leader rather than an importer. Even The Economist has acknowledged the deep biological importance of music, leading off its annual double Christmas issue with an investigation of why we love music.

As with Friedman's proposal to save America, my proposal to save music would start at the bottom--it's not enough to give the big labels and radio stations a few hundred million dollars to stem their losses and encourage re-investment. Instead, we need to create a culture of music appreciation and nurture the talent that will lead to the next generation of musicians. Here's my dream list:

Music education and training. In the U.S. education system, music and art are the last classes to be funded and the first to face cuts. Yet, we always seem to be able to spend another few million on sports fields and equipment. The U.S. government should mandate funding for music education beginning in fourth grade, when most kids develop the attention span and coordination necessary to learn an instrument, all the way through high school. This will not only contribute to a strong base of musical performers, but the kids who lack the talent or drive to pursue music as a lifelong hobby will at least learn to appreciate the skill it takes for others to pursue it--just like youth sports creates lifelong sports fans. And professional musicians should be able to take classes in new areas--theory, audio production--without having to pay the entire tuition out of their own pockets.

Tax breaks. Bars, restaurants, and nightclubs under a certain capacity should be given tax incentives to hire musicians. (I'm not so sure about big promoters like Live Nation or stadium-type venues.) Same with radio stations that play a certain percentage of music from local or unsigned musicians. (Big corporate radio with its narrow audience-tested playlists has done far more to devalue music--and harm sales--than the Internet.) Cities should be encouraged to create music-nightlife zones with less-stringent noise restrictions and the appropriate level of police protection.

Stipends for musicians. As romantic as punk-squatters might seem, being a musician doesn't have to mean a life of poverty. Canada offers grants to non-classical musicians, including emerging artists with "self-training" (read: rock musicians). Yes, they must have shown a viable career for at least two years, but a one-year grant could be the perfect bridge between promising local band and national club tour. If we can give the U.S. auto industry $17 billion, surely we can spare a few hundred thousand a year to give promising musicians a chance to postpone their day jobs while they try and find a bigger audience.

Infrastructure. It doesn't have to be all about roads, bridges, and high-speed data networks. Cities with decrepit or nonexistent classical venues should be given federal dollars for construction. National Public Radio should receive increased federal budget--with a requirement to devote a certain number of hours a day to music, particularly types of music and artists who don't get played on commercial radio.

I'm sure you can think of other examples. My point: we've treated music as a luxury--almost as a joke--for too long. I'm not asking for a national Minister of Rock (although Jack Black might be good), but as long as we're opening the federal floodgates to revitalize the economy, why not invest in something that people naturally love and that does no harm to anybody?

Happy holidays.