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Music+Tech+Crumbling Industry=We’re not sure yet, but it’s gonna be cool!

May 19, 2009

Paul Lamere’s slide on how recommendation system are broken. From Mayhem

Right now the music biz is living somewhere between the Blade Runner future and the Kitty Hawk past. On one side we’re at the dawn of a new tech age and battles to determine the shape of what’s to come are being waged on all levels-from the indie foot soldiers pushing singles out the digitrunk (aka Myspace Music) to teams of academics, activists and lawyers bitch slapping congress to make sensible policy decisions. To paraphrase Mobb Deep-”There’s a war going on out there, no band’s safe from…”

On the other side we’re pulling a Wright Brothers-we know a new model is possible, we can taste it. But for all the planning and plotting, designing and discussion, we still can’t get this sonuvabitch to fly for more than a few feet. As for making that big jump off the “this is the new business model” cliff? Well, you leap first. We’ll watch and take notes.


Granted, this might be simplified just a bit and hyperbolized all to hell, this blend of optimism and tension was the major things I took away from yesterday’s San Francisco Music Tech Summit . That, and the realization that Justin Timberlake’s new Tennmen label really does not suck. And I think I have a soft spot for folk singing bears with guitars.

Broken down into 18 sessions, the daylong meeting of musicians, mavens and media was the brainchild of husband and wife dynamos Brian and Shoshanna Zisk. Now in it’s second year, Team Zisk flexed both sure hand and deep Rolodex to bring together an impressive list of industry insiders who paneled-it-out on everything from how to use social media to monetizing your web presence to brokering big time sponsorship deals without selling out (is this even an issue anymore?)


Panelists included: Dave Allen – Nemo Design /Gang of Four, Tom Conrad – Pandora, CTO/Head of Product, Jean Cook – Future of Music Coalition, Rick Farman – Superfly Presents, Layne Fox – DJ, 40 Thieves, Kurt Hanson – RAIN Radio and David Ring – Universal Music GroupExecutive VP.


One of the surprises of the day was Matt Morris , the first artist off Justin Timberlake’s new label. Now this showcase came right before lunch-strike 1, and began before I could sneak out for a quick smoke-strike 2. So on top of my usual journo snark, I was hungry and craving nicotine-not a good place to start a review. But I have to admit that Morris-with his bushy beard, Tracy Chapmanish song style and onstage wit-had me sangin’ like girl by set’s end. And when I found out later that he and his husband were one of 1800 LGBT couples married in SF last year, I promised myself I’d buy his 1st album. Or at least rip it from a friend who bought it.


Photo by Aquababe


Of course, there were some disagreements and mixed messages. Social media was a point of contention with beef between the “it’s great! Be everywhere your fans are” crew and the “it’s okay, manage a few key networks and don’t put too much stock in it” mob. Word is these two gangs were set to rumble in the back alley of the Kabuki Hotel after the cocktail party.


The issue of free music was also a hot topic with music organizations and tech companies pulling a Red Hot Chilli Peppers-give it away, give it away, give it away now, while small labels and musicians adopted more of a Common philosophy-Got a clip for these cats on the net, selling my shit. Let’s just say you Ramone and I’m Spit.  During the last panel on monetization things came to a head when the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Fred Von Lohmann and Universal elabs’ David Ring squared off on the issue.  


The symposium attendees were also noticeably light skinded and testosterone heavy (gotta work on that one for next year).  While there were a few women in the audience, the representation onstage still had a ways to go (even though the ladies rocked the Q&A portion of the “Future of the Music Industry” panel.) And the People of Color contingent was also kinda anemic, although I did spot Oakland’s Sean Kennedy and reps from Thizz Ent. working the rooms and I got to chill with promoter extraordinaire Zsa Zsa from the Fusicology events network.


All in all the day was informative and the best Monday I’ve had in a minute. And as techie as it was of course there were way more than 12 tweeters tweeting so there are notes all over the intersphere this morning, and you can get a sense of the discussion over at the #sfmusictech search page and from my own manic live tweets.


Here are a few nuggets I took away.



Tools, websites and publications to check for:


Great Points:


  • Terrestrial radio is on the way out, but while it’s here, it’s still the champ, with 97% of listeners still tuning into the ol’ sqawk box.  However, the next 18 months are going to change the game dramatically.

  • Owning music is over, people just need to have access to it when they want it.  Screw content. CONTEXT is key.
  • Giving away things for free can be a good way to gain fans/followers but there must be a strategy behind it to make money. Giving it away out just out of the kindness of your heart is a sure way to end up in the unemployed artist soup line. 
  • Social networking can be an effective tool, but it’s not the Holy Grail. You should have a plan before going in and be active with your network-respond to fans, answer questions, interact and be fun! On the flipside, more and more bands and brands are hiring “community managers” to manage their online presence.
  • Bands cant depend on the technology, the labels or anyone to control their careers, they have to take control themselves.  It’s a scary prospect for a lot of creative folks, but with the industry the way it is, not knowing your audience and your business model=yes, the soupline.

  • For an emerging band, the “superfan”-someone willing to be your band’s advocate, pushing and promoting your work- are like gold. When you find them cherish them, value them, give them free shit, and the love will flow like honey.

  • Interns are your friends.  Treat them right and see above.

  • Bands need to have control over their online presence. This means having your own band website and an inhouse database of fans and followers. Having a presence on a social network and hosted site is fine, but what happens when the site goes belly up?

  • The new industry will likely be sleeker and more slimmed down than the old behemoth, with several smaller companies forming networks to serve artists directly.

  • By taking control of their careers many more musicians will be able to eat and live comfortably off their music, but we’ll likely see a decline in super mega ultra obnoxiously rich rock stars. While there’ll always be a few Madonna’s and Fiddy’s, the new scale is more mid sized sedans and business class, less stretch hummers and private jets.

  • In several cases large brands actually prefer working with more local bands, especially if your sound can be compared to someone who’s hot at the moment. Smaller bands present less hoops to jump through and usually charge fair rates to license their songs.  And if you sound even remotely like Coldplay you’ll be friggin rich.

  • All the new tech and opportunities are great and are opening a lot of doors, but more than ever it’s crucial for the musicians, not the labels, the PR folks or the managers, to control their careers. The tools are there, just gotta learn to work ’em.

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