Transmission - Day One

Transmission - Day One
Exclaim!'s Need To Know columnist and music industry insider Allison Outhit recently travelled to Vancouver to take in Transmission, "an international event with a boutique atmosphere tailored exclusively for export-ready artists and business-ready professionals." Over the next few days we'll be posting Allison's daily reports, detailing all of the different industry-saving ideas that are floating around.

Now in its third year, Transmission is a conference that brings together artists, managers, labels, distributors, social networks, ISPs, mobile providers and marketers - anyone and everyone working in and around music - to discuss in earnest ways forward-thinking for an industry in flux. With a comparatively small number of attendees, Transmission offers an intimate forum and a chance for players big and small to get in a room and kick the proverbial can. It is not really a must-attend for people who need to be told what to do, partly because nobody coming here actually knows what the hell to do, and partly because there is an awful lot of waffling on about "monetization" and "disintermediation," terms that can leave the less philosophical in a bit of a spin. But the goal of Transmission is to talk about ideas that some brave, possibly foolish soul may figure out how to put into play, which is the very definition of avant-garde.

December 4, 2008
Today's opening address came from facilitator Paul Hoffert. Former keyboard player for Canadian icons Lighthouse, Hoffert still plays in a couple of combos when not teaching Media Studies at York University. CEO of Noank Media, Hoffert has been involved in some interesting experiments pitting commerce against art in the digital sphere. His address provided a simple and compelling overview of the tendency of economic systems to swing from periods where control is centralized to a gradual movement toward more individual, even anarchic transaction. This creates what he describes as "the bagel effect": a system in which all the goings-on are clustered around an empty core. In Hoffert's view, what has happened to the music business is a natural result of several decades of downsizing, decentralization, deregulation and digitization. The so-called "disintermediation" of the music business gets rid of the middlemen - labels, manufacturers and retailers - in favour of digital files, B2B and B2C enterprises, and 360 deals: all the trends we are now contemplating. All well and good, but the lack of a central core of economic power has left the business without a clear path forward. "No generation that creates disruptive technologies ever fully understands how to use them," says Hoffert. "It takes two generations for the information to pass through the goose." Meaning that if we had to suffer through DRM and device incompatibility and being sued by RIAA and the total bottoming out of the music business, at least our grandkids will enjoy a robust world of economically viable music.

Next to speak was Dennis Adamo, whose firm ABRI is attempting to resurrect the once-mighty allofmp3.com, a Russia-based MP3 library and retailer that ran afoul of music business and its pesky demands to get paid. It was sued for 1.65 trillion (you heard me: trillion) dollars and its directors were arrested, which in Russia, Adamo wryly notes, is not such good times. Eventually the suit was dropped and the directors released without penalty since they had broken no Russian laws. Allofmp3.com was shut down. And yet, argues Adamo, there is a potentially very compelling business model to be had: a one-stop MP3 shop that guarantees high-quality audio files at a price point people will agree to pay. So, not 99 cents, but perhaps ten, or 35, depending on the demand. In his view, the best way to combat pirate offerings, whose current price of zero is kinda hard to beat, is to provide selection, quality files, generous pricing and a promise that the retailer won't bail on tech support. Whether the industry will support Adamo's play is yet to be seen but as he rightly points out, people, we've got to work it out.

Following the opening session, participants were broken into smaller groups, each with a particular focus. The session I attended continued on the "disintermediation" theme; specifically, with power moving away from record labels, is it appropriate and timely for artists to take charge of all of the things that labels used to do? Or can we expect to see a period of "re-intermediation" where some other player will step in to fill the void? With artists, managers, labels and representatives from Last.fm, RIM and Real Networks at the table, the consensus was that artists definitely need to surround themselves with a dedicated, informed team to help them navigate a world of "monetizing" possibilities.

The case was illustrated beautifully by Jackie Subeck and Kelly Cha, two of the participants in the session. Kelly Cha is singer-songwriter, TV host, author, radio broadcaster and significant tastemaker in China's emerging music scene. Unable to find a record deal that made sense to her, she's built her impressive career without any label involvement, focusing instead on brand partnerships to support her ventures. At the point where it all became a bit much to cope with, Cha brought in Jackie Subeck, whose company Footprint Worldwide is a branded entertainment company on the frontline of music and brand partnerships in China. Subeck, with her 20-plus years in music in the United States, is a perfect fit as manager.

"The hardest thing as an independent musician in China is finding the right partner to help you get where you want to be. In China, for the last four or five years there hasn't been a record label who's broken an artist - not a major hit. That's why I've had to pick my partners. I've been able to partner up to do certain things, with brands like MySpace, Apple, Gibson, but it's still and ongoing process to find a record label," says Cha.

For her part, Subeck, who later gave a plenary address, notes that having traditional music business experience as well as marketing chops in a vibrant new market gives her an edge. What she brings to the equation is an introduction to opportunities beyond the impressive array of ventures that Cha has put together on her own. "Just bringing her to a conference like Transmission, that Kelly wouldn't even know about, and to be able to put her in front of this audience not just as an artist but as a somebody who's creating new models is a strength that I can bring to the table - being able to take all the pieces of what she has created and go out and grow it."

That's the very essence of the great partnership of the future, and hopefully Canadian labels and managers in attendance will take note. Canadian artists, for their part, need to start imagining a world without Big Daddy Labels, and start thinking of all the things they can and should be doing for themselves... if for no other reason than just to pass the time while the rest of the industry figures its shit out.