Published Jan 21, 2009Working in the music business as it goes through a turbulent sea change, one can't help but feel a bit like an ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey confronting that shiny big monolith from the future. Should we worship it, or throw rocks at it? Fear or awe? Oooh! Oooh!
Happily, the third annual Transmission conference, which took place in Vancouver in early December, gave us a break from contemplating the monolith. A boutique conference that brings together artists, managers, labels, distributors, social networks, ISPs, mobile providers and marketers - anyone and everyone working in and around music - Transmission offered an intimate forum and a chance for players big (Seymour Stein!) and small (moi!) to get in a room and kick the proverbial can.
Not balking at an intellectual approach, the goal of Transmission is to encourage innovative thinking and avant-garde ideas. Which raises the question, what is it about the music business that we can't talk about our problems without bringing in terms like "monetization" and "disintermediation"? Why can't we, you know, just figure out how to sell more music?
Well, we're not in car parts, for one thing. A major portion - and increasingly, the lion's share - of money in the music business is derived from intellectual property rather than sales of physical goods. That means that most of the transactions that take place in the music business are decisions about "who has the right to do what." We're almost always dealing with the abstract. The conversion of the primary medium of music from physical goods to a digital format has abstracted music business transactions even further.
That means that the music business this time won't be saved by a thingy - not by a new playback device, not by a new format. It will be saved by an idea.
Transmission's opening address provided a guiding metaphor 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. 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 "bagel effect" in the music business has goods-moving middlemen - labels, manufacturers, and retailers - booted out of power by digital files, B2B and B2C enterprises, P2P, 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 while we've 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.
Throughout the conference, participants were broken into small roundtable groups each with a particular focus.
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 left by labels? With artists, managers, labels and representatives from comparatively new players like Last.fm, Telus, RIM and Real Networks at the tables, the consensus was that artists definitely need to surround themselves with a dedicated, informed team to help them navigate a world of "monetizing" possibilities. This includes making deals with ISPs and cellular providers, who, as significant and thriving distributors of music, are stakeholders in the music business as much as labels and traditional distributors are.
It also includes developing the artist's brand as an asset that has significant value - more so, even, than the artist's ability to sell records. The case was illustrated beautifully by Jackie Subeck and Kelly Cha. 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 Unites 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 an 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 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 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."
Subeck and Cha are thriving on the re-imagination of music as a service industry - an idea that many in the music business still struggle against. Yet the industry's resistance to the consumer-driven service-not-goods trend - such as P2P - has not only come to naught but has prevented the natural and necessary evolution of the industry.
Still, exit data collected at Transmission suggests folks in the music business widely agree that a) we're in the dumper, but b) it's only temporary because c) what we do has value, dammit and d) the thing to do is to keep at it. Let's hope this will be a year in which artists and the people they work with start to get comfortable in the driver's seat. Because that's one idea that may at last get us back on the road.