After covering the Digital Content Monetization Conference (DCM 2010) last October 4-6 in New York, which was then followed by the Vimeo Awards and Festival later that week and just down the street, I lamented at the time what I felt was a missed opportunity. There were two very related and relevant discussions taking place that should’ve been part of the same conversation, but were literally separated by only a few (admittedly, New York-sized) city blocks.
So what might have been some very productive “creative tension” around the future of digital content, instead ended up being a couple of episodes of Meet the Choir, the long running hit series that has taken Sunday morning preacher audiences by storm. Fortunately, tonight’s episode at the inaugural Rethink Music Conference has been brought to you by the letter “G”, as in “Gold, Guns, Girls”…
Fittingly, like the opening scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network, the Rethink Music event kicked off with free drinks in a bar on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Opening Night welcome on April 25th then moved across the street to a church where James Shaw and Emily Haines of Canadian indie band Metric headlined a set of acoustic performances designed to get attendees first thinking about music, before then re-thinking it.
Other preachers behind the event – held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay on April 26th and 27th – were far more radicalized than the mostly one-track mind of DCM 2010. The overall discourse of Rethink would ultimately not stay so safe and contained, but it did take a bit of feeling out before the jigsaw started falling into place. And when these bits of digital media, technology, and social discourse all fell into place, it proved to be a pretty exciting event. Music can be a pretty useful focal point and selling feature.
The event was organized by the Berklee College of Music, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, as well ask the key industry consortium MIDEM, producers of the world’s largest industry trade fair. It also included a digital music business plan competition in collaboration with the Harvard Business School, itself a fine product placement for Facebook and, again, David Fincher’s movie about a certain social network that emerged from a well-known Ivy League school.
With this mix of perspectives and cultural context, the Rethink Music event offered some hope for the kind of Battle Royale that could have gone down last fall in New York, but never really materialized at the time. Here was a chance for a potential DCM 2010 vs. Vimeo “remix”, if you will. The hope was in putting all these thinkers in a venue to drop the gloves and sort it out, some productive “brain leak” might result (figuratively and intellectually, not in an actual physical sense). Such heated discussion could ultimately be the first steps towards the innovation needed in addressing the future of music in its overwhelmingly and all-consuming digital contexts. What’s that boy? Trouble at the old file sharing network?
Early on, Rethink Music didn’t quite reach the level of discussion and exchange needed for really productive outcomes. There was potential on the docket, in particular the panel called “Creativity Changes: Fostering Art in a World of Technology”. The panel was moderated by Bert Holman, manager of the Allman Brothers Band and featured BMI’s Del Bryant, Kim Buie of Lost Highway Records, Jim Eno from the band Spoon, and EMI Music Publishing’s Jon Platt. Despite this promising collection of voices and insights, this lead off panel seemed to be more interested in “rehash music” rather than “rethink music”, as a couple of colleagues at the event commented. *Note: video of this panel is not currently available but will be added if it does materialize.
However, like prizefighters dancing around jabs in early rounds and figuring out strategy along the way, the Rethink Music event did lay the groundwork for what will hopefully be a regular series of these conferences. In fact, as the first day wrapped up with the “Artists and Managers” panel, you could see the adjustments being made to try and throw a few fighters off their games.
What already featured a full stage of participants that included R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and his manager Bertis Downs, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness, Mark Kates of Fenway Recordings, Michael McDonald of Mick Management, and Simon Renshaw of Strategic Artist Management, the Rethink organizers decided to bring back Metric’s James Shaw and Emily Haines, and their manager Matt Drouin. While this made for an uncomfortably large panel passing a mic around on a limited size stage, it was easy to see the reason why: Metric had something to say, and they had a different angle on the story that didn’t necessarily sit well others on stage. As for their manager Matt, well, he always had always had just a little something extra to chip in.
And this is important, not just because it reminded me of director Kevin Smith getting on a roll during his NAB show keynote in Las Vegas on April 14, 2011. Just thinking about this previously attended broadcast industry event, I wondered if it’s just a matter of time before a future NAB conference theme becomes “Rethink Broadcasting”. For more on the event, see the previous NAB Show 2011 report.
Unlike Rethink, the National Association of Broadcasters event was all visual… in fact, it was overwhelmingly three-dimensions of visual… all the time! While visual content is getting heavier and more complex with higher resolutions and stereoscopic images, with the implicit assumption that such content will be harder to move around , i.e. “steal”. Yet in terms of new technology changing the way society interacts and culture develops, it’s often around music where this sort of stuff gets sorted out first, and it’s quite often the same fighters in the ring. It’s a small world, especially when you add a social network to the mix.
Strangely enough, and speaking of social networking, who should I end up running into at NAB in the weeks before Rethink? None other than “My Attorney” Steve Masur himself – a real life Oscar Acosta and Carl Lazlo rolled into one. He was fresh from either getting cut off midway through an answer on a cloud-computing pane, or else he had just been cut off midway through the unintentional comedy of one of his downhill skiing stories. Steve is one of those characters where you just don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth when it opens… let alone what kind of reaction it will then generate! This was exactly what was needed for an event called “Rethink”. Since Masur was really interested in attending the conference, The Music Void’s editorial and press pass master Jakomi Matthews worked it out for him to attend and contribute to this story… that is, beginning in FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE…
During our informal discussions between panels, Steve made the following clear to me: Way way back in mid-1990s – that is, at early days of such notable music industry events as SXSW and CMJ – artists in attendance used to complain about not being able to get signed. The rallying cries around these complaints generally were around the major labels controlling all the distribution channels. Fifteen years later, with the rise of ubiquitous computing and the lowering – if not the elimination – of some kinds of distribution costs, it seems highly functional technology advances have solved this distribution problem. According to Steve, this is so much the case hat no one even mentions major label control as the big problem anymore (these “360 deals” however, are another tale). Even so, the complaining continues, as Masur attests. It was was no different at the Rethink Music Conference.
This time, however, the complaining centered around questions of how people were going to get paid for making music. Content can be distributed through many channels to the consumer, but the money has a much harder time flowing back upstream to the artists through the traditional as well as the newer intermediaries. Yet the problems artists faced in the mid-90s were essentially the same as now: Getting noticed… then getting paid.
Instead of the tradition of artists trying to get noticed by record labels, who then work to get the artist noticed by regional, national, and international fan communities, the dynamic now shifts artists looking directly to their fan communities for funding, using new tools like kickstarter.com to crowdsource what used to be called “a record deal’. The rest is just semantics, or better yet the semantic 2-way web we tangle and weave in the now post-traditional digital context.
Rethink Music was, in a way, the 15-year high school reunion of the surviving players in digital music distribution, as well as their lawyers, accountants and consultants. Those in attendance included founders and first fives from SonicNet, Webnoize, MP3.com, The Orchard, Digital Club Network, eMusic, Universal eLabs, Sony Music, Farm Club, N2K Music Boulevard, AudioNet (Broadcast.com), BigChampagne, CDDB (Gracenote), Future of Music Coalition, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Digital Media Association (DiMA) and many more. It seemed every relevant industry representative box was checked off, with the notable exception of the omnipresent Rhapsody’s Ted Cohen, and anyone from Apple, of course, who apparently did their own rethinking of music ten years ago.
Also in attendance were the full Harvard Berkman Center crew, legal scholars and practitioners well versed in policy ramifications for the internet and society. Academics such as Larry Lessig, Terry Fisher, and Jonathan Zittrain were on hand, as were Microsoft’s Tom Rubin, Cary Sherman, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America, and Sony’s Tim Nilson. One panel was even moderated by the former lead singer of the band Cameo, John Kellogg who is now an entertainment lawyer and professor at Berklee. Word up.
You couldn’t throw a USB stick without hitting a lawyer who, at some point in their career, argued one of the landmark digital media and rights cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court or worked on game-changing deals in digital music sector.
Even included on the “Current State of Copyright Law” panel was Mary Beth Peters from the United States Copyright Office. She is the former Register and a highly noted legal scholar herself, and also known for her for her guest appearance in Brett Gaylor’s Rip! a Remix Manifesto. In that film, Peters was just one of many attendees offering corroborating and conflicting perspectives of creativity and rights in production and ownership of digital music. In other words, the same kind of overall discussion taking place at Rethink.
In addition to having an unbelievable attendee list, the conference’s ambition for the most part served it well, addressing most of the problems facing music’s change from physical to digital distribution, often leading to discussion of the various proposed solutions. All the legal heavyweights who were present happily discussed the legislative roadblocks which continue to stunt the growth of a new digital music distribution business.
Big picture pundits and metrics people (for example Eric Garland from BigChampagne chipped in, as did the entrepreneurial and executive talent who are working on new business practices and forging new paths to growing the business. Services like Nimbit, Tunecore, Sonic Bids, Bandcamp, Root Music, Indaba Music, MOG demoed and showed us exactly why there is not really much to complain about, as far as trying to get your music out there.
Yet Rethink was ultimately concerned with something simpler. On the one hand you could describe it as the concern for the creative act, digital authorship, and how is the author’s output is transformed into something with a price tag. Or, in other words, it was all still about getting paid.
Canadian indie band Metric, the event’s keynote artists and represented by singer/keyboardist Emily Haines, guitarist James Shaw, and manager Matt Dourin, made several excellent observations during their panel, particularly the generational issue. Specifically, the band had to work its way up during a time in the late 1990s when – until the Strokes breakthrough in 2001 – the “rock” and “indie rock” genres were not really being taken seriously as a viable markets for developing artists. There was tons of money floating around the industry for pop artists and dance music, but for bands like Metric, they were never part of the booming heyday that would soon be undermined by digitization.
Instead, Metric came up through this digitized environment by gradually developing a fan base with more a direct relationship to creative output and live performances. They were native to it and not invested in the traditional pre-digital model of physical album sales and distribution. So it’s no surprise that the band does not share the same bitterness-tinged sense of loss and resignation to these new technological developments.
As Emily Haines wondered about life on the road as a touring band during Metric’s Monday night performance at Harvard’s Memorial Church, “How did they do it? These 70s rockers without cell phones (and technologies we now take for granted)”. It was a fantastic point about our technological age that stretched far beyond the specific “get in the van” context of trying to hold down a relationship while on the road, working ridiculous hours to try and break your band to the next level. It not only puts into context the flip from the “old days” of going on tour to support an album’s release and sell records, to the current “you make your money on touring and merch mindset”.
Think about how albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall once existed outside of file folders, hard drives, mobile devices, operating systems, and telecommunication networks. It’s not just a question of “Who would you rather be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” That is, would you rather be in a band that stopped touring and making singles to focusing on making landmark albums that are now digitized, licensable and piratable? Or a band that is still touring into retirement age, but whose most “recent” albums are deemed irrelevant loss leaders that are basically part of a tour promotion package? So the question now is just as much when would you have wanted to be these bands? Post-Nirvana, pre-Napster OK Computer Radiohead? Or album-leak, file-sharing, pay-what-you-want Radiohead of Kid A and beyond.
If there was a downside to the conference, it was some of the earlier sessions that were often charged with an atmosphere of “non-speak”. Top ranking representatives from the opposing corners of the complex and confusing debate were thrown on stage only to clam up talk past each other – as though debating climate change – with opposing sides debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents’ arguments. This is otherwise know as a “logic schism” (Lord, Ross and Lepper, 1979), and ultimately sounds right at home in the music industry, if only as the fake name of an album by either Tool or Steely Dan.
The brilliant academics moderating asked all the right questions – which is ultimately what great academics do better than anyone – but seemed unwilling or unable to throw the proverbial “flaming bags of shit” that would get the party started. Still, former DiMA heavyweight Jon Potter, who is now heading the Fan Freedom Project to address the fan/consumer side of trends in ticketing prices and restrictions, actually did dare tread where others half-heartedly engaged. Potter suggested that the best way to fix the constipated legal structures holding back growth in digital music would be if all the stakeholders went bankrupt and we started over. Yes, from scratch. This is, not just “rethink” music, but hitting the “reset” button and building a completely new music rights system more in line with how distribution now works.
So with Day One setting the table, on Day Two things did get a little more lively. To be honest, there’s still lingering bewilderment by Lyor Cohen delivered his memorable “fraternal order” jawdropper during the Wednesday afternoon keynote. It was a Busey-like response from the Warner Music Group CEO to an audience member’s stock question about what missing from today’s industry that worked well in the past.
When Topspin’s Ian Rogers kiddingly made reference to the “fraternal order” in the following panel on “Technology, Data, and Music”, there was a collective chuckle and headshake in the room. It seemed highly likely that fraternity and order might end up eclipsing any productive outcomes of Rethink and become the unintended buzz themes of the inaugural event, that is, if anyone could figure out what fraternal order actually meant.
Upon reflection, Lyor’s answer was the kind where you get what he’s trying to say – essentially nostalgia for an era of growth where you even rooted for your rivals to do well – but perhaps came across better when recorded in print rather than experienced in the live show. And it was legitimately an idea echoed in other panels, such as the sentiment that “all ships rise with the tide”. The term “co-opetition but Regardless, the “fraternal order” thing came out sounding (at best) odd and prerecorded, only reinforcing the conventional thinking that the major labels are simply out of touch.
The Rethink’s vibe was most definitely upbeat and hopeful, like the first day of classes at the start of a new term. And even though there are a lot of negative outcomes are possible – if not likely to happen – at least this time if feels like the parties will use the dynamics of these complex problems to work out the solutions, rather than resorting to a full-on legal clampdown that proved oh-so-successful in the Napster 1.0 era.
The general consensus? As the middle men – or, again to use Cohen’s terminology, as a “fraternal order” – the music labels (at least in their traditional sense) are fucked. To realize this, one only needs to look at how the functions of the traditional music label are marginalized by startups like Indaba Music (see TMV’s exclusive interview with Indaba’s Dan Zaccagnino and JJ Rosen) or by the labels’ won A&R people not wanting to give the artists the funding to buy their own recording gear, as happened to Metric when they tried to take over their own means of production.
There’s really no surprise here, as many have guessed that labels would inevitably end up in this position the moment they started suing their consumers, the old “suing grandmas” as the tipping point. So the idea of a more direct “artist to fan” relationship can be seen as being the common “rethinking” frame of reference at the conference. And if that’s the current thinking, we can use this frame of reference to dead reckon our position in the current digital context with a view of where we need to get to next year, i.e. the New World, which is of course somewhere on the way the China.
Take a line from the Talking Heads’ song “Don’t Worry About the Government”, set it in the context of a digital music ecosystem – or “remix” it if you’d rather use the term – and you’ll have the key value proposition in rethinking music: “It’s gonna make life easy for me / It’s gonna be easy to get things done”. A lot of smart and talented people are working on these big problems, the technology is finally for the most part in place or able to be built and adapted for the growing IT infrastructure. Now all that has to be done is build a bigger, better business, that pays artists what they are worth using free-market solutions based upon solid legal underpinnings.
It’ll get there, and will ultimately lead the way for other media businesses going down the same road. After all, it’s the music that gets noticed first, and part of being first-in is taking the first few blows to the chin. But guess what? The complaining still won’t stop. New music services are starting, morphing, and ending at such a high rate of speed that it’s hard for an artist to even know by whom they should try to get noticed. So the answer is the same now as it was 15 years ago: Grow a solid fan base and the notice with come. It’s all about the fans, and the discovery of new music needs to be easy for them, so they can also get things done.
One can see future Rethink events growing to include more live music performances and other exhibitions, though on a much smaller scale and in a more focused way when compared to the mad blowout of South by Southwest. And I should probably disclose my own particular fondness for the city of Boston as a host to conferences such as Rethink Music (I attended the AIGA Design Conference 2005 and do kind of like the city’s baseball team… just a little bit!). So it’s got that going for it… which is nice.
Even with Boston being such a great fit, by keeping the Rethink small and focused on music, as was done in this inaugural event, Rethink could work very well in a number of different host cities. So it’ll will be interesting to see how the event (hopefully) keeps growing over time, but all in all, this conference is a must attend if it indeed comes back for another year. See you there, but until then, who would you rather be?
*special thanks again to Steve Masur for his remixed contributions to this piece.