“Challenging the Dinosaur Myth” – Music Tank’s Conference Roundup
TMV’s London-based writer Laura G Thorne reports from the Music Tank’s recent industry conference:
Music Tank, the world-renowned music industry non-profit affiliated with the University of Westminster,
recently published the report “Remake, Remodel: The Evolution of the Record Label” evaluating the UK music industry as well as trends and developments affecting its future. In a follow up event entitled “Remake, Remodel: Challenging the ‘Dinosaur’ Myth” held on July 14 at the PRS Building in London, a number of senior industry figures gathered to further analyse the report and its implications. The afternoon’s agenda was divided into five discrete but related sections, covering:
- artist development
- media fragmentation
- the importance of superstar acts
- future of physical CD’s
- the options for today’s developing artists.
Each section was topped-and-tailed with comments by report author and Chairman of the BPI Tony Wadsworth, Keith Harris, Director of Performer Affairs at PPL, Music Week’s Editor, Mike Gubbins and report co-author, the well-known business and technology journalist and writer Dr. Eamonn Forde.
The opening panel – covering artist development – yielded the afternoon’s first frisson, between panelist Robert Horsfall, from legal firm Sound Advice LLP (and a well-known lawyer and business manager) and fellow attorney Nigel Dewar Gibb, who was in the audience. Horsfall, having declared that an artist “should never expect to receive royalty checks on their record deal” in the manner that would suggest this is now accepted fact, was vigorously challenged on the way in which royalties are tracked, the nature of recoupables and cross-collateralisation by Gibb (who used the word “shenanigans” to describe the current state of affairs). As it turns out apparently Gibb and Horsfall are former colleagues, so what water went under what bridge is yet undiscovered, but the point was well taken by all present.
Co-panelist Muff Winwood, former President of Sony UK put forward the position that artists should expect to develop themselves over a “ten-year period” before being signed to a label, commenting that “…all the artists that became the biggest hits I did the least for”. During the audience Q&A it was asked by what means said artists should expect to afford such extravagances as food and rent during this incubation period, to which the response of beg, borrow, steal or barter was put forth as a modus operandi. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Presidents of labels and lawyers try that advice on for size!
BBC 1 Radio’s George Ergatoudis was joined by Chris Cooke of CMU and Paul Dwyer of the University of Westminster to talk about developments in media affecting the music business. As is hardly newsworthy, getting on to Radio 1 is a serious lift as only 6-12 records per week are added. In general however, the number of outlets for musicians to promote their music have exploded, requiring the artist and his or her ‘management’ designate to become much more engaged with the media landscape. However, paradoxically, as the industry matures (as observed by Mike Gubbins) outlets are consolidating and Apple, Facebook and Spotify are emerging as virtual monopolies. Whether these emerging vistas are good for art is another question; should artists be spending their time perfecting 140 character haikus and reviewing fan data to learn whether they have more fans in Boise Idaho or Butte Montana, or does this detract from writing great material (essentially John Mayer’s point in his clinic last week at the Berklee College of Music).
Iconic producer Malcolm Gerrie (best known as the producer for ‘The Tube’) then took to the stage to ponder the role of superstar acts, who by any measure are declining in number while those that remain become increasingly long in the tooth. Whether by accident or design, Gerrie provided one of the most effective testimonials to the power of social media when he related that he was planning some kind of retrospective to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Tube. How did this come about? As a result of a long-cherished and carefully nurtured dream? Not exactly – it was because of a tweet, sent by some eager and quite cunning internet rumour-monger (perhaps an agent), stating that the Tube was going back on air in some form hosted by one of Bob Geldof’s daughters (Pixie or Peaches, depending upon which gossip rag you read).
At the time it was sent, Gerrie had no intention of doing any such thing, but soon was inundated with inquiries from the BBC, Sky and others (such as Hulu) wanting to know whether this was true, and the story, now hot based upon on what was likely a ‘deliberate falsehood’ grew in importance until it become fact. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of these new digital channels to influence, if not create reality, nothing will.
Perhaps that is the role of publicists now, to seed the clouds in the media universe with clever porky pies (white lies to you non-UK readers) and see if they can get it to rain?
Universal Music UK’s Director of Digital Paul Smernicki was then joined by media analyst Dr. Alice Enders to discuss the fate of physical product (bearing in mind that Tony Wadsworth, in his earlier speech at the BPI meeting a couple weeks back had talked about the need to maximise sales from “declining physical formats”). Smernicki too recognised clearly that “physical records are still incredibly important, pointing out that “it will be some time if ever if we turn off the tap”. However, the retail environment is considerably less hospitable-if not outright hostile-to the sale of recorded music than in decades past, with Dr. Enders alluding to the practice of some mass-market stores of charging labels for shelf space, and the fact that digital distributors are less committed to sales of music than the devices themselves.
Smernicki emphasised that the industry has to “actively work to bring customers into the digital space” as some consumers of so-called traditional formats are still baffled by the technology itself and have been turned off from the idea of purchasing music altogether. Could Take That be seen as a classic example of fans growing older with the artist but still having the desire to own physical product?
So how do artists proceed going forward, and what kind of deals are being offered by labels and distributors these days?
Martin Goldschmidt, MD of Cooking Vinyl/Director Essential Music & Marketing, Peter Thompson, MD of PIAS, Mark Kelly, CEO of FAC (Featured Artists Coalition) and Jon Webster, CEO of the MMF (Music Managers Forum) offered their thoughts on the path ahead through this new frontier. Observed Webster, “We are in a time of no rules at all”, noting that though labels are no longer necessary for distribution, they still offer vast expertise and money are so have an important role to play. However, the onus has shifted to the artist to build their own brand, or as Kelly put it, the “artist is his own best shop window”.
Crowdfunding models, partnerships and venture capital investment (as received by Cooking Vinyl’s recent deal with VC company Icebreaker) are now seen as a valid and perhaps even more desirable models. Both Goldschmidt and Thompson, rather than following the old school major label deal boilerplate, see themselves as entering into a partnership, offering a service to the artist and to the public rather than, in the words of Goldschmidt, “building a portfolio of assets and copyrights.” So the artist is chopping more of their own wood and carrying their own water – and may forego receipt of an advance altogether – but then again has the potential to receive a much larger slice of the revenue pie in return.
If the consensus of the Music Tank panel is any indication, it could be seen that the music industry has now recovered, at least to some extent, from its decade-plus of “shock and awe” in the face of the digital revolution. As Muff Winwood said, “we are in a better position now than we ever were before for talent to make its way through.” Truth will out.