by Chris Estey
“I was skiing in Aspen last year with a major label record executive, and he was like, ‘What are we going to do about these music pirates?'” This scenario came from Ian Rogers, during his Keynote Address at the Grammy MusicTech Summit 08 held last Thursday (Nov. 6). On the one hand, it shows that Internet-based music industry innovators like Rogers, who went from Yahoo guru to creating his own business, Topspin, are skiing in Aspen with big label goofs. On the other, it also shows that they are quite capable of mocking those goofs for asking redundant, self-indicting questions instead of actually asking how to change things more creatively (and hey, don’t forget sales). It was this pairing that played out so frequently during the two-day Summit with a more positive aim of opening the lines of communication between creators and gatekeepers of the marketplace, and thus inspiring more success for both.
For those unfamiliar, the Grammy MusicTech Summit is held in Seattle each year and allows Grammy U. students, recording artists, producers, retailers, and others with music and business on their minds to learn, share, and mingle. It’s sponsored by companies like Xbox 360, ASCAP, Medianet, and KEXP, among others, and is comprised of panels with prominent artists and industry leaders, who discuss topics like Social Networking, New Media Contracts, and The Evolution of Traditional Retail.
As it was meant to do, Rogers’ speech effectively set the tone for the entire Summit and was a referential touchstone for many conversations that followed. While it was rich in subtext, Rogers was also often candidly confrontative, throwing a few sharp jabs and making evocative predictions, like “Radio is becoming less important, but that’s one reason why it’s getting better” (though he admitted that the major formats are still dominated by the same four players, so it’s still a battle); “In terms of musicians making an income, anyone but artists and fans should not be in the way”; and “You will hear more music by middle class artists on the radio.” That last line was something he said I optimistically ruminated over, despite the economy now being eviscerated. In all, the Summit seemed very inclusive of many different classes of artists and business types, and strange hybrids of blogging-label executive-technophiliac-website designers. (Throw a CD — that’s right, throw it because it’s now fucking useless — and you’d hit a new “music biz mutation.”)
This diversity of talent in the seats of the three different halls hosting a variety of panels was something to experience, yet at times a lot of the very different voices did not give very much away — some panelists seemed very careful not to “explain the magic.” Occasionally, though, there were also verbal fireworks of artist-marketplace illumination. The zenith for me had to be on the second morning when a tough line-up of Dave Allen (Gang of Four, Pampelmoose blog, dapper guy who will actually renovate your sloppy design branding), Kate Jackson (the blonde Sub Pop marketing mind-blower who when she said, “Bands should say no to things,” created a bit of silence for a few seconds), Mark Montgomery (echo’s very successful and equally excited executive, who reminded us all of “the seond hello” as the best marketing tool — a dialogue with your consumer, I believe this means — and who said “fricking” twice and sweetly gushed about the bands he loved), and Mark Bashore (the dude responsible for TV show Dexter‘s opening credit intro, who also didn’t say much). The panel was called “Multi-Platform Branding” and was moderated by That Petrol Emotion leader Steve Mack, who is the archetype of Boyish Looking Guy Who Somehow Stayed Alive In The Business Even Though His 80s Semi-Cult Band Is Mostly-Forgotten. He gets points for not naming them when describing his own career, but even more for encouraging bands to fully engage with their website-reading fans by using schemes like polls (“Would like to see us tour the UK, or would you probably rather spend that night on your couch?”). The overall conversation was too rich to summarize here, but one crucial nugget of professional advice came from Montgomery, who laid it out clearly: “Art is about the ear and the heart, brand the domain name, blog incessantly, use tools like Reverb Nation till you can afford guys like me, you are having a conversation with your consumer, Google Analytics is great.” There. You pretty much know as much as anyone now.
Not really though. Not everyone agreed with everything, as happened in all of the panels. In fact, one of the best things about this event was the intra-panel contention. Some people just had different things they were excited about, such as the participants in the “Digital Download” discussion. The always-entertaining-at-the-EMP Pop Con Tim Quirk (head of Rhapsody) enthused about music made so that people will want to return to it again and again; a being-proven-true logic by confirmed sales of Neil Young at his own label and the quick withering of tacky pop hits in the mainstream. Meanwhile, panel-mate Christina Callo from Zune was effervescently excited about how fans of bands create their own communities at her site and “get in there and do the social.” A few *cough* hacks couldn’t get off the “artists need to dominate their MySpace and Facebook” riffs, which they seemed to repeat with glazed eyes (remember to breathe, too, kids). Though before that, Keynote Speaker Rogers himself had begun the Summit by asserting that Wikipedia may be THE first place to start documenting your creative existence and others asserted the now and future dominance of Google.
In the “Fair Use Firestorm” throw-down, well, no one was thrown down because the two opposite sides (Jay Rosenthal of the National Music Publishers Association in a black polo shirt and slacks and Brian Rowe of Freedom for I.P. in black leather trench and droog bowler hat) were so vociferously opposed yet elegantly self-contained that it was like watching an immovable object resist pissing on an impenetrable force that had been set on fire.
The “Artist Manager’s Forum” had a consistent flow, full of common sense and real charm (with mutual shaved headed sweetheart Tim Bierman of Ten Club and Arctic Monkeys bad-ass management Old Punk Guy sparkling on either side of the table). The eternally admirable underground-men got along with each other mostly: Slim Moon (Shot Clock Management, Kill Rock Stars, a long-time huge inspiration to anyone fucking shit up and keeping it punk), Howard Greynolds (Overcoat Management, who exudes no BS and kicks ass for his bands Iron & Wine and The Frames, helping the former stay indie while helping license the latter’s music in a hit film), and Kenny Erlick (Rockshield Management — Boots Riley and Lifesavas, need I say more?). These are guys who know what zines and cassette cultures are, but also know that young dudes are cell exchanging the future.
At the label catwalk the day before, “Evolution of Record Labels,” a guy from a major went apeshit over everything as if he was bankrolling utopia personally, while Portia Sabin from Kill Rock Stars curtly said “We don’t give advances” as a matter of pride. (Trust me, she’s right.) J. Scavo of MySpace Records (“records,” ha, that’s funny) asked, “Do people really still want collections of music?” (as in, albums), while Megan Jasper stole the hearts of the Shoreline/Grammy University kids in the front row (and many KEXP listeners, of course) by saying that Karen Dalton’s recent LP reissue on a local indie was an “example of a fucking great record.” You know, the kind people want to “collect.”
At least as interesting as the topics of discussion were the people who attended them, like Douglas, one of the gaggle of “kids” in the front row of one panel, who explained to me that this way speakers or moderators will see them waving their arms more clearly and let them ask questions (that I missed the Vera Project panel is the only thing I painfully regret — I should have left the label panel early); and the vintage cowboy-shirted Bob from the band Weightless, who elucidated the particular aspects of quality mastering to me and Jose, a slim psychedelic guitar player and recent immigrant to this country; and Laz, a large African-American guy from San Francisco who wants to band manage “alternative pop” and who revealed how he’s putting a webcam in his homemade Ballard studio so fans of the five bands who use it can see them put down new material live. I felt great to have met these people. And though I had brought homemade ham and cheese croissants from my local bakery to eat during the lunch break, instead of talking about 360 deals and digital downloads with the $15 box lunch dudes and gals upstairs, it was cool that they were there too.
Perhaps one that I’ll remember most is Ellesia Wood, a heavy metal gal in black leather everything, who is a student in the “Women In Audio” program at Shoreline and was extolling how Grammy U. had enabled her to meet Leslie Ann Jones at the Skywalker Ranch, through the efforts of local studio legend Glenn Lorbecki, of Glenn Sound. I realized that we are all trying to do things on a local level even while setting our sights on changing things nationally and beyond for the music we love. It was Ellesia’s passion that assured me that the music I’ll be hearing will continue to sound great for at least a little more time.
Random Quotes (unattributed):
“Don’t just cultivate an email list, have a relationship with everyone on it.”
“Give stuff away. It’s a great way to create fans. And remember that Radiohead had thousands of listeners in South America who’d gotten their music for free, so they could then tour there very successfully.”
“Maybe if the song ‘Young Folks’ hadn’t been virtually given away everywhere, it would have sold 500,000, not so much less.”
“For a young band, an EP with a video is a great idea!”
“When a new technology is created it becomes a place where old information can be made useful.”
“Labels are no longer about distribution but about branding and marketing.”
“Artist sites get more traffic than My Space.”
“People in a band are all part of a partnership.”
Going back to the Keynote Address, and I have to because it really did shine (and I don’t just say that because from my notes I just realized Rogers was with Grand Royal, which was the label that inspired me to publish a rock magazine and end up working at record companies), as for example:
“Rodney Crowell is an example of how music will get better in the future. He made five huge big selling hits in the late 80s by bringing in the top players to the studio and banging the songs out in two days. They were boring, uninspired. But now records are being made by people in comfortable places like their own houses with recording equipment, who love to hang out and make music together for a couple of months at a time. What music would you rather listen to?”