Survival in the music industry, particularly moving forward into the digital space, comes down to two core elements — relationships and knowledge. And if you have the first one, you might not even need much of the second.

One of the quickest, most effective, and fun ways to increase both your relationships and knowledge at the same time is attending some of the many music conferences that take place on an almost continuous basis. But what can you really learn at these events?

Do You Need To Attend Music Conferences?

As someone who attends multiple music conferences each year (SXSW, CMJ, Bandwidth, NARM, and many others) I have become fairly accustomed to hearing much of the same thing repeated in different (or often even similar) ways. There was a period, roughly between 2005 and 2008, where very little new knowledge was being imparted at these conferences.

I’m in no way trying to diminish the value of the events — the networking opportunities alone were worth far more than the price of admission. However, if you were looking for massive insights and a bit of fortune telling, you were probably going to be disappointed.

If you read the right blogs (eg. Hypebot, Lefsetz, Digital Audio Insider, etc.) and pay attention to the right music news sources (eg. Digital Music News, Daily Chord, etc.) you should already have a handle on most of what is on industry professionals’ minds. If you’ve taken it a step further and been involved in the day-to-day marketing, retail, distribution, and online presence management of artists, you already have a glimpse beyond what is usually being discussed at many of the conferences.

It is also understandable that many company representatives cannot publicly discuss what is going on behind closed doors, especially at the major labels or at start-ups that are feverishly working to be the first to bring something to market. So instead you tend to hear two things over and over again — accepted truths and complaints.

It’s worth noting that some music conferences aren’t geared toward solving problems or moving forward, but rather to educating artists or people new to the business. For those events, reiterating truths and focusing on how we got where we are today is essential. But for active working professionals, those of us whose career hinges on making a difference to the bottom line, we need something more.

Looking Forward

Recently, I attended the fourth incarnation of SanFran MusicTech Summit, a conference devoted to the intersection of music and technology at every level. I’ve attended them in the past and have always gotten something valuable, but this round was significantly more valuable than ever before.

We are at a time and place in the music industry where the perfect storm has finally caught up to us. Things were bad enough with both declining sales and more product in the marketplace than ever before. But when you factor in economic woes as well as both companies and consumers tightening their spending, the industry as a whole has reached a point where we need solutions not for longevity and profit but for survival itself. The tired meme that holds the industry screwed up by not embracing Napster in 1999 may be true, but after 10 years the discussion needs to move forward.

As someone who speaks regularly on panels, I have learned that it’s not all that realistic to expect five individuals from different companies to come up with groundbreaking information on the spot. Quite often panelists do not know each other beforehand, and may only get a short time before the panel to focus and solidify topics. But what I am coming to realize from the experience is that if each person goes into the panel with a core piece of information that they want to share with the world, they can spark a conversation that inspires others to run with the thought.

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SanFran Music Tech Attendees — © 2009 Julie Blaustein

Not Just Data, But Information

I saw much of this at the SF MusicTech Summit. The panel discussions were focused on specific actions we can take to boost revenue, enhance fan engagement, foster social network interaction, and evaluate digital delivery options, as well as talk of how artists can take active roles in their (digital) careers. It is inescapable that panelists will reiterate some accepted truths and core problems when discussing these topics, but I found the focus at each panel to be on working solutions, data that has shown results, and fostering discussions between opposing viewpoints. This approach was far more valuable than if each person had just reflected on what his or her own job entailed, what they like and don’t like, and what they’ve observed in the past.

A good example of this was the “Monetization — Idealism in Practice” panel. Moderated by KCRW’s Celia Hirschman, panelists included Topspin’s Ian C Rogers, Jim Griffin from Choruss, Tony Van Veen from Disc Makers, David Ring from Universal eLabs, and Fred Von Lohmann from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Each panelist offered their perspective on efforts they are currently implementing (or experimenting with) to increase revenue from new and developing sources.

Rogers focused on the direct-to-fan model, of which he has back-end data showing best practices and how bands such as Metric and Jubilee were able to capitalize greatly on serving their existing fan base with multiple tiers of offerings. Building off of NIN’s model of servicing different fans at different levels, Topspin has seen that even small artists can financially capitalize on their fanbase. Complementing this discussion, albeit from a wholly different perspective, was David Ring’s discussion on the power shift going back to fans. He explained that understanding and catering to their needs directly is more important than the technology and marketing used to do so.

Another discussion focused on the pros and cons of Choruss’ experiments with adding fees to colleges and Internet service providers to monetize the flow of data (read: free mp3s) across their networks. Griffin’s view is that a massive pool of revenue exists from ISP fees and that some of this can be allocated to the artists whose product is being sent over the networks. Other panelists disagreed with this approach, but all were quite interested to see the results of the experiment.

Another panel of interest and useful action items was “Musicians As Active Participants in Their Own Careers.” For years at conferences we have heard over and over that an artist needs to be freed up to solely focus on their art. The traditional music industry stance has been to keep the artist separate from the fans to create demand and a sense of mystery. For those of us on the front lines, it has become crystal clear that artists need to be actively engaged in their fan relationships on a near-continuous basis. This panel discussed realistic, workable ways musicians are engaging their fan base without pulling from their artistic efforts. Examples given included using Twitter to directly ask fans what they want to see out of the band, sharing behind-the-scenes content at a deeper personal level than ever before, and actively getting involved in their social sites (versus having someone behind the scenes acting on their behalf).

Another panel, entitled “Reaching Fans,” revealed data that showed catering to an existing fan costs 1/10th the price of bringing on a new one. That fact alone should have artists thinking about how to further leverage their email lists instead of spending so much time trying to add one more fan to that list.

The Core Value

A common thread across many panels, but clearly discussed in “The Future of the Music Industry” was that a middle class of artists has finally been empowered by technology and digital distribution to operate outside the traditional label model. Artists finally have direct routes to massive fan bases, and bottlenecks have begun to disappear. We are no longer waiting for these tools to emerge; now the focus must be on understanding existing tools to properly romance the fan.

The value of music conferences varies widely, based on the topics and panelists, the vision of the organizers, and what attendees are looking to achieve. For those looking to be a part of discussions shaping the future of the music industry, I highly suggest focused, niche conferences such as the SanFran MusicTech Summit.

Jason Feinberg is the president and founder of On Target Media Group, an entertainment industry new media marketing and promotion company. He is responsible for business development, formulation and management of online marketing campaigns, and media relations with over 1,000 websites and media outlets. The company has served clients including Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music Enterprises, EMI, Concord Music Group, Roadrunner Records, and others with an artist roster that includes The Rentals, Flipper, Thin Lizzy, Sammy Hagar, Primus, Poncho Sanchez, Ringo Starr, Chick Corea, and many more.

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