Steve Masur Reflects on Rethink Music 2011
The Complaining Hasn’t Stopped
At SXSW and CMJ in 1994, people used to complain about not being able to get signed. “The problem is that the major labels control distribution.” But now, 15 years later, ubiquitous near free technology has solved this problem so well that no one even mentions it. Even so, at the Rethink Music Conference sponsored by the Berklee School of Music and the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society on April 25-7, 2011, people were still complaining. This time it was about how to get paid for making music. In fact, the problem was the same then as now. Getting noticed. …and once you get noticed, monetizing. This conference was all about it.
Rethink Music was the 15 year high school reunion of the surviving players in digital music distribution, and apparently also 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 like just about everyone was there, with the notable exception of the omnipresent (and quite possibly omnipotent) Ted Cohen. Also in evidence were the full Harvard Berkman Center crew, including Larry Lessig, Terry Fisher, Nesson, Bavitz and Berklee Music mafiosi Dave Kusek, Don Gorder, et al. Also, the thing was crammed with influential legal scholars and practitioners. You couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a lawyer who argued one of the landmark cases, worked on a game-changing deal in digital music, or for that matter, Mary Beth Peters, the United States Register Copyrights, and a guru-level legal scholar herself.
In addition to having an unbelievable attendee list, the conference was super ambitious, and for the most part successful. It addressed in turn all the problems facing music’s change from physical to digital distribution, and many of the proposed solutions. All the legal heavyweights present happily discussed the legal roadblocks which continue to stunt the growth of a new digital music distribution business. Big picture pundits and metrics people, like Eric Garland from BigChampagne, and the entrepreneurial and executive talent who are working to make a difference in music’s business practices and forge new paths to growing the business were all present and accounted for. 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.
The downside on conference day one was a charged atmosphere of non-speak. Top ranking representatives from the opposing corners of music were thrown on the stage together and proceeded to clam up the way political leaders mutually interested in the Gaza Strip might, if forced together on one stage. The brilliant academics moderating asked the right questions, but seemed unwilling or unable to throw the flaming bags of shit that would get the party started. Still, former DiMA heavyweight Jon Potter “went there” when he 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 from scratch to build a completely new music rights system more in line with how distribution now works. This echoed Jim Griffin when he said at New Music Seminar last year that the best way to unstop things would be “if somebody were to blow up this room and everyone in it right now.” But on day two things got more lively. For example, Jim Griffin (Choruss) flashed some trademark cheek color while throwing a bit of bombastic lighter fluid on some carefully chosen smoldering fires, like compulsory collective rights licensing, and the deaf and dumb immovability of music publishers.
In terms of organization, the conference organizers leveraged the best features of Boston’s size and their obviously deep personal relationships to secure not only good, but awesome venues, all within walking distance of each other. The conference was at the Hynes convention center, close to the great restaurants of Newbury Street, the speaker’s dinner was at the Harvard Club, the showcases were at the Berklee Performance Center, and there was a beautifully down and dirty after party at a local bar space with great bands, pastries and free beer. Rethink bands included: Ben Folds, Damian Kulash (OK Go), Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls, solo), Basia Bulat and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.
All in all, this conference is a must attend for next year. In terms of conclusions and insights to be drawn for the industry, the vibe is most definitely upbeat and hopeful, like a drug addict just out of rehab. …A lot of bad things could happen, but this time it doesn’t feel that way. It’s like the plaintive lyrics of the Talking Heads song “The Government,” from “77.” A lot of smart and talented people are working on these big problems, the technology is finally for the most part built, and now all we have to do is build a bigger, better business, that pays artists what they are worth using free market solutions based upon solid legal underpinnings. We’ll get there, and we’ll lead the way for other media businesses going down the same road.
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. It’s all about the fans. Grow a solid fan base, and you’ll get noticed, picked up, and blow up like Lady Gaga. Even if you don’t, you’ll already be living the dream.