Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Noise conference overview

October 8-10, 2009

The first annual New Noise conference took place in lovely Santa Barbara this past week (October 8-10). I was lucky enough to win all-access passes (thank you, Twitter and @lalawag!) so I went to everything on the schedule that I could squeeze in. This meant conferences by day, lots and lots of bands by night.

The wondrous Michael Franti and Spearhead kicked off the festivities on Thursday night, but I didn't arrive until Friday morning. Sadly, this meant I also missed Murs.

Let's address each part separately, and I'll give you an overview, in case you weren't there, or hadn't even heard about it, and wonder why you should go next year. Basically, because SXSW has become a zoo, and for those of us in California, is far away anyway. New Noise is sort of like a mini version of the music portion of SXSW.

The biggest highlight was the caliber of speakers: people top in their field, capped by the keynote from Pandora founder, Tim Westergren. It was pretty universally looked upon as the best session of the two days.

But along the way, we were treated to people from all aspects of the music industry: A&R execs, suits from labels, people working with greening the musical landscape, musicians, software developers, lawyers, managers, and Internet entrepreneuers. All of them provided their take on where we are at during this moment in music history.

Essentially, the gist of the conference sessions was this: The big four music companies are overly bureaucratic and useless; smaller niche music publishers are the hot item of the day; terrestrial radio is dead, but Internet radio is alive and thriving.

The ones with the power now, in case no one had noticed: the consumers and the musicians themselves. Musicians are now compelled to become even greater musical marketers than ever before, and if they do, they will be hugely compensated (as long as they are good).

The old routines of being a band, playing in clubs, getting noticed by someone, getting groomed and signed to a label, having the label package and promote you (and take nearly all of your royalties, thank you very much) have happily gone. The labels would then push your product to targeted radio stations, who would play it into nauseating boredom (OK, that last editorialism was mine), and you would have a fantastic hit on your hands.

The new model is to promote your band everywhere: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, cyberspace at large. If you attract the attention of an A&R rep (yes, they exist and are seeking talent), you might get directed to a label which specializes in your type of music. Or they might counsel you to stay on your own. (Having your music on iTunes is a good thing, but having it, even for free, on your own website is better, because you get to keep the email of the customer and retarget them.)

In music, as in many areas of entertainment, it's about putting together, packaging and marketing your "brand." Building a customer fan base, who tends to be fiercely loyal and loves to give you money, and keeping those fans happy.

You can seek out "airplay" anywhere you choose: of course, Internet radio is still popular, but there are also podcasts, UStream, YouTube, fan sites, etc. The niche areas have taken the place of radio as far as breaking artists, according to panelists, including some who worked at major stations in major markets.

The "new DJ" has become the music supervisor at a TV production company. If you get your song on one of those shows, you can make bank. In fact, the music jackpot today is no longer getting on a major radio station in a major market, but rather, getting "an iTunes commercial and at the end of Grey's Anatomy." I hear The Submarines (who've had both) out there smiling, somewhere.

In short, the future looks great for pretty much everyone, except the major labels and terrestrial radio. The artists are reaching more fans more directly. The A&R people are signing more people they are excited about. The consumers get many more choices in as many ways as they can handle them. And lots of people are thinking of ways to get that new music to you more enticingly (hopefully with ads attached somehow).

What does the future look like? Well, no one knows really. The people on the two Green panels (promoters on one, musicians on another) believe that working a low-carbon footprint into every concert is very much on the horizon (apparently R&B and hip hop artists are dragging their feet the most). Some would like to see recycling worked into every aspect of a concert tour, as the norm, rather than the exception. Many on the panels see this as doable in the near future.

"Every artist when given a choice: do you want to recycle? will say yes," said Chris Baumgartner of MusicMatters.

One person stated that they thought at least one of the four majors would also die within the next year. Another stated that they thought Billboard magazine would go out of business by year's end (probably an easy call too). One person stated it most succinctly: "The [majors] were so busy looking for the 'next big thing,' they neglected the one that came along: the Internet. They were blindsided by it. They didn't expect that at all. They are still trying to catch up, but it's too late." One called them "dinosaurs." Another said that bureaucratic music labels move to slowly (in this age of Now) to be effective at all.

The genie's out of the bottle, in short. Consumers now have the power, and they like it. Musicians have more money, and they like it. Radio's structured playlist system, where the real DJs don't even get to pick the music, is dead. It has been replaced by choice-filled Internet radio: both former terrestrial versions gone Internet and up-and-comers with spiffy software like Pandora, Blip and What is not to like about all these things?

All of these are things that most of us knew, but still, it was good to hear it over and over from so many different aspects of the business. And if you were a musician, you might have walked in there, thinking that the best path would be to try to get signed to a major and get your music into the hands of a radio DJ. You would've walked out of there realizing that instead you need to fine tune your message, your method of reaching fans, even giving music away to do so, and that getting signed anywhere might not be the best way for you to make money, unless it's with a specialty label who features your type of band. As always, the most important thing is to be a great musician with something to say, and an innovative way to say it. Good luck!

NEXT UP: The music at New Noise


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