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My Long Time Love Affair

June 13th 2013 in Music

Yes, it’s true.  I have had a longstanding love affair with… the New Music Seminar. As one in love, I can see its faults and still love it.  I have attended them since the second or third one, and missed only one or two since.  And this year’s was one of the best yet.

In its heyday, the NMS took over, in almost every sense of the phrase, the Marriott Marque on Broadway. There was a huge exhibit area, parties all over the city, concerts all over the city.  This was when the record business was charging full speed ahead, selling more every year.  There were panels about most things of interest to the DIY musician, the musician who desperately wanted to get signed, the manager who desperately wanted to get artists signed, panels on touring, panels on music journalism (my cohort Diane Patrick and I ran several panels that attempted to organize music journalists when we headed the National Writers Union Music Writers Caucus), panels on recording.  There were also panels on all manners of music, from introducing the 87-year-old calypsonian Roaring Lion to a generation that thought “Maryanne (down by the seashore sifting sand)” was a folk song, to some of the biggest artists of the time sitting on the Artists’ Panel that traditionally closed the show.  There were artists from the world over, come to learn, come to make music, come to take a shot at fame, come to get into the heart and gestalt of the music business.

This year’s (and the previous few since it came off of hiatus) was a much smaller affair, in line with the new realities of the 21st Century music business (so far), but also in tune with the future and possibilities of the music business as that century moves on.  The theme came from a speech that the NMS co-founder and executive director (and owner of Tommy Boy Records) Tom Silverman

The Billion Dollar Biz

Tom Silverman shows us how many more donations we need to reach the $1,000,000,000 Business

gave at MIDEM, another music colloquium earlier this year in the South of France: Building a $100,000,000,000 music business.  This is not as unlikely as it sounds at first blush.  The music business has risen phoenix-like many times since Thomas Edison pricked his finger on a stylus and captured his expletives on a piece of tin foil with another stylus (Mary Had a Little Lamb, indeed).  And most of these rises came on the coattails of new technology – the glass and lacquer record, the vinyl LP, tape, the CD, and now digital. While the businesses relationship with digital (which they didn’t invent) has been a bit dodgier than its experience with those previous media (which they pretty much did invent, or at least control from the outset), it has finally begun to set up a proper infrastructure so that recording artist will not disappear from the face of the earth.  Indeed, fat chance of that happening – over the last decade, the number of annual commercial musical releases has increased at least fourfold.

I tell my students that this is the most exciting time in the last 50 years, perhaps in history, to be involved in the music business, as it reinvents itself.  As one panelist put it, “The rules change every day.”  Some of the highlights and insights included:

  • The Ralph Simon led digital panel. Ralph has a way with the language that is only superseded by his abilities in the mobile music space.  Among his wonderful turns of phrase:
    • Screenagers – people who use multiple screens simultaneously.
    • Human doing – as  opposed to a human being.
    • But the term that came up most when addressing the rise of the cell phone as the preeminent musical source of the immediate future was “feels like free.”  How can the music business make their monetization painless, so that a generation that grew up with “free music” via downloads can continue to get their music “free”.
    • The new loathsome sobriquet for music: What once was “product” has become “content,” though I like the thought of it as an “asset” more.
    • The rise of the independent record company, the true musical entrepreneurs making major waves in the popular trenches, not too unlike the way things operated in the 50s and early 60s, before the corporate entities started gobbling them up.
      • For example, the fact that earlier this year, five of the top ten singles were indy
      • Indies have shown 12% digital growth over the last year.
      • That the Lumineers have had 100,000,000 streams – thought the monetary “effect doesn’t reflect that number.”
      • That the indies look at the new music business s as a net income business, while the majors still think in terms of market share.
      • While the majors still dominate radio, streaming and licensing have made the music business “more democratic.”
      • FDR taking over the legalities of the music business: beyond the “new deals” for the “assets”, there were the new ways of looking at remunerating artists, new models for “new deals” like 50/50 and 360 deals that give artists a choice rather than the standard advance/(small) percentage deals.
Jesse Clegg

Jesse Clegg, Son of South African star Johnny Clegg, makes his NYC Debut

One of the other things that the New NMS has downsized is the “New York Nights” that came with the event and would have me (in younger days) criss-crossing the city to see artists like the US debut of the Gipsy Kings, The Les Miserables Brass Band, and Barenaked Ladies long before they became a hit, among hundreds of others – often taking in all or part of five sets a night.  The recent Seminar had a somewhat more limited number of venues, most of which were within spitting distance of each other on Ludlow Street. They did, however, showcase well over 100 artists.  A couple of the notable ones I caught included the US debut of Jesse Clegg from South Africa, doing a wonderful, energetic (mostly) acoustic set and the winners of the Seminar’s “Artists on the Verge” contest Air Traffic Controllers, an Americana group that you should be hearing from shortly.


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In a long running thread about “monetizing the new music industry” on LinkedIn the other day, David Robbins Jr. from Extra Musical commented:

I remember when there were live concerts on the radio and I could copy my friends tape until I got my own copy, concert ticket and tshirt. Now it seems the band […]

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