Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ReThink Music 2012 -- Things seen and heard in Boston

by Emmanuel Legrand
ReThink Music is one of the new conferences on the music industry circuit. It is the brainchild of the Berklee School of Music and Midem. Held in Boston April 23-24, the conference aims at looking at the future of the music business. The audience is made of students, academics and industry professionals. Here are a few things seen and heard at ReThink Music 2012.
How can one work in the music industry?
Roger Brown, the president of the Berklee College of Music pointed out in his introduction remarks that the music industry has had “the most tumultuous ride” and the roller coaster ride is not over. While the situation for artists has changed and has put them in the driving seat, the industry itself is not in the same shape as it was a decade ago. Not only is the physical market in free fall, but the digital market, even if revenues are growing, comes with its own set of issues. Several speakers described the music business as a place where digital has made licensing deals increasingly complex. “We are all in the high-complexity low-margin business,” summed up Vickie Newman, president/North America for online service 7Digital. “We get a huge volume of micro payments making up for...nothing,” added Cathy Merenda, VP of music publishing at 20th Century Fox. “Any MBA will tell you this is not a business you want to be in,” mused Steve Masur, senior partner at MasurLaw. “You have to be a masochist to get into this business.”
No more lectures please -- we want solutions!
Seth Godin is often described as a marketing guru. He’s written a few books to that effect. And he can often be interesting when he sticks to his core topics. But do we need another lecture on the reasons why the music industry is in such a mess? We all know what happened and we have to get beyond that. His ReThink presentation was abundant on the reasons why the mould had been broken but thin on answers on how to build a new business from the crumbled walls of Babylon! But he did wear a funky jacket that won him kudos from the audience. At least he knows how to market himself.
Friction is the new F word
In the heydays of vinyl, in the world of scarcity described by Seth Godin, part of the fun was the friction, ie. the difficulty to access to music as you wanted and when you wanted. Expectations were high because you had to wait for the moment you went top the record store, and find a few gems that you would bring back home. Times, they are a-changing, right? Now, creating a “friction-free” marketplace for consumers seems to be the new obsession. It is as if the nanny-state syndrome had also trickled down to the music and tech communities. It has to be made easy! The experience has to be flawless! And if it is not, the fans will fly elsewhere, most likely on non-licensed platforms. Even the ‘old’ industry has understood that. “Our job is to monetise artists’ music,” said John Vanhala, in charge of digital and new business at Universal Music Group. “Our role is to go out and find friction-free ways to get music out.” 
Even the licensing process should be friction-free
One area where getting rid of frictions is paramount is in the licensing process. All the speakers on the ‘Licensing challenges in the global community’ at ReThink agreed that more needs to be done to make the licensing process easier and more transparent. “There is friction at the point of licensing,” said Steven Masur, senior partner at MasurLaw. “We want to license on all devices and around the world and our business is to have consistency, but the difficulties to go through that are immense: there’s labels, publishers, PROs, different models, different rates,” said Vickie Newman, president/North America for online service 7Digital. The real issue here, they explained, was first to streamline the process for the benefit of all stakeholders. 
And good metadata will help limit friction
One the key ingredient in the friction-free process should without any doubt good metadata, so that licensees know what they are licensing and the proper identification of works will allow a good flow of revenues between the licensee and the licensor. That is the theory. Because in practice, it is not there yet. As documented before, there are two projects of global registries, one is the GRD, which regroups the major publishers and several rights societies, the other being IMR, which is backed by WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 
“We are distributors, with tens of thousands of streams. It is all about data,” said Cecily Mak, VP/general counsel of online radio service Rhapsody, who welcome these initiatives.  But she expressed doubts at the pace they were developing. It has been going on for many years. “It is hard to predict when it will be of value to customers like Rhapsody,” she said. 
Mark Isherwood, co-founder Rightscom, and who is involved in the GRD suggested that the project was well on tracks and close to get into the next phase, which will involve IT specialists. “We are making sure that before we go to the next stage, everybody is comfortable with all the key issues,” he said. “We are dealing with people’s emotions and that takes time. There is no question in my mind that it will happen. The question is not if it will happen but how.”
Meanwhile Jim Griffin, an ardent proponent of the IMR, said the IMR will address the issue of all repertoires and all the different languages since it appears that the GRD will be strong with Anglo-American repertoire. “There is an enormous difference between the two projects,” he said but also admitted that at some point there will be a need to “synchronise the various efforts. The point is that we need a centralised database that represents the sum of all the information.”
And I do not resist the pleasure to mention one of Griffin’s quotes: “It is hard to imagine a sustainable economy of ideas without transparency.” It’s hard to figure what it really means but it sounds great!
Can too much friction create a culture backlash?
In a different session, Jochai Benkler mentioned the Digital Copyright Exchange proposed in the Hargreaves review in the UK as the possible way forward to facilitate licensing. For Benkler, “copyright needs to be important for B2B usage” but the friction about copyright at a consumer level must be ended. Incidentally, Benkler rightly said that the record companies’ misguided habit of suing customers and the war on file-sharers has created in return a “cultural backlash” which would explain the PIPA and SOPA debacles. “Don’t break the internet to save an industry,” said Benkler, “there must be a better way.”
Nothing’s worse than playing to an industry crowd
An the unfortunate victim of music professionals’ total lack of interest in her music was Alela Diane. The folk artist was playing at the Speakers’ Dinner at ReThink. Diane put on a brave face and tried to get people into her music but she was with the wrong crowd. Her music needs an attentive audience, one than can marvel at the subtleties of her guitar picking and connect with the pain in her voice and the depth of her lyrics. I wrote not too long ago that artists can revel in adversity but that was one gig too many for her. Why on earth was she ambushed into that hole? She deserves much better than a crowd only interested in networking, chatting and drinking. I felt sorry for her, and as a great admirer of her talent, I felt like apologising to her for the rudeness of the audience. And since I did not get to do it face to face, I do it here!
[Typed while listening to Alela Diane’s stunning 2006 debut album ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’ (Holocene Music)]


Other similar stories you might be interested in reading:
Designing a new roadmap for artists in the digital era
ASCAP Expo 2012 -- Things seen and heard in Los Angeles

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