Monday Musings: My Report And Frothing Rant From MusicConnex

Posted on April 25, 2011

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The critic smirks.

I was lucky enough to spend three days of late April representing the fantastic DIY musicians’ resource Live Unsigned at the MusicConnexconference in central London. This was an event targeted primarily towards musical artists seeking to develop their careers through the use of digital resources. This covers a lot of ground, and the conference included masterclasses on technical subjects such as audio mastering, but the focus, understandably, was on social media and making money.

The headline description on the website is of an ‘event for artists, music industry professionals, and digital media experts to come together and explore new and exciting DIY routes to market’. That, for me, raises a lot of questions. Surely routes to market are plentiful, and open: will the conference have anything useful to say about what to do there when you get there? What do the organisers mean by DIY, and is it the same thing that I mean?

Essentially, the widespread assumption was that the DIY route was pursued by people who are ‘looking for a deal’. This to me is a fundamental misapprehension: obviously anyone who takes responsibility for generating their own income is always looking for deals, but for DIY musicians, it’s a case of looking for a deal with each individual audience member. Like my stuff? Help me make more.

The really exciting, empowering thing about the new digital environment, is that there is a living to be made for artists going the DIY route: the (anecdotal) evidence is that if you do the right things to connect with an audience, they will put some of their capital your way, in the interests of supporting something they value. That may be in the form of CD or download sales, investment and pledges, merchandising sales, gig tickets, direct donations or whatever. What’s needed to motivate that kind of generosity is a sense of engagement: it’s about having a relatively deep and specific relationship with a certain number of fans, rather than a superficial relationship with a certain (larger) number.

I attended the conference with my usual open mind, but not without an agenda: my primary interest in each session was to see exactly what its usefulness was to the independent musician, intending to build, keep and capitalise on their own audience.

The first session I attended at MusicConnex was entitled ‘Meet The New Platforms’. This was ostensibly an opportunity for a variety of emerging digital platforms to make a pitch, and for artists to find some new channels for reaching an audience. There were some interesting tools on offer. Buy My Playlist offers a new way to structure download purchases, with site users assembling playlists, the contents of which they can buy for a certain sum, and other users can buy for a slightly larger sum. The usefulness of this depends, obviously, on the music you want to use being on the site: I searched for a few of my favourite things released in the last year, and found none. The reason for this is clear: they’re on tiny labels, or no label, and the site gets its music through big licensing deals. The relevance of this to a truly DIY musician is difficult to see.

StreamJam is a genuinely interesting platform, which takes video streaming technology, and contextualises it in a 3D virtuality. Video streaming in itself is a pretty empowering thing, enabling musicians to perform live from their studio/ kitchen/ local venue/ bedroom/ wherever, for a global and potentially huge audience. The wonderful Cafe Noodle integrates this with a chatroom, so the audience can interact, but StreamJam goes one step further and integrates a browser based 3D venue, where audience avatars can mingle. I’ve experienced a similar set up in the virtual world Second Life, but the difference there is that the technology is continually on the edge of failure, and the learning curve is as steep as the north face of the Eiger. This is the first implementation I’ve seen that anyone can just jump into, and it’s actually the only time during the conference that I felt I was looking at the future.

There was some other interesting stuff, including a communications and workflow tool for bands, BandCentral, but the majority of the pitches were predicated on bringing some properly hoary old models into new media. The prevalent assumption seems to be that the best way to make money from a creative endeavour is to reach a very large audience, and then skim a tiny percentage off the revenue stream that enables. Some pitches were really from middlemen who wanted to interpose themselves between artists and their audience, with no appreciable benefit to either, but one particularly hilarious example was a service which offered to aggregate demographically weighted reviews to help artists produce the most generic music possible.

Almost everyone assumed that musicians aspire to reach a huge audience, and their business models were based on their already having done so, or being on the brink of it. While many people do have those aspirations, and there will always be a number of performers who do reach those large numbers by one route or another, this is a bit like putting a lottery win on the income side of a business plan. Musicians are doing music because they love it, and if they can make a living at it they will live a happy life (all things being equal). Making a living entails having a certain level of income, but also having a certain sense of security, and here’s the rub: it’s better to get £1000 by persuading 100 people to pay you £10 each, than by getting £1 each from 1000 people.

Even famous acts get their career longevity from the minority of fans that spend a lot of their money on them, rather than the big numbers that give them an income spike around a major release. A fundamental engagement with a small number of people will give you an audience that will stick with you, will want to hear everything you put out, and will feel inclined to pay for it. Unless you become insanely famous, the industry’s traditional big numbers route will furnish you with a following that will buy a lot of product for a while, and then move on to something else.

This was a dichotomy that I saw repeated throughout the three days of MusicConnex: DIY musicians need to earn a high percentage of a relatively small revenue stream, but the industry predicates everything on a lot of parties skimming a few points off much larger numbers.

This disjuncture between industry assumptions and DIY musicians’ realities was most pronounced in the panel discussion ‘Artists & Brands’, where we heard from a panel of experts from the world of brand synergy. These were people who spend their days putting artists together with brands for their mutual promotional benefit, or to put it another way, associating musical brands with other sorts of brands. The panel’s view was that this was not something artists without a public profile should be looking at, as none of the major brands they represented would be interested in working with unknown artists. This was later directly contradicted in a seminar led by Eric Sheinkop of the Music Dealers licensing agency, who regularly places unsigned, unknown indie acts in major campaigns, and gave one of the most honest and enlightening presentations I saw.

One of the panelists in the ‘Artists & Brands’ session, while discussing the potential negatives of an act’s association with a brand, questioned whether it was still valid to talk about an artist ‘selling out’. This was a question I saw repeated in the Twitter feed, and seemed to be a little bit of a theme. We live in a commercial world, the argument seemed to run, therefore it is necessary to engage with the players in that world, in order to make a living: it’s unrealistic to resist that, and naive to question its morality. This pissed me off, to be honest. It’s one thing to say that it’s ok to make money, and another entirely to deny that there is an ethical dimension to the decisions you might make. So I’m going to spell it out for anyone who might not be clear on this: if you associate yourself with a brand that exploits child labour, you are endorsing child labour. If you associate yourself with a brand that uses environmentally destructive manufacturing processes you are endorsing those processes. If you associate yourself with a brand that climbs into bed with an authoritarian regime, you are endorsing that regime.

I’m not preaching to anybody: I wear clothes and buy products without looking into the ethical record of the companies that make them, and I’m well aware that the stuff I get is so cheap for a reason. The difference is, that I at least know this: I’m not denying that there is an ethical dimension to my purchasing decisions, and also I’m not advertising anything by any means beyond wearing its logos on my obscure and un-influential ass. Whenever this sort of issue became uncomfortably close to being even near the fringes of the agenda, the response was a frankly sickening denial of responsibility. Now I’m not about to claim a scoop for noticing that there’s a moral and ethical vacuum at the heart of the music industry, but seriously! It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone to acknowledge that these issues exist.

I sat in a lot of panels and seminars over the three days, and made a lot of pithy notes, enough to write an entire blog post about each session in fact, but obviously I need to summarise things. That I am so overflowing with material when I look back at my notes is a tribute to the organisers, and the interesting group of people they brought together. Given the ostensible DIY focus of the event it would have been nice to see some more DIY artists on the panels, people like Zoe Keating, Steve Lawson, She Makes War or Matt Stevens, who could actually speak from experience about the process of building an audience through social media and making a living through self-released music. There was however, an eye-opening session from Mike Rosenthal, who handles ‘Digital and Online Strategy’ for OK Go, a band which is well known for having gone DIY after some years with a major label. His insights and experiences will certainly inform what I do if I end up seriously pursuing any musical project in the future.

Much of what I’ve written may seem critical, but this was a well run and very interesting event. My principal reservation is that it is unlikely to have discouraged any young artists in attendance from pinning their hopes on getting picked up by a major player and promoted into stardom. There was, however, a lot of informative and often inspiring material, that will be of great use to any attendee that is actually serious about building an audience for themselves, and it was also a fascinating snapshot into the state and psychology of the industry in this exciting transitional era.

I think it’s worth remembering that DIY is not a new thing: it’s just that in the past it was something of a counterculture thing. Bands like Black Flag and Cardiacs went this route before there was an internet, let alone Facebook. They did it, and those that are doing it today do it, on a shoestring; they accept a low income as a fair exchange for spending their time doing what they love under nobody’s control but their own; they don’t need to be able to buy a lot of stuff, because their art gives them far more fulfillment than a nice house full of nice things ever could. These people are not about to spend £199 on a ticket to an event like this: they might stretch to £50 if it was jam packed with genuinely, specifically relevant material, about how to mobilise your audience through pledges, or how to improvise a replacement head gasket for a Ford Transit. Fascinating as it was, the main thing that MusicConnex highlighted for me was a gap in the market.

(Thanks to Matt Stevens for the sanity maintaining convo throughout, and for any good turns of phrase or bits of analysis I may have unwittingly stolen)

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