It is day one at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel for the start of the 2015 CMW conference. I am at the registration booth on the concourse level sometime after 8 a.m. Thursday and the line-up is short. My particulars are in order and it’s off to the hotel lobby lounge for a coffee, armed with the ‘official program’, and ready to peruse the agenda and set up my schedule for the day.
It’s quiet. For most this is the day of the annual where one renews acquaintanceships, establishes new contacts, and catches up on whispered intrigues and behind the scenes goings-on. By nine o'clock the foyer is starting to buzz. I head down two levels to the cavernous convention area where a bustle of registrants is cruising the exhibition stands, chugging back free coffee, and most seemingly exercising a degree of self-imposed restraint brought on by a mixture of travel fatigue and late night partying at any number of the 60-plus music festival venues spread across a wide circumference of the city’s downtown core.
I say, of course, for most here it was day one. A small number were at the Sheraton on Wednesday to attend Northern Exposures, a FACTOR sponsored panel-primer about the Canadian music market, geared toward neophytes with an eye to explaining the seemingly complex and varied strata of funding opportunities available to musicians, recording artists, indie record labels, and the like. I would bump into the ever gracious Foundation President Duncan McKie at the CMW Radio Music Awards reception later in the afternoon on Thursday where he told me the event went well, a fact confirmed earlier by soulman Julian Taylor who attended the Wednesday afternoon workshop.
It is now somewhere north of 9:30 in the morning when I bump into Barnaby Marshall from Slaight Music, the man behind the music chart metrics that New Canadian Music is pioneering in Canada. Surprisingly, I find him telling me that digital marketing analyst Brian Solis’ keynote is not only up and running but has an overflow audience and he can’t get in.
Fortune strikes as official convention photographer Barry Roden overhears the conversation and takes us through a rear entry door to the Osgoode Ballroom where Barn and I strategically squeeze ourselves in with those already seated. I stay long enough to know a sales pitch when I hear one, then slither out through the rear entrance and back into the maze of exhibitor stands where I meet Joe Wood from the RDR Music Group, and Jim Norris from Norris-Whitney Communications, the longstanding publisher of Canadian Musician. We trade pleasantries as three veterans in the business with mutual respect for what each has accomplished in an industry that has seen more comings and goings than Europe has seen generals and armies.
My first of two panels for the day puts me back in the Osgoode Ballroom for a lecture carrying the weighty title - View from the Top: The State of the Music Industry. Veteran American music man Ted Cohen is moderator with David Bakula from The Nielsen Company and consumer research analyst Russ Crupnick from MusicWatch Inc. US explaining the latest metrics about music ‘consumption’ and the impact of social media and streaming. It has all the hallmarks of being another rah-rah pitch about how the world is changing, how one had best get with the times or get out the way if one doesn’t buy the Kool-Aid an industry of digital firms is selling the music biz today. In fact, intentional or otherwise, the discussion turns into a cautionary tale about how the record industry is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Nielsen’s Bakula fed us a swath of data showing how music streaming is now an integral part of the music 'consumption’ diet of average Americans, telling us that 67-percent of the population continues to rely on traditional radio for new music discovery, that 71-percent report having streamed music over the Internet and the overwhelming majority of the 71-percent cited YouTube as their source. Parsing data from Nielsen’s music study, we were shown graphs showing us that the most popular genre in the streaming spectrum is Classic Rock, that fans of rock music are more inclined to listen to songs than watch conceptual or performance videos; that younger demos — the millennials — skew towards electronic dance, rap, and hip-hop; and Country music fans are slowly shifting to a comfort zone online and compared with millennials are active buyers of albums and songs.
Most of the data is general knowledge, although the finely sliced and diced data could be helpful in formulating a marketing plan for acts established or otherwise. But the big news in the discussion was not so much about how streaming is the gateway to a new renaissance for the music industry, but how it has to some degree obfuscated the realities of the market place and pushed marketing departments at record companies off course.
MusicWatch’s Crupnick said consumer surveys show that only 36-percent of Americans are willing to pay for streamed audio services. At the present time, 120-million Americans are streaming audio from a variety of services, of which 50-million report that if the freemium models existent today were to be closed down they would be quite happy to go back to listening to music on the radio. Of the 10-million Americans paying for a service today, another 35-million say they might be willing to pay a small monthly fee — and that small fee, in Canada, a study shows, is considerably less than that charged by mainstream services now. Canadians polled say they would be comfortable paying $6 for an ad-free service and a max of $8 for high-definition audio streams.
Moderator Cohen suggested that two generations have grown up unaccustomed to having to pay for music, and that persuading them otherwise will be a tough and perhaps impossible sell. He ventured that “a lot of people have become apathetic” about music and that its pervasiveness to some degree has worked against its capital conversion.
Even more startling is the fact that for a majority of people, not being able to access the latest tune or tunes by their favourite artists in the freemium model is not a game-changer for them. For most they either move on and listen to something or someone else, or find it using a growing number of grey market apps that are flouting copyright laws.
As Cohen summarized at the end, the conundrum for the music industry is in whether to concentrate on up-selling the smaller number of committed music fans or finding a way to sell the general public on subscribing to services they don’t want to pay for. Data cited by both Nielsen and MusicWatch suggest the record industry is missing opportunity today by spending too much human and financial capital chasing younger demos when boomers and 35-plus adults continue to drive CD and digital download sales.
A re-think on marketing strategies and new artist signings could help buoy music sales, and invigorate the music brand overall in the marketplace. Following the session Cohen told me that the music industry needs to start listening more to what the customer wants and become less focused on what they think needs to change. For many, he told me, music is little more than a soothing background service for the office or a dinner party environment.
That’s why Pandora is so successful. It’s freemium model is relatively uncluttered by advertising inventory, and its ad-free service costs a modest $5 a month. With 90-million active users, the arch-enemy for songwriters and composers may end up being their new best friend in a universe of music streaming services that maybe chasing an audience that just doesn’t care about windowing, gating, or the next big thing.
Following that sobering but instructive lecture it was back to the meeting areas spread between the lower concourse and the foyer lobby and bar where I run into Bruce Allen, just off the plane with Bryan Adams who is able to walk through the lobby without a posse of minders, paparazzi, or interruption. Bruce and I exchange a few words on the fly, and he asks why he isn’t receiving the FYI Newsletter. I tell him it is only sent to important people. He takes the comment as intended and we share a chuckle (and Bruce, you are back on the list, again).
And Adams, I would meet later in the afternoon in a corridor, perhaps on his way to the convention ballroom where he would accept the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Award the same evening. He is walking unobtrusively with Tyson Parker, Universal’s engaging Media & Artists Relations VP. We lightly chat, something I haven’t had the opportunity to do for a very long time. He seemed, as before, to be quiet, thoughtful, centered, not prone to exclamation or theatrics. He saves that for when he is on stage in front of his fans.
And that evening, at the banquet, when he accepts the award, he is nothing if not modest. As had several others, I had requested an interview in advance of his receiving the award — and all requests are rejected. We are told that he is not one to grandstand when it comes to his charitable endeavors — which he does through his Foundation. At the banquet he says that none of us can change the world, “but small deeds can change people.” He remembers, as a small kid living in Ottawa, playing soccer, and needing new boots.
“We couldn’t afford them,” he tells us from the stage. His coach quietly came to the rescue one day with a new pair he had purchased for him. “That act changed me, changed how I saw things. It made me see how a small act can change a person on the inside.” And then he thanked everyone in the room, including the broadcasters who supported him in the early days and continue to this day by playing his records.
Shortly after leaving the stage Bryan Adams left the room. No entourage, no fuss. Just an average looking guy in blue jeans headed for the exit. But he’s not an average guy; Adams is an extraordinary guy who has been to the top of the rock pile, maintained himself with decorum, helped many, created twin careers — as a photographer and singer/songwriter — and asked little in return. It was a night when Bryan Adams’ came to accept acknowledgement for something he never thought to ask for — and the room stood as one and applauded him with a roar. After all, he is one of us. That all Canadian boy with a songbook everybody knows, and everybody has sung along to at some point in time.