CMW Social Music Summit
CMW Social Music Summit

The Fog of the Digital Future

CMW held its Social Music Summit and Music Conference at a crowded Sheraton Centre this Thursday. The healthy attendance at its social and digital-themed panels — by a solid cross-section of musicians, media, and business reps — indicated that an acceptance of the Internet’s role in music is finally well established. Or at least, garners a genuine curiosity and respect.

Much like the young industry itself, the event had its share of awkward growing pains on display. 

Most prominent among them was the simple problem of knowing how to best discuss the topics at hand when one is not even sure of the general level of knowledge of the audience. As such, the four sessions I attended — Online Music Marketing; The Future of Social & Digital Music; How Streaming And Artists Can Be Complimentary; and Music Discovery and Recommendation Panel — each contained redundant messages and repeat panelists, as well as the occasional speaker out of his or her depth on the topic (if you’re going to be on an expert panel on the myriad ways for musicians to engage fans online, you shouldn’t be struggling to name Shawn Mendes and his Vine escapades).

As a result, many panelists trotted out advice that while true and no doubt of use to neophytes in the crowd, did not register as new insight to those even loosely familiar with the debates surrounding streaming and social media (i.e. posting frequently across many platforms, providing a wealth of content of all kinds, building playlists on streaming services like Spotify and Rdio, and so forth).

That said, these are still relevant points to be made, and over time, they evolved into deeper understandings: the art of driving traffic to your music by making playlists that featured your own song paired up with a couple dozen like-minded hits from others was discussed regularly across panels and seems an agreed proven tactic. 

Also enthusiastically discussed was the longer shelf life that the internet gave songs — something that seems frankly counterintuitive to the oft-characterized disposable nature of the web. Time and time again, the experts claimed that the Internet allowed for a “long tail” approach — an artist’s music becoming a renewable resource online as audiences came to discover it through playlists and recommendations.

And naturally, the topics became far more engaging when panelists began to disagree on the best approaches to the problems at hand. 

 

During the conclusion to The Future of Social & Digital Music session, Zeeshan Zaidi, SVP/GM Artist Services at Ticketmaster USA, rather predictably claimed that still “all roads lead to the road”, arguing that touring is still the backbone of how bands make money today. Jay Frank, CEO of digital-centric label Digsin, countered that such a view ignored the many YouTube music success stories out there; artists who have scarcely left their bedroom, and still make solid revenue from their art. (Recent New Canadian Music Vista Prize winner Daniela Andrade comes to mind here.) As others on this panel weighed in, you could see the grey area that is where truth usually resides in these cases: yes, touring remains a strong, if not primary source of revenue for the majority of acts. But it isn’t everything. The realities are changing and fortune favours the bold (or, at least, innovative).

This mini spat was a prelude to the one truly great panel of the day: How Streaming and Artists Can Be Complimentary. Containing reps from several diverse Canadian indies (Dine Alone, Six Shooter, and MDM), the real fireworks came courtesy of Jim Rondinelli, Global Head of Content Licensing and Catalog at Rdio USA, and Benji Rogers, the President of PledgeMusic. Plainly respectful but full of passionate disagreement, the two men were the first on the day to truly illuminate the amorphous and transitory nature of the Internet and music. While those associated with streaming services like Spotify and Rdio express varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their own abilities to currently pay artists, Rogers’ used the hour as a fiery push to reexamine the very opportunities of the Internet.

His focus was on the “super fan” — devotees of the highest order; those who would “crawl over glass” to get closer to the artists that they love. In his mind, these are the primary revenue generators for musicians. And current streaming services (with their wealth of subscriber data) are holding hostage great opportunities for artists to engage with these super fans. For example, Rogers argued that being able to reach out to an Rdio listener who listens to one of their songs 30 times — to offer everything from a “Thanks!” to exclusive merchandise and content — would be invaluable. As it is — be they on Rdio, Spotify, YouTube or others — these chances are non-existent.

Rondinelli countered that Rdio did research into this very thing, but the evidence came back that subscribers simply did not wish to be engaged in this manner — that it felt like advertising (the very thing that people pay fees to avoid). And he also offered a sober and salient foil to the impatient Rogers, observing the ways the global market still displays great inconsistency in how the public uses the Web for music (everything from a Germany where physical media still rules to an India and Brazil where widespread poverty lowers the possibility of subscriber-generated revenue to next-to-nothing).

The best part of this seminar wasn’t the clear picture that emerged. If anything, it was seeing the wholly unsettled vista of music and the Internet laid bare. In the deepest and most hotly contested discussion of the day, you could see digital music for the Wild West it is — a post-war zone that has shuffled the deck completely and added a few extra cards to the mix. 

In the end, Rogers’ words resonated the deepest: “Streaming needs to become the service for artists to make money.” The more he spoke of moving beyond just the traditional royalties-based manner of doing this — borrowing from the ideals of his own PledgeMusic, Kickstarter, and the basic like/post/share models of social media — it became clear how much wealth is still being left on the table. By businesses. By artists. By everybody.

Rondinelli began his time on the panel by reminding us that this was a “nascent” business, and he’s spot on. But it’s growing up fast, and every musician has the presently unique opportunity to whisper it parental advice.

The version of this conference in five years’ time should really be something to behold.

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