Danya Dixon pic provided.
Danya Dixon pic provided.

Backstage With CMW CEO Danya Dixon

Danya Dixon, CEO of Canadian Music Week, is relieved and excited the music conference and festival is finally happening this week (May 18-21) even if it is all online. Last year, it was cancelled twice.

For Virtual CMW, the pass prices have been cut significantly, and the music festival is free to all (350 acts).

It includes more than 70 sessions with over 300 speakers — among them, Chris Blackwell, Debra Rathwell, Desmond Child, Dallas Austin, Timbaland, Nile Rodgers, Merck Mercuriadis, Wendy Ong, Carianne Marshall, Allen Kovac, Annabella Coldrick, Bob Lefsetz, Kevin Liles, Jennifer Mitchell, Michael Chugg, Buffy Sainte-Marie — all available on-demand within 24 hours of their scheduled slot during the four-day Music Summit to those with a pro delegate pass.

Andy Stinton of Event Studio and his team have been working for weeks to make sure the pre-recorded panels come off without a hitch and this week have their work cut out for them for the live sessions and post-panel delegate Q&A periods with the speakers.

There are also pre-arranged virtual one-on-one meetings, as part of International Marketplace, such as festivals, music supervisors and sync agents, A&R, and producers, plus four “meet the experts’ series,” including managers, radio, promoters and agents.  There are exhibits, Hot Docs music films, a spotlight on Holland, and more. The Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards is Wednesday (May 19) and later this month the Indie Awards (May 30).  Register here.

Dixon, who just celebrated her 13th year full-time with CMW, and a lifetime with its president, her dad, Neill Dixon, spoke with FYI Music News about going into the family business, pivoting the conference online this year, and what her hope is for 2022.

What was life like growing up with a father in the music industry?

I was totally into music, but I didn't know anything about the industry. I remember when my dad had Solid Gold Records, somebody on the school bus said, ‘What do your parents do for a living?’ And I had no idea what to say. So, I asked my dad. He said, ‘record producer.’  I had to memorize that title over and over in my head so I’d be able to tell the people back on the school bus what he did.  I do remember when I was very young going behind stage with him at certain venues and concerts, like backstage for the Beach Boys. I was three or four years old, so it didn't faze me; it was just normal.  Then, I started working [for him] in high school part-time at about 14 or 15 years old.  It was a long time ago, so back then we’d do mail outs and I’d help with sending those. Then in university [York] during the summer, I would work there.

Was there anything else that you wanted to be?

I went to university for criminology and I applied to law school, then I decided I didn't want to do that. I got into real estate, did some TV work on the side, and for some reason came back to CMW.

What was your first official full-time job for CMW?

I was the flight and hotel booker and started doing the logistics and helping with registration. I was working for Verle Mobbs, the conference manager back then. She taught me the ropes. I’ve just taken on more responsibilities over the years. I was the VP of programming before I became CEO three years ago. Neill is still president and is very involved. CMW is his baby and he loves his work, so I get that motivation and that drive from him. I help try and alleviate some of the projects that he has to do.

Most of us don't work so closely with a family member. How is the dynamic? The respect? Is there ever a “Come on, dad, please”?

It depends on the day. I have a lot of the same personality traits as my father so sometimes we bang heads a little bit. He's not easy on me because I'm his daughter. I've had to work my way up, just like everybody else.  I've learned in that regard; you have to work to get what you want and you have to work hard.  But it's different outside of work, I'm daddy's girl, but not during work, it's ‘Neill.’ I don't refer to him as dad.

Are you an only child?

No, I have a younger sister [Brittany], but she's more artsy. She does paintings and drawings. She used to be an art teacher.

What was it like last year, at the start of Covid with all the uncertainty? CMW must have been all but booked.

Yes, yes it was.  We were supposed to have our event May 19 to the 23rd.  In February, we were in the boardroom talking about the marketing campaign and Neill brought up the news. ‘Did you hear about all those cases that are happening with this Covid-19? And at that point, it was still slowly making its way over here. And then within a month, March, it just exploded. The day eeverything closed down was the day I was supposed to leave to the Junos [in Saskatoon]. I was actually at the airport when everything was canceled.  And then we had to send everybody home and close down the office.

We actually got rid of the office too because nobody could go there. There's no point paying thousands of dollars every month in rent if you're not making any money. We had to postpone CMW.  We thought September sounds good and then July, August rolls around, we're like, ‘This is totally not happening.’ So again, we had to postpone it. Everything was booked — flights and hotels, all the programming and the festival. It was a disaster to cancel, and then do it again and cancel. We lost a lot of deposits too with various venues and the hotel and certain things. It was also a lot because we had two events now that we had to put down money for, and then had to cancel.

We had to lay off some of our staff. We had to cancel our contracts with production teams and our stage handlers and lighting and our Expo managers. What was happening to us, it was happening to everybody else. Then, we didn't really know where to go. It's hard to plan when you can't plan, especially in Ontario, where we're in lockdown again.  Around January, this was not going to go away anytime soon, especially looking at the rollout of the vaccinations worldwide. We had to make the decision to go virtual. It's been an interesting ride. It's been a learning curve for all of us. I really miss live, a lot; virtual is its own beast.

Were you able to access any of the government aid?

I don't work with the funding. I think the funding that we got for 2020 was redirected for use in 2021.

Did your corporate sponsors stand by you?

Yeah. Some of the bigger companies were able to defer their sponsorship, their contract, to 2021. That was very much appreciated on our end.

In the meantime, you launched the Virtual Voices in June, to do a mix of panels, keynotes, interviews, and workshops. That must’ve been good preparation for taking CMW virtual.

We started because we really didn't know where we were going with the conference.  Around that time, we knew September wasn't going to happen, so we just wanted to keep the industry together and engaged and still learning and still networking and make it feel as normal as possible, still being able to see people every other week.

How did you find the right platform for you?  You’re using Hopin, not Zoom.

We need to find one that has all the functionalities of what we do. Because we do the conference, the festival, awards, the trade show and the international marketplace, there's a lot of things that we needed these platforms to do.  I'm sure within the next six months to a year, they all will get on board with that, but a lot of the platforms were just coming into play. Zoom and Microsoft have been around for a long time, but some of these other platforms that were trying to do virtual events just didn't have everything that we need. So, we did a lot of research. It’s been interesting. We'll see how it goes this week.

What did you need that the other platforms didn’t offer?

Because we do a lot of the prearranged one-on-one meetings and the ‘speed-dating,’ we need to be able to report back to the government [funders] afterwards with all the meetings that were curated, what business came out of it. We needed something that would be able to do that seamlessly and have that reporting system afterwards, then all the analytics. And they charge you on how many people are attending and we have no idea how many people are going to come to a virtual thing. I mean, we have our stats from in-person events, but we have no idea online. So, 500 people is one price but for a thousand or two-thousand the price jumps astronomically. We had to find a sweet spot and go with that. It was a lot of guesstimating.

We realized too from doing the Virtual Voices, that technology's not always reliable. We've had sessions where one of the moderators his child pulled the internet plug. We were stuck with no moderator and he had all the questions and research we’d been doing for weeks and weeks. Or if you're doing interviews with anybody in the government, they have a lot of firewalls. So trying to get the tech checks went a lot longer than they were supposed to. Anyway, we decided to prerecord some things just to make sure that we have the content in case anything goes down. We've done a lot in the last couple of weeks so it's still fresh content.

How much will be live and how much prerecorded?

We have a lot of live stuff, in terms of the masterclasses and the workshops, the opening remarks and the state of the industry and presentations. It's just some of the heavier panels, where we couldn't necessarily get them back to come that day. I would say it's about like 60-70% live and then the rest is pre-recorded, but a lot of speakers are coming back to do Q&A afterwards. Let's just say something happens with their internet, at least people were still able to watch the panel and get those takeaways.

In the past few years, certain topics have emerged of importance, like mental health, gender parity, blockchain, racial equality, diversity. Is there anything else that has emerged during the pandemic?

We are doing Allies in Music, talking about diversity and the Black community. And we have Ian Andre Espinet from Ionic Arts & Entertainment and Portia Sabin from The Music Business Association. That’s a really important one that we've done this year. Also, Advance [Canada’s Black Music Business Collective] is putting on a workshop and they're doing a panel on the value of a radio. Mental health is our top priority so that's going to be in the conference. State of the Industry puts the spotlight on what everybody's doing globally, especially with this pandemic. And we have a few panels on returning back to live. What's that going to look like? We've had medical professionals; and Nielsen, which is now MRC Data, share surveys that they've done and all their analytics. It's really interesting to see how other parts of the world are dealing with it and getting back to live and getting people back to work. So, a lot of it is looking at the challenges that we've faced and how we help people overcome them and predictions moving forward. I mean, nobody knows what's going to happen next, but we have some of the smartest people in the room and it will be good to hear their thoughts and comforting to get their perspective.

Because it's been a tough year financially for everyone in our industry, did you take that into consideration in terms of pricing your conference passes?

Yes! Usually, a VIP pass is $999 and a regular ticket is $399. Now a pro delegate pass is $149 and a regular ticket is $99, which gets access to all of the panels. This festival this year is actually free for everybody. So that's nice for people who might not be able to afford it, but especially for the emerging bands that are going to be playing who will get to be seen by a lot of people. And we're going to be keeping their performances online for six months, with all the contact details, socials, and bio. So that's one thing we did different. And everyone who applied to the festival (for $99 submission fee) got a four-day conference pass. So they have the opportunity to network and see all the panels and be involved in all the workshops. To put that on is very expensive.

Do you think you'll keep any of these virtual elements for next year or do you want it to go back to everything in-person?

I think it will be a hybrid model. There are some pros to this whole virtual thing, especially when you can't get artists or speakers to come from other countries. I think a hybrid event would be something that we would look into a 100 percent.  Based on some of the things we've learned, I know we’re going to keep a savings account for new Covid cleaning measures, just sanitization and having the proper protocols in place, so everybody feels safe to come to an in-person event.

You have to start planning CMW 2022 as soon as this week is over.

We start right away. It takes literally a year to plan it. I don't know how we're still standing now because we've planned three times in one year technically. And we also have the Grow Up Conference [for the cannabis growing and extraction industry) and O’Cannabiz [for the business side] that we had to cancel and postpone, and postpone.

Note: Karen Bliss assembled and is moderating The State of Music Journalism: Who’s Left to Spread the News on May 21, from noon-1 p.m. (ET) and is moderating The Rights Stuff: Kilometre Music Group Monetizes The ‘Canadian Invasion’ on May 20 at 11 a.m.-noon (ET).

Events starts tomorrow. Register here.

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