SF MusicTech: Has Over-Tweeting Killed the Mystery Around Musicians?

Categories: Tech
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​​The only discernable displays of emotion at yesterday's S.F. MusicTech Summit -- the seventh such gathering of musicians, techies, and industry types -- came during the artist panel at the end of the day. Moderator Tamara Conniff (founder of The Comet and former editor-in-chief of Billboard) set the stage for a discussion of how the artists on the panel used social media to build their careers -- but the panel took this subject and ran with it. 

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​In response to Conniff's question about whether musicians had ended the "mystery" that stars used to have through over-tweeting, Evan Lowenstein (of Evan and Jaron, the twin brothers responsible for 2000's "Crazy for this Girl") said the "romance needs to come back between artists and fans," and plugged his website StageIt, a social media site designed for musicians, as one means toward that end. Oakland's own Del the Funky Homosapien said all that was needed to bring back the mystery was to create "good product." Lebo (of ALO) and singer-songwriter Raul Malo (formerly with the Mavericks) said what solidified their relationships with their fans was playing live, not tweeting or Facebook.

After some theorizing about where and how it had gone wrong, the entire panel agreed that the industry was ready for change, and stressed the need for creating one-of-a-kind musical experiences: live internet concerts (Lowenstein), a return to albums with artwork and credits (Del) and bringing back vinyl and analog sound (Malo and Lebo). Showing that they'd all talked with an MBA or two at some point, the panel disagreed about whether "the long tail model" had gone too far in opening up the music market, but agreed with Malo that, "we don't need the wizard behind the curtain anymore." It's a new day for artists and fans; where it will take us is hard to say.

My interest at yesterday's summit was captured by what the changes -- tech, biz, and social -- mean for the music-makers themselves. Is the landscape for creativity opening up or closing down? Are the new revenue streams offering creative independence for artists, or is "the new boss the same as the old boss?"

A session on "Music in Film, TV, & Commercials" illustrated how the sources of revenue for musicians and composers have shifted and how it has affected their creative life. In the 1990s, record labels had "special markets" departments for any source of income other than record/CD sales, at that time an inconsequential revenue stream. Today, that has changed, and money generated by "placement" in commercials, movies, TV shows, video games, and websites eclipses revenues from CD sales and downloads. 

For artists, this has created new waters to navigate and a set of new artistic, economic and ethical dilemmas. Singer-songwriter Mat Kearney mentioned that this shift has created a new set of artists who write songs with the placement market in mind. Composer Raj Ramayya added that it has also opened up global opportunities for artists who write for placement. Kearney has relied on placement for a stable flow of income, but still sees himself as an artist first. His big break came from placing one of his songs as the soundtrack for a closing montage on "Grey's Anatomy," waiving a fee in exchange for a plug for his album. Of course, he kept the broadcast royalty rights, which can add up over time. Todd Porter of local ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners added that foregoing a fee for a "chyron" (band name on the screen) has become a common practice. After all, as Kearney pointed out, artists also have a "brand" to protect and presumably credibility as an artist to lose. 

Still, "licensing has completely changed the independent market," Kearney explained. Many independent musicians have bankrolled the start of their career with income from placement. However, the economic stability offered by the placement market may be fading. Panel moderator Brooke Wentz of The Rights Workshop, an S.F. music consulting firm specializing in placement, said fees are dropping as the market gets more competitive.

Technological innovation is one of the primary themes of the S.F. MusicTech Summit, and yesterday's gathering featured a plethora of new devices. It was only with a little bit of skepticism that I noticed during a session on "Connected Devices" that the banners of the corporate sponsors included four out of the five companies whose products were being discussed. New business ideas also got their fair share of attention, with sessions on "Cutting Edge Digital Rights" (lawyers could get continuing ed. credits from the Bar for attending), "The Startup Cycle," "What Music Companies Need From Startups," and a strangely entertaining session of "Elevator Pitches" in which anyone could get one minute to pitch a new idea. 

There were also sessions on social networking, tour secrets (I can only guess what that was about), new trends in music performance, and music education. Some interesting panels, some cool new devices, but most of all the SF MusicTech Summit is about the schmoozing. Which reminds me: An open bar is calling.

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