S.F. MusicTech Summit: Will People Still Pay for Songs in Five Years?
From left, J Sider of RootMusic, Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, Lincoln Parish of Cage the Elephant, and cellist Zoe Keating
After spending all day at the S.F. MusicTech Summit, I'm sitting at my laptop, listening to an MP3 -- and not posting about it on any of a handful of social networks.
Already I'm showing myself to be so behind the times, apparently.
Cloud-based streaming issues were Monday's buzz topics -- and that means something at a tech conference like this, where there's more buzz in the conversations than in the free coffee.
How can we monetize streaming services? How can we make apps that pull from the cloud without facing heady royalty fees? How can we make the music listening process more interactive, less interactive, with more sharing, less sharing? Who even has space on one's hard drive for old-fashioned MP3s anymore?
And what about that elusive quality: disruption?
New music technology doesn't have anything new, prompted one panel moderator -- tech thinker and Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen -- whose prelude to his panel argued that new companies should solve something -- and that often they don't.
"Jethro Tull used the flute," Allen said. "That was disruptive."
But Allen's panel touched on another central idea of the conference: That in moving forward with technology, music consumption and its culture may be rolling backward in history to a simpler time.
When an audience member said his work as an indie band manager made all this music technology overwhelming, panelist Jesse Von Doom of Cash Music was quick to agree.
"I truly believe simplicity is a big idea," Von Doom said.
That yearning was lost among those debuting new gadgets and apps at the summit, where ideas like Rexly (goal: "to make Apple music social"), and Bopler Games by MXP4 (goal: "game-ify artist pages on Facebook") announced new ways of interacting with music.
Simple listening is so passé. Even TuneWiki, which crowdsources its lyrics creation and whose wide feature set allows for ample sharing of lyrics, was quickly asked in a Q&A session when it would allow for streaming songs.
But at an artist-centric panel, "Using Social Networks Effectively," creators suggested coyly that all these technological advances may force a return to a centuries-old payment system: patronage.
Panelists -- Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, Lincoln Parish of Cage the Elephant, and cellist Zoe Keating -- discussed ideas like tiered payments, "superfans" willing to pay more, and even a subscription-based (or corporate?) "sponsorship" system of paying artists, where a fan could pledge $5 a month to guarantee a living for an artist in exchange for a steady stream of output.
Another way to gain a living, the artists agreed, was to expand a fanbase -- and find that sliver of a fanbase that's willing to pay.
But the answers to a large fanbase aren't always clear. For Conte, Pomplamoose's cover of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" threw the group into the spotlight. For Keating, her sales may come from another relic of the medium.
"There's tons of music out there for free," she said. "The things that lead to the most sales are not social media, they're NPR. I was on All Things Considered last week, then I was No. 1 on iTunes classical."
Even though fan ranks can swell through social media, most fans are happy to stream for free and not much else, Conte said.
"I highly doubt people will be paying for music in five years -- 99 cents for an MP3 or AAC," Conte said. "What's the value of an artist then?"
People will always need art, he continued, and it will be monetized -- somehow.
And for those still looking for the way to make that happen, there's always the next S.F. MusicTech Summit.