Logistically speaking, the biggest takeaway from last week’s inaugural, five-day Mondo music business conference was that future attendees will need a buddy system. There were simply too many panels offering ready intelligence, inspiration and food for thought for any one individual to take in alone. Ambitious musicians and entrepreneurs planning to attend next year’s conference – and another is scheduled for 2017 – should bring a wingman or woman to cover as much ground as possible. And when there’s a lull in the action, double up with your bandmate, or manager, or subcontractor, and then discuss afterward. The roughly $250 per person it’s going to cost is a real bargain.
And make sure you explore outside your own turf. Even if you don’t like heavy metal – one of many specific genres covered in detail at multiple panels – or, if like most musicians, you don’t consider EDM to be music at all, you should still investigate how it’s being sold. If it is being sold at all – there wasn’t time for this blog to venture that far out.
Pretty much everybody who’s anybody – Spotify, Tunecore, Vevo, NPR, many streaming services, publicity firms, licensing agencies, booking agents, boutique label people, lawyers, educators and lots of touring musicians – were represented among the panelists. Likewise, attendees ran the gamut, a global cast, on the young side but with many grizzled veterans of an earlier era humbled by the changes of the past fifteen years or so, and just as hungry as their younger counterparts. The major labels may be dead in the water by their own admission, running on fumes and at ten percent of capacity, but people are still making money in music. Maybe not Wolf of Wall Street skrilla, but there are plenty of bands on the road who don’t need dayjobs.
What is the state of the industry at the moment? Sheer chaos. What was fascinating to witness was the degree of disagreement from market to market, and to weigh the credibility of opposing opinions to fit different individual models. According to one articulate panelist, in hip-hop, if you can get $10 out of one email address, you can monetize that for another $130, on average. Did you know that in the folk music world, physical cd’s are still a viable revenue stream, and not only as merch at shows? There wasn’t any one panel – at least that this blog got to cover – where this was stated outright, but in 2016, the inescapable and rather triumphant verdict is that niche rules.
The other ubiquitous meme was “across all platforms.” With a little help from their friends or bandmates, maybe, any artist can be on every major and not-so-major streaming service around the world. As one oldster put it, getting a track on a hot Spotify playlist in 2016 is like having your cd on a Tower Records endcap thirty years ago. Everybody agreed that Spotify is the world’s most important radio station: growing at a rate of 1.7 million PAID subscribers a month, not to mention the tens of millions who use the free service. And as far as terrestrial radio is concerned, one promoter noted that while there are still a small handful of commercial stations that play good music, all the action is in public, nonprofit or college markets. And that action is still viable, especially for emerging artists, since even the smallest labels, and booking agents, and licensors, are crunching numbers like crazy, parsing the flood of data available for even the most obscure acts.
By contrast, many of the big-business panels reflected a circle-the-wagons desperation. Everybody in that world seems to be up in arms over last year’s US Department of Justice consent decree, which simplified licensing by streamlining deals via rights administrators like ASCAP or BMI rather than through what in many cases can be multiple publishers. There was also an entire panel devoted to removing unauthorized videos and streams from the web – akin to Donald Trump asking people to take unauthorized “Trump in 2016” bumper stickers off their cars. Even according to Universal Music’s own survey, one in four artists has zero interest in being signed to a record label. Considering how many wannabes there still are out there, that’s a seismic shift.
Happily, the conference had very few vestiges of smarmy “I did blow backstage with Skynyrd at the Fox Theatre in 1974” insider smugness. Panelists interacted enthusiastically with the crowd, exchanged emails and such (Superphone honcho Ryan Leslie gave out his cell number – for those who don’t already have it, it’s 646-887-6978, and don’t abuse it). As one talent agent put it, this is the era where instead of screwing your neighbor, you give them a leg up because it will probably come back to you someday.
Ambitiously – and this conference is all about ambition – the conference was held not in some scuzzy Midtown hotel but at NYU’s comfortably airconditioned flagship building, the Kimell Center on Washington Square South. NYU students are a friendly bunch – maybe because they aren’t treated like criminals the second they cross the security gate – and the staff there follow suit.
The after-conference parties were excellent (but be careful, you don’t want to get so hungover the next day that you miss a useful 9 AM discussion or networking opp). Unfortunately, this year, the music wasn’t. Of all the acts scattered across various showcases in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a grand total of three – retro 60s garage rockers Del Caesar, New York chamber pop regulars Elizabeth & the Catapult and the subversively theatrical Killy Dwyer– offered anything more than what would probably clear the room or make you tune out after thirty seconds. But that’s to be expected at a first-year conference. There are still legions of clueless Taylor Swift and One Direction wannabes out there without benefit of either Swift’s relentless stage parents, or boyband velvet mafia. As the conference grows, and one assumes it will, the music will improve. And music at these events is an afterthought anyway – in New York, there are good bands playing all over town every night. Events like this one only come around once a year. It’ll be fun to see how far it’s grown next time around.