For SF WEEKLY: The SF MusicTech Summit, which drew more than 1,000 people to the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown on Tuesday for its 14th event, has become a hub for entrepreneurs, artists, and music industry folks who have — or want — a say in how the broken music industry could or should redefine itself.
The event has an air of high-minded enthusiasm, and Tuesday was no exception: people exchanged elevator pitches and spoke passionately about digital concerts, the transcendent power of large-scale art at large outdoor music festivals, and how things like descriptive metadata and online social music platforms can greatly benefit musicians.
Key phrases and industry jargon, like “brand engagement,” “direct marketing relationships,” and “immersive experience” popped up repeatedly, but were rarely defined qualitatively or quantitatively. The day was divided into several sessions comprised of numerous panel discussions, and several panelists throughout the day said that no matter what music industry product someone was developing, selling, or using, what matters at the end of the day is “good music.” You can build anything you want, but fans want good music, several panelists said. None of them grappled openly with just how subjective that word is, especially in the context of building a business around it.
“Most bands will be unsuccessful,” Michael Doernberg of ReverbNation told a large crowd during a morning panel on creating artist platforms. “Not enough artists ask themselves, ‘How do you make more money with the assets you’ve built’?” During questions afterward, singer Fely Tchaco told panelists that services like ReverbNation and Bandzoogle take advantage of musicians by charging them for premium services. “You need me to draw fans to your site,” Tchaco said. “I give you my art for free. I don’t want to help you do your marketing. It costs money to do what I do.”
Doernberg fired back by arguing that musicians upload 15,000 songs a day to ReverbNation, which posts no ads and needs funds to stream that music. Only five percent of the songs that come in are considered commercially viable, he said. “The enemy here is the culture that says everything should be free,” musician Stacy Kray said from the crowd. “People need to realize the need to reward artistic creativity.”
A lot of emphasis was placed on curation: there’s so much music out there that what fans rely more heavily on now more than ever are tastemakers to select music for them. One person in the crowd told panelist and Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex that they miss the old days, when they could listen to him DJing on the radio and wind back tracks and talk about them for listeners. “I consider myself a radio DJ who does other things,” Flex told the crowd, referring to his successful website and television projects.
A mid-afternoon demonstration of Google Glass musical instruments was a reminder of just how geeky the summit can be: presenter Yosun Chang humorously ran through features like “Glass Trombone” and “Glass Theramin” and showed precisely how clunky and awkward some music tech can be, at least in its early stages.
The widespread availability of digital music has dismantled the mainstream music industry in myriad ways for more than a decade, and yet in many ways the conversation has stayed the same, both at the SF Music Tech Summit and elsewhere: new products and tools keep emerging, but musicians still say they’re being ripped off. Coincidentally, NME published a Stevie Nicks interview Tuesday that echoes this lingering debate: “The music industry is in such a bad place that it’s very hard for a new Fleetwood Mac to emerge or a Led Zeppelin or a new The Who…there’s no money. Talk about video killed the radio star. Well… Internet piracy killed the video and the radio star.”
Thankfully, yesterdays’ summit puts a lot of people in the same room to hash out this debate. Claire George, lead singer of San Francisco band The Tropics, recently quit her accounting job and came to Tuesday’s event to network. “I just feel like if I’m gonna really do this, I want to learn new things,” she said.