The Business Side of CMJ

Every year at CMJ industry “experts” and “leaders” sit on panels designed to talk about the cutting edge of what’s going on in the music biz. From how to do-it-yourself for bands to changing laws in music publishing, each year the panels seem to cover a wide range of topics. They vary from one CMJ to the next, but in some senses, it’s always the same panels over and over again with slight changes depending on current Internet trends and music laws.

Last year the prevailing topic seemed to be social media. How MySpace and Facebook are a band’s best friends. How blogs are a much more interactive way to do A&R. The fear that LaLa and LastFM are doing a lot of industry people’s jobs for them. Basically, the Internet sent the music industry into complete disarray over the past ten years, not just from illegal downloading, but also from the way ideas about music are disseminated, and the industry was attempting to put the pieces together in this “totally new landscape.”

This year, the conversation shifted. It seems like everyone has become used to the idea of the Internet’s role in the business. Maybe the increasingly desperate times over the past year have made people realize they need to dig in and make whatever they can work. For instance, I heard an argument at one panel between Rich Bengloff and Jeff Price about whether or not music sales are actually down. According to Price, Sound Exchange doesn’t correctly report all of the statistics, and record sales are actually alive and well, especially on his website, TuneCore. At one panel I even heard someone say, “MySpace is totally irrelevant.” A huge turn around from last year. Much in the way the industry seems to have settled into the Internet, so have consumers. With so much to choose from and literally “unlimited shelfspace,” you’re better off having your band Tweeted about by a gate-keeping blog than getting a lot of MySpace hits. The conversation was much less about how the Internet had changed everything and how to utilize that change, but rather what’s going to come next from the ‘Net, and how we can all make money off of it.

One strong theme continuing from last year was the question of what is going to happen to record labels. There were so many panels dedicated to answering that question, in one way or another. There are panels about how to start your own band’s label, panels about how to start your own 360 company, panels about music licensing firms as labels, panels about management firms as labels. At some point, it seems that all we’re really talking about here is how the internet has managed to allow everyone to become a record label.

One of the most interesting points made about this topic, one different from what I heard last year, was during the “management as labels” panel on Wednesday.  While everyone agreed that a good manager is probably more important than a label these days (simply because a manager is with you for the long term, and will actually help develop you as an artist- an act that most labels no longer perform), not everyone agreed on management’s eventual transformation into the labels themselves.  One panelist pointed out that managers and label heads ultimately have two conflicting goals.  Labels want to make money selling records no matter what.  Managers want to make money from an artist’s long career.  It makes sense that no matter how far down the Internet may break barriers, these two goals will frequently be at odds, necessitating both types of businesses.

The most interesting panel I attended was supposed to be about mobile media.  How can artists use mobile devices to promote themselves?  It turned into a panel about music licensing laws, which was pretty interesting in and of itself.  The reason for this sudden shift in topic encapsulates many of the changes being hashed over during all of the panels.  Smart phones, much like the Internet, have created an entirely new way to for consumers to experience music and an entirely new way for money to be made from that music.  The music industry is all about technologies.  The player piano initially threw music publishers into a fury because it meant that they were no longer going to make money off of sheet music, so the government (with a strong lobby from the powerful publishers) created mechanical royalties.  The same thing happened with records and cds, and the same thing will happen again with the Internet and mobile devices.

The point is, there’s nothing inherent or singularly correct in the way the music business makes money now.  Everything up to this point has been rather arbitrary, and based on technology.  You don’t think of the player piano as high-tech, but it truly is a piece of technology.  What we meant by “label” and “management firm” was arbitrary to begin with.  Soon, everything will be deconstructed and the field will be wide open.  The panels reflected this idea most overall.  The mood at CMJ was serious because the economy is bad, but even more than last year, the Internet and the music biz seemed to give the panelists hope for the future.

– Madalyn Baldanzi

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