An Artist’s Take: The Present and Future of the Music Industry through the lens of South by Southwest
Just returned home from a very full, exhilarating and fulfilling week in Austin during the annual mega-conference/ festival South by Southwest (SXSW). Originally a music festival, it now encompasses broadcast, film, gaming, comedy, tech and increasingly, finance. I was an official artist invited by SXSW to perform (showcase). Generally the showcases are for industry types to see talent firsthand, so artists (like myself) book other appearances/ performances to gain further exposure as well as to connect directly with fans.
First off I want to say every single person I met who is either from or resides (long term) in Austin was friendly, helpful, communicative and engaging. Great people!! I am blessed to have cultivated many new friends there as well as have connected with a number of very dear friends from my late teen years. Thank you all for your extreme generosity toward me and each other! You made my trip unforgettable.
Before I got to Austin, I spent (literally) 2 full days just reviewing the lecture/ panel schedule offered at SXSW. It’s daunting: hundreds of offerings a day! I marked ones of interest to me, ones that would expose me to realms of knowledge and perspective foreign to my current perceptions and understanding. This included panels on podcasting, AI (artificial intelligence) in music and business, big data, new financial models for music investment, streaming playlisting, legal panels on legacies of deceased artists, blockchaining, new revenue tracking technologies and a host of other emergent trends and technologies surrounding my industry.
This is my take away.
Big data is emerging as a tool for artists and their business teams to better manage their careers. While this is certainly a blessing in terms of awareness in planning where to tour/ buy ads/ etc, it doesn’t always translate to real world activity, and so it is very important to contextualize the data and also to keep it in perspective: simply extrapolating social media numbers can mislead. The “real” world (offline) is still analog and building real lasting relationships with listeners is more than just online numbers.
Because big data (when I say big data I’m referring to all of the available information being gathered by streaming services, social media networks, browsers, etc. including geotags, time stamps, playlist data, streaming figures, etc.) is becoming an accessible tool, it is starting to attract financial investment firms into the entertainment sector. I attended a number of panels put on by investment houses. They intend to structure themselves differently than the historic major label models. One bank wants to offer content creators upfront money in exchange for a percentage of their IP (intellectual property) royalty streams. While this sounds reasonable, there is a long, sad history of artists giving up their copyrights and publishing in exchange for advances that are quickly exhausted. In fact, for many decades there were laws in place that prevented writers from doing so (musicians are not generally great money managers), and I found it disturbing that these money men want to come in with a digital version (using big data to determine future revenue stream estimates) of the same old model that all-too-often left artists broke.
Following one panel I raised the question “what are the specifics of the contract in regards to parameters and term? Is there an IP reversion clause?“ The response was “haha, there’s no need- the artists can always buy back their rights- of course once the values are recalculated”. I can see it now: I sell 50% of my IP now for $100k and in 5 years want to buy it back but then have to pay $2million. Anyway, not so excited to see the bankers drooling over music now.
Artificial intelligence was a popular topic at SXSW. Not only in (again) big data, but in the process itself of making music. It’s incredible what the machines can do now- there’s even a service that artificially generates music for licensing that is copyright free, all created by a computer. One company focuses on taking existing songs and then using AI to pump out different “versions” of the song— ie jazzy, funky, hip hop, trap, reggae, etc versions of the same song. The big buzz word in the industry is “mood”- they aren’t thinking genre so much right now, they are thinking in terms of what activities or moods the listener is engaged in as they listen to music. At the gym? Here, check out this amped-up AI version of your fave song. Having a candlelit dinner with your sweetheart? Here’s an acoustic instrumental version of the same song. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
First off it’s glaringly obvious that most of the conversations around music that occurred at this conference had nothing to do with actually playing an instrument, which is really disappointing to me. I love what computers can do, I love being able to employ orchestral samples and create beats and lay in synth pads and everything else that DAWs and plug-ins offer creators, but we have completely eliminated actual (acoustic) instruments from the conversation! The AI samples played at the panel were not the kind of sounds I would find enjoyment in: they were all canned, and most importantly sounded calculated yet uninspired. I trust the tech will improve drastically, and I think the technology will allow for expanded market opportunities for song creators- reaching broader audience, varied applications in licensing, etc.— so it’s not a “bad” thing and I’m certainly not worried that AI could replace musicians, however, it should (I and the panel all think) be viewed as a tool and nothing more. Anyway that whole thing got pretty weird.
The hottest topic at SXSW was Playlists. IE Spotify or Apple. Rap Caviar, Discovery, etc. Playlists have of course replaced albums and are allowing artists to get exposure without having to fork out huge dollars to terrestrial radio (which by the way- was another topic: traditional radio STILL does not pay a penny to artists, only composers, and there is currently a major policy battle going on in this arena, which was also a topic addressed at the conference). So on one hand, great, an artist doesn’t need huge coffers to buy their way to exposure, because either an algorithm or a human curator might just pop their new song on some playlist with millions of followers and BOOM they’re on their way to fame and fortune… right? Hmm, not so fast.
Playlists definitely can and do offer broader exposure, but there are many factors that determine how much exposure a song can really achieve. This was discussed ad nauseam. I won’t go into it here- you can google it. Speaking of Google…
Okay, here is my big issue with SXSW: all of these conversations about how to thrive in the new music industry, which is really a serfdom of the tech kings- Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple and Spotify. Guess who wasn’t participating in any of those conversations about the music industry? Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Spotify. Crickets. Nothing.
Let me break it down for you.
Although touring and streaming are both growing, the content creators are being held hostage by the tech giants. Amazon, Alphabet and Apple don’t need to make streaming on their platforms profitable. They can write down their streaming losses against their immense profits from other aspects of their businesses- ad sales, device sales, other subscriptions, and of course Amazon’s gargantuan delivery business. Music is just a lure, an extra benefit, a side dish, to their entrees. Only Spotify will need to turn a profit to survive (which it has not yet done). What this means is that music creators and their representatives (the major labels and the network of indies) are in a poor position to negotiate fair royalty rates. It is a race to the bottom using the creativity- the intellectual property- of the artists. And the king makers— Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple and Spotify— weren’t even graceful enough to show face at the music industry’s (so-called) most important event.
This is typical of the culture of tech. No regard for the wake of destruction it leaves. So I was disappointed at hearing a thousand intense, innovative conversations around thriving in the current ecosystem of music- as dictated by the tech giants- with them nowhere to be heard.
Why did no one point out the obvious— that we need to work toward a unified solution for all music creators to be fairly compensated for the distribution of our works? Instead we grovel and compete for crumbs from these anointed curators and secret algorithms that are the new king makers in music.
Not me. I don’t play that game. I’ve never played the game the way it was set up, because the game is always set up to feed everyone but the artist.
So here’s MY take on how to thrive in the current ecosystem. Artists take note.
1. Music has become an accoutrement, a side dish, a mood setter, wallpaper. Most kids can’t even go to a concert and pay attention without being on their phone the entire time. No one buys albums anymore. How do you get people to pay attention to more than one song? How can you build a career on that?
2. Either you are going to grovel and beg to get on a playlist and then have little to no money to show for it, or you are going to have to create your own ecosystem. And the way you do this is through NARRATIVE. Think narrative.
3. By building a narrative around your art, you engage people beyond a sound bite, a viral video clip, a song on a playlist, a mere moment: you build a longer, deeper, more engaged relationship; you cultivate interest beyond one brief expression.
4. If you are fixated on doing an album, make it a concept album. Build a story around the songs. Create a framework from your life, your experiences, your imagination. Write a story around your songs. Give listeners something to reflect on after the song is done.
5. Do a podcast. Podcasts are up to 75 million unique listeners per month in the US. That’s huge! It’s free! You can even do it with your phone. Build a conversation.
7. Write a live experience with music and story. It could be a play, a musical, a concert, a variety show with other musicians. Create synergy, engage each other, work together, build momentum and use a narrative to tie it all together.
Just always know that there are MANY roads to get your art out to the world. For some, playlists are perfectly suited. For some, viral videos are a reasonable target. For others, building a network of listeners by engaging via conversations and narratives is a great way to circumvent the music-tech oligarchy.
I hope the perspectives I shared here are helpful. I’m happy to answer any questions I’m capable of addressing.