Analysis

The future of the music industry: blockchain, diversity, hologram Roy Orbison and more


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FastForward prides itself on doing things a bit differently from other music-industry conferences, from its diverse speakers and youthful audience to its now-traditional alcohol-fuelled closing panel, with its promise of less-guarded views on the industry’s key trends.

Cue this year’s session, with panelists including Communion Music’s Chris Scott; PPL’s Mark Douglas; Remote Control Agency’s Pat Carr; CI’s Summer Kim; and musician Roxanne de Bastion, who works with the Featured Artists Coalition and runs the From Me to You conference. The moderator was FastForward founder Chris Carey.

Blockchain was the first topic, with Douglas in the firing line. Is it going to save the industry? “The short, Scottish, grumpy answer is no,” he said. “It possibly has some relevance in our industry. It’s clearly not a panacea for our problems. I wish people would talk more about the basics of data management. We’re not doing enough to capture data at the source of a song… Once we get an agreed answer on who’s on a song and who’s on the rights, the blockchain might be a brilliant mechanism for publishing and sharing that.”

“There’s more to solve before we talk about blockchain,” agreed Kim. “We need to go the first step: educating everyone to be on the same page. I think blockchain will solve some parts of the industry. Some really, really good technology’s going to come along, but not tomorrow. It will take a few years.”

She said that the question of who’s going to provide the data required by some of this technology remains key: is it the artists and songwriters? The labels and publishers? Will the labels provide information on the publishing? “Do you think sound recording companies care about publishing, and can you believe that information?” she said.

de Bastion said she’s excited about the work being done by Imogen Heap and her Mycelia project in this area. “It’s interesting to me that it’s the artists together with tech startups that are trying to come up with solutions to these problems,” she said.

What does she wish she’d known from the start in her career as an artist. “I wish I’d have known that the most important relationships you’ll form are with the people who like your music, and with other musicians,” she said. “I wish I’d have clocked on to that sooner. I spent too much time running before you could walk and knocking on doors of management firms.”

Scott agreed. “The stuff that really works is where artists go out, they meet their fans face-to-face, hand-to-hand,” he said. “All of the stuff we’ve discussed in this conference, the technologies, that only works once you’ve got up a head of steam… what industry people are very bad at is getting things going to those first 500 people. When I was working with Mumford & Sons, the reason that appeared to go very quickly, they’d spent three years sleeping on people’s floors… All of the wonderful things that PR companies and labels can do, can only amplify something that’s going on in the real world.”

Carr agreed too. “A lot of the chat here has been about technology… But the basics are still the groundwork. Do the groundwork, do it with love and care, and pay attention to the details of what you want to do and be. And it will all come,” she said. “Don’t build it on sand: build it thoroughly with care.”

The panel fielded a question about whether all the talk about pitching for Spotify playlists is doing the artist community a disservice: suggesting that getting a track on a playlist is all that’s required to get a career up and running.

“There’s always been a version of that,” said Scott. “Be it getting on a Radio 1 playlist or getting a million YouTube views. There’s always the thing people are looking at, at that moment. Spotify playlists are undoubtedly powerful, but they’re not the only thing.”

Carr: “It’s also about the music, you know? Write really good songs! Make really good music that you’re proud of… It is actually all about the music! And don’t forget that. Don’t get caught up on playlists.”

Kim said it’s a difficult question, referring to a Korean artist that she manages, who sings in English. “Because she is Asian-looking, it was really hard for her to break into any western market. Even though she sings in English, it doesn’t really appeal. So we went round targeting Spotify in Asia,” she said. And that went well. “But she doesn’t care if she’s on the playlist or not. If she writes a song, she’s happy.”

de Bastion: “These things are great if you want to make an impression with people in meeting rooms, and if you want to find people to work with, unfortunately those are the kind of things you need. But so often it means nothing! The amount of artists I know who have millions of streams on Spotify, and they can’t get 10 people to come to their show,” she said. “It doesn’t really give you much in terms of what kind of engagement you have, and what kind of relationships you have with your fans.”

“All streams are not created equal,” said Scott. There are artists with 20m streams that have come from playlists, who aren’t selling tickets. And there are artists who have much less streams but are playing to packed venues. “Most people here are trying to build artists over time, and that’s about tickets, it’s about merch,” she said.

“Those playlists, they’re designed to be background music,” said Carr. “You can suddenly get millions of streams because you’re on a playlist, but there’s no connection,” added Carey.

“The playlist needs to be a gateway to something. The question is what happens next,” said Douglas. “You need to know you’ve got engagement, so you’ve got to go much deeper than just looking at that superficial metric [of streams].”

The discussion moved on to ticketing, and how that market might evolve. “There’s definitely a version of the future where certain companies own venues, control ticketing, and there’s incentives there to claw back revenue from other places. You’re probably sadly a bit of a passenger in the situation,” said Scott. “When it gets to that point, it’s important to support independent promoters and independently-minded people.”

The next topic was watching concerts from home (whether online or via VR) rather than going to the actual events. “You want to be there, you want to be sweated on! You want to be jostled! There’s no point sitting in your living room watching people having a good time,” said Carr. But Kim disagreed. “Sometimes I want to sit in my living room and watch amazing things, because technology allows me to do so!”

“I think people have been talking about this for a very long time. VR is a very interesting add-on, but I don’t think it’s ever going to replace a real-life experience,” said de Bastion.

What about a holographic Roy Orbison going on tour? “It’s just a different thing isn’t it? It’s a thing that exists that people might enjoy, but it’s not the same thing as being there to watch the actual artist,” said Scott. “If you’re willing to turn up to watch something virtual, you’re admitting there’s something unique about the experience of watching with other people,” said Douglas.

“If you only had that sort of thing, where would the new Roy Orbisons come from?” asked Carr.

The next question focused on markets like India and China: are streaming services like Saavn and QQ Music as important for the future of music as western-centric topics like Amazon Echo and Spotify?

“This is anecdotal, but in a certain major label, planning meetings have to start with ‘international’ at the top of the agenda. Anyone who’s been in a major-label planning meeting knows international used to come at the bottom of the agenda,” said Scott.

Where will the next ‘Despacito’ or ‘Gangnam Style’ global hit from an unexpected source come from? “They’re great songs though. I don’t think it matters where they came from,” said Carr. “It’s whoever writes a song as strong as that. With a silly dance!”

“That means the next one’s coming from Scotland, because we’re good at silly dances,” quipped Douglas. Kim said that the music industry is more open to tracks that aren’t in English, including K-Pop band BTS, who’ve been breaking in the US.

Collaborations will be an important part of this, which may benefit some genres where it’s baked in to the culture, more than others. “What do radio stations respond to? Something that’s already got a proof of concept… If a new artist has been on a hit, now they’re a guaranteed hit. And in my world, rock and indie bands don’t do that: it’s not in the culture, which makes it difficult to thrive,” said Scott.

How can the music industry restore confidence from investors? “It’s naturally emerging,” said Kim. “There’s more money coming in to it, and they [investors] are more interested in it.

The next question focused on diversity and inclusion.

“The decentralisation of the industry has been a good thing for gender equality in general,” said de Bastion. “This whole ‘MeToo movement and isn’t it great that we’re having this conversation now? I think no. Isn’t it shocking that we’re only just having this conversation now?… I take great solace in that there’s a lot of great people doing very interesting things.” She sees space emerging for more stories to be told and new leadership models to emerge.

Kim: “I’m very positive about it, but I think we really need to educate people… We need to have a shared value which drives everything,” she said. “Those things have to go from the education… it’s really, really helpful and it’s the way to go.”

Carr: “I started this industry in the eighties. It was a very different place. The fact that my name was Pat? As I rose up, people would go ‘oh, you’re a girl?’ And all the other stuff as well. But there is hope: with MeToo, we’re talking about it. It’s open: you can go ‘oh, no, don’t!’ Was that hug a little too long? You can say ‘Oi! Fuck off! Don’t!’.”

Kim: “People always forget what diversity means? It’s not just about how you look, or about gender. There’s a lot more: there’s a social diversity, there’s the LGBT community. It’s not [just] about gender… And social diversity is so important. If you don’t pay your interns, then don’t have an intern. Because people cannot get into the industry!”

The final question: how will the industry make sure that musicians’ incomes will be sustainable, and support their wellbeing if they are not?

“With streaming and everything else, it’s actually elongating bands’ careers. The 80s, 90s playlists, there’s people I have worked with who are now discovering bands from the 90s or the early noughties who they never knew,” said Carr.

“It’s admirable and decent to help people who have given their lives to music,” said Scott. “Thinking about what the music industry is starting to look like, and the incredibly long tail, there’s an incentive to look long-term in the deals you’re trying to do… Doing a deal which safeguards your income for the next fifty years, because now your record isn’t gone from the shops – in effect it’s in a virtual shop window forever – should be at the forefront.”

“Owning their own rights,” said Carr, of the ambition for bands. But Douglas said solving the data management problems is also important. “Let’s make sure they actually get paid,” he said. “The money can flow, but it can only flow if we can capture the data.”

Stuart Dredge

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