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How To Improve Your Music Tech Event

295061847_9ba6bad146Guest post by Cortney Harding (@cortneyharding) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

Many of us spend a lot of time and money attending music tech events, as the number of them has mushroomed over the last five years. In fact, it seems like there is a nomadic class of people who do almost nothing but attend these various summits, conferences, meet ups, demos, panels, and hack days. But as these events multiply, their quality overall seems to have gone down; and it’s a shame, because there are a lot of great discussions to be had around new ideas and strategies at the intersection of music and technology.

Almost all these events, however, tend to have some of the same problems. By trying to appeal to newer members of the music tech community, they tend to cover lots of ground that has been covered before; and they don’t give the audience what it really wants, which is time to network and do business. A growing class of music-centric hackathons have also sprung up, and while those appeal to a slightly different crowd, they often forget to include different perspectives, especially those of musicians, as well. All of this is fixable, though, and a few tweaks can make many of these events useful and interesting again.

The Reintroduction Problem

One of the biggest problems that music tech events have is what I like to refer to as the “reintroduction problem.” As new waves of newbies join up, these events feel the need to start from the 101 level, which draws them in but puts legacy members off. There are tons of people attending who don’t know what Kickstarter is, or why you need to do licensing deal to use music, but for those of us who have heard the Amanda Palmer story fifty times already, it’s frustrating. Outsiders might learn a ton, but veterans walk away with nothing.

In addition to the problem of how to deal with different crowds, the sheer number of the events means a lot of repetition. There are only so many app demos one can sit through without going insane; the same goes for panels with the exact same people saying the exact same things you’ve heard before. And while some people find demos and panels useful, veterans would probably prefer to spend their time networking and doing deals.

Creating two event tracks might be a solution — one track for people with less experience, covering introductory issues, and one for people with more experience, focused on small group discussions and higher level analysis. If you’re doing app demos, let people use the apps before the presentation and come with questions, rather than just having someone demo the basics — it will lead to richer conversations. Ask attendees what they hope to gain from an event in advance to figure out the crowd mix and tweak programming. And feel free to share this with people during the opening session — it will help you be more accountable and demonstrate to the audience that you care about creating great event.

Make Networking Worthwhile

Most of the “networking sessions” at these events consist luring tons of people into a room with free drinks. There is nothing worse than walking into a room full of people talking in groups with absolutely no idea who any of them are. Prior to the event, event organizers should publish the guest list so people can decide whether or not it’s worth it to attend. This isn’t a value judgment, but a developer heavy event might not be the best fit for a marketing person, and vice versa. And organizers should make sure name tags clearly state first and last names and affiliations — no one wants to get stuck talking to the guy from outside the music industry who just tagged along with a buddy to get free drinks.

To help people connect at these events, organizers should also publish attendee Twitter handles somewhere, which will allow folks to reach out and set up meetings on the fly. And set aside plenty of meeting space so people can find each other easily — nothing is worse than someone you’ve never met saying “I’ll meet you in the lobby,” when the lobby is filled with thousands of people. Here’s where sponsored tables could come in handy — people telling others all day long to “meet me at the Spotify table” is great for event sponsor awareness.

Also, try to add some order and meaning to the networking conversations. Depending on event size, organizers could set out a bunch of numbered tables and assign attendees five numbers in random order. Each person gets 15 minutes chat with everyone else at their table, and then they rotate around to meet another new table full of people. Such sessions would give people the maximum value of most connections made for the money, and if organizers are in need of sponsorships, they could always make tables topic-­specific.

Hack Music With Musicians

 The last thing the world needs is a another app that’s been built a million times before, and developers are usually unaware of what would benefit artists or labels. At last year’s SF Music Hack Day, a bunch of artists came and one wound up working with two developers to create a solution to a problem he actually had — how to sell his songs in SoundCloud. 

Hackers are often referred to as the new rock stars, but almost none of them understand the ins and outs of the music business. That’s fine — most people at labels can’t build something in Ruby. But having people who understand publishing and licensing, and why you can’t use Spotify to build an app that will be used in public, can lead to better products and a more educated community of developers. For the developers, those people can provide introductions to the music industry — and a chance to monetize their creation. 

Artists should also appear on panels and judge demos, and be invited to networking sessions as more than providers of background noise. After all, every great music hack or product wouldn’t exist without the creative efforts of those artists, and their perspective is crucial. Event organizers need to look for artists who aren’t at every other event or don’t have a great case study — it’d be refreshing to hear from an artist who loves technology and is interested in collaborating with developers, but doesn’t know what to do beyond that. 

Smart, Relevant, And Fun

 As the music tech space continues to grow, so will the size these events — but they need to grow in a smart way in order to continue to be relevant and fun. Just throwing the same names on a panel and having them talk about why artists need Twitter accounts won’t cut it anymore — and thank heavens for that. It can be scary to be the first event organizer to break away from the pack by turning down a big name or tweaking the formula — but it’ll pay off in the long run, as people come to trust you and recognize the value of your event. 

Recently, I bailed on an event after listening to a guy drone on about his app — and there were four more demos left after him. Make sure the moderators keep gimlet eyes on the time and don’t let the questions devolve into pitches for other startups. Or try to demo apps in a clever way — I went to a music tech party recently that showcased different apps by having them provide the playlists for the evening, with voting on the best one at the end. Try to think outside the box when it comes to the pay-­to-­play slots, as well — we all know they are the economic engines of the conference business, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun for anyone when someone who clearly paid to be on a panel sits in silence for 45 minutes. 

I’ve resisted naming names here, but I will give a shout out to the NARM Music Startup Academy, because people walk away from that event having actually learned how to, say, do a licensing deal, or how metadata works. If more events focused on concrete takeaways and targeted networking, rather than the same old fare, they’d probably see attendance rise and repeat attendees return at a higher rate. I know that I would much rather walk away from an event with a fistful of new contacts or some great ideas than spend eight hours slumped at the back of a room playing Angry Birds, and I suspect I’m not alone. 

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Cortney Harding is a Brooklyn-based business development consultant. She is currently working with Soundrop and has worked with ThingLink, official.fm, Gumroad, and Superglued, among others, creating partnerships for them with brands and the entertainment industry. She was previously the music editor at Billboard and tweets at @cortneyharding.

Sidewinder.fm is founded and edited by Kyle Bylin of Live Nation Labs. If you would like to contribute a post to be featured on the site, please reach out.

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