I had a very full day at my first SF MusicTech. I was impressed with the level of serious dialog, with the fact that women were much better represented here than at many of the tech conferences I’ve been to (35 – 40%), and, perhaps most importantly, with the mix of technology, business, and artist/creative-types represented. Many music conferences attract one type of attendee or another, but this one seems to do a really fine job of bringing them all together under one roof.
Here are my other impressions (taking into account that there was no way I could humanly attend all of the 33 sessions):
Daisy and YouTube: Important But Unrepresented
It was interesting that panel after panel talked throughout the day about YouTube as the most important platform for music discovery, especially among young people. Zoe Keating said she gets more money monthly from YouTube than Spotify. Yet many other MusicTech platforms are not seamlessly integrated with YouTube, and licensing is a nightmare for smaller musicians. Google was completely unrepresented at SF MusicTech as far as I could see – neither as panelists nor attendees.
Another elephant in the room was Daisy: apparently things got heated at the “How We Will Experience Music in the Future” panel, although I wasn’t there to hear it myself. Daisy went completely unmentioned in the “Music Discovery” panel (with panelists from Echo Nest, Rhapsody and Pandora). I did see two Daisy/MOG/Beats (that was what their badges said) attendees, but no official panel representation. I would think with all the press Jimmy Iovine’s been courting around Daisy and serving data to artists, they would have had someone here to talk to the tech community about this feature. Maybe I’m naïve.
ShowGo.tv: Serving A Middle Tier
I had a great conversation at breakfast with CEO Brian Gruber of ShowGo.tv about their streaming performance service designed to bring the intimate mid-size live club performance experience to online audiences. Their goal is to sign up 30 clubs globally that showcase established, but perhaps under-exposed, artists such as Rikki Lee Jones, whom ShowGo.tv just live streamed recently from Seattle’s Jazz Alley. They offer a turnkey streaming tech platform to select clubs who meet their criteria (which also includes an existing social media presence). This could be a great source of additional exposure and revenue to the artists, as well as the clubs. I like the idea, I wonder how it compares with Ustream’s new self-service, live pay-per-view service. I think there is a niche for making both the live and recorded club experience more accessible for fans of older, more established artists as well as lesser-known, breaking middle tier artists. Fans don’t always want to drive to a club, pay for babysitters and parking. They’d rather drink chardonnay in their own living rooms and get that intimate experience with streaming performance services like Live Nation, StageIt, ShowGo, Ustream, YouNow, Second Life and other platforms.
Music Hack Day: Everyone Loved Copper The Tipper
The winners of Music Hack Day demoed their products, some with more success than others. Judging from the Twitter feed, lots of folks were very excited about Copper (“Because you can’t buy a burrito with a Facebook Like”), a tipping platform for artists. Anything that helps indie artists make money is good in my book, but it’s also true that many options for tipping artists exist today, from simply using a “Pay What You Like” button to, at a larger scale, crowdfunding sites. (I would also note that from an SEO perspective, the company name “Copper” is not ideal. Note to all startups: check your keywords before naming your company.)
It’s a bit depressing as an artist to realize that many tech people are essentially buying into and further enabling the model that defines artist compensation as a patronage model, not a fee for valued service model. But I guess that’s the new reality. Some money is always better than no money.
Zoe Keating: The Artist’s Voice
As always, Zoe Keating represents the artist voice with clarity and equanimity. She mentioned that she prefers to attend tech conferences over attending traditional music conferences, because techies are more optimistic. Keating brings a reality check to every panel she’s on. She is matter of fact about where her revenues are coming from – and where they are not. The panel discussion she was on (“Rights & Terms of Licensing Database”) included Rob Kaye from MusicBrainz (who won the “best hair” contest by shaving and dying the SF MusicTech logo onto the back of his head) and Kevin Landowski of Discogs. From the discussion, it’s clear that artists and many technologists view the PROs as actively obstructing the evolution of the artist compensation model by delaying and obfuscating. “Where was the six-figure check before a lawyer was hired to investigate an artist’s compensation?” asked Kaye.
Keating said the only time she gets money from ASCAP is when she publicly shames them – a strong statement. A former ASCAP employee added to the negative perception by stating that he saw firsthand how hard they made it for artists to get access to their own data. David King (Music Consultant) made the statement that publishers are getting frustrated with PROs and moving to direct licensing.
ThingLink: Why Hasn’t It Caught On More With Artists?
I got a personal demo from ThingLink Chief Marketing Officer Neil Vineberg just because I asked him what his product did. That’s one thing that is so great about SF MusicTech – it’s an open and social environment conducive to lots of 1:1 meetings. A musician himself (he played jazz guitar in the conference breakfast room), Neil graciously showed me everything about his current product, including some nice analytics available in the paid version. Right now, ThingLink is free in the basic version, which is ideal for musicians. Neil’s claim is that ThingLink increases fan engagement many multiples by embedding social media and other links in visual content. He suggested ThingLink click through rates exceed email direct marketing significantly (in the upper single digits), with sharing and conversion (purchase) made visual and simple.
ThingLink is a B2B play, partnering with large consumer brands like Ikea and Target (to market artists like Justin Timberlake), or to promote movies with interactive visuals. I also got a sneak peek at their new consumer mobile version that could revolutionize live experiences for social media users, especially on Twitter. I admit I have not used ThingLink, but if it is as profitable for artists to use ThingLink to create a visual, interactive, engaging fan experience – all for free – why aren’t more artists using it?
There are several music genres where marketing and tech innovations seem to be creating real financial opportunities for artists, EDM being the most dynamic. Through the entire music product lifecycle – from creation to promotion to consumption – EDM is leading the way. There is innovative collaboration, co-branding and monetization happening faster in this genre than in any other. I was sorry to miss this panel, but the message is worth mentioning because it’s an important one from an overall industry perspective. Some of the most innovative marketing and monetization tactics are coming from this sector, from live performances to corporate co-branding to collaborative music creation.
The panel on Digital Marketing made a lot of good, if somewhat obvious points: artists need to use social media, get close to fans, use Google Analytics, don’t pester the A&R people, etc. There was an interesting discussion about bands partnering with brands as the future of artist compensation. Brands want to associate with artists that create an emotional experience for their customers, and they are willing to pay a lot of money to established artists to co-brand (witness Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as just the newest examples of a long-running trend). A good tip was to approach the ad or licensing agencies that service a particular brand if you want to license your music to a brand.
[Photo: Bright Antenna Records had the coolest vendor booth.]
Data Analytics Gets A Session: From Fashion to Former Obama Staffers
Given the prevalence of the “big data” discussion at every digital marketing conference these days, it’s not surprising that data analytics had its own session. The panelists (MIT alumni Arte Merritt of Mobile, Mark Trammell, Sonos, and Karen Moon [stealth startup] ) came from a variety of non-music-related backgrounds and experience, one with three years at Twitter and a former Obama campaign members, as well as the fashion industry.
Music lags behind the rest of the business world in its focus on social media and other fan analytics techniques, but it is catching up quickly as NARM and Billboard embrace the number cruncher ethos with startups like Next Big Sound. I would have liked to have seen more than a general discussion of the issues, with a focus on some actual musician case studies – which tools are being used and what marketing decisions made as a result of data analysis. Most musicians and labels I know have a social media and website presence, but are still “Like-counters” and wouldn’t know the term “sentiment”. Those who make themselves familiar with the tools and know how to slice the data will have a competitive edge.
While labels and others become more sophisticated and hire big data experts, it’s also true that free social media analytics tools from Hootsuite to Music Metric are making market research more accessible to indie labels and DIY musicians. As the “one giant database” of metadata becomes more of a reality (I saw a tweet that quoted Brian Zisk as saying that $1M has been raised to address this via a startup), artist empowerment will increase concurrently, and licensing and compensation models will become more transparent. They will have to. I look forward to even more discussion around this issue at the next SF MusicTech, as it is perhaps the single most transformative issue in this business.
Building Platforms Artists Don’t Need: The Refined Air Of Silicon Valley
One of the most insightful comments I heard was in a wrap-up session, where one attendee observed that tech companies need to be sure they are serving an actual market need. Given this conference takes place so close to Silicon Valley, it’s not surprising that the startup community was so well-represented. It’s important for tech people to step back sometimes out of the intense, competitive environment that is Silicon Valley and sanity check their products with real music consumers and/or real musicians. The coolest technology platform will not succeed if it is no more than a personal fantasy of its frustrated musician-CEO.
As a fan of the Agile Development philosophy, I totally agree that it’s as important for MusicTech companies to get a product out there as it is for other startups, no matter if it’s not fully baked, in order to get hard data on whether the customer need is really there. I always wonder at tech conferences how many of the companies represented will be around in five years.
The conference also included several before- and after-parties, as well as a movie pre-screening. In addition to being great networking opportunities, they offered quality entertainment from local musical artists, from DJs to solo and small group musicians. I enjoy when a conference offers creative people some additional stimulation outside the conventional panel sessions. Karoke is catnip for tech executives (I’ve experienced this at GeekWire events in Seattle), but the new one for me was Edible Light, whose Light Painting Portraits (offered quickly and efficiently for a small donation) were a unique entertainment and conference souvenir. I can’t wait to have mine emailed to me.
Meeting People, Making Connections
This conference managed to be professional without being too cliquish. It was diverse and yet intimate. I met quite a few people I’ve only met before online, and some new people who were approachable and interesting. There were definitely serious business deals being done, pitches being made, and teams forming – unlike many of the regular music conferences I have attended which attract only artists and consultants. I felt the future of MusicTech was turning to reality in front of my eyes.
It’s also very worth mentioning that Brian Zisk and his staff, in partnership with the Hotel Kabuki, also did an excellent job with logistics, including live streaming the event, great food and beverage options, and AV that worked without any visible hitches. I greatly appreciated the unsweetened ice tea, crudite, hummus and fresh whole fruit offered for the afternoon snacks (as well as the open bar in the evening). It’s no small feat to pull off a conference of this size (not sure of the exact numbers – they wouldn’t tell me – but over 1000 attendees, sponsors and speakers). The attendee list is available at Eventbrite. The sponsorship list was impressively long as well. This is a well-organized, well-run conference with great speakers and high-quality sponsors and attendees.
If you attended SF MusicTech this time around, or in years past, I’d love to hear your impressions of the conference below. I also always love to get feedback on the numerous important issues covered at the conference, such as metadata, streaming music platforms, artist compensation, and social media analysis – many of which I have written about on my blog as well. Input is always welcome!