Fame House's Hisham Dahud was part of last week's IMS Engage in Los Angeles, a selection of “unmoderated conversations” between pioneers in the EDM space and prolific outsiders from different industries reaching in. Overseeing social media and acting as the official blogger for IMS Engage, this is his overview of the event.
The International Music Summit’s (IMS) first major conference stateside, IMS Engage took place last Wednesday April 17th at the W Hotel in Hollywood, CA. The event drew in 250 people from all over the world including music artists, industry professionals, techies, press / media and local L.A. residents seeking to enthrall themselves in this unique and first of its kind experience.
“All doors are open here to this music. Not the case for the last 20 years. IMS Engage wants to make a statement about electronic music and our mission is to elevate the perception of this industry and ensure its positioned in the right way. Hence creating a format like IMS Engage which we feel is a clear and concise way of showing how far the genre has come."
Opening Words – Bill Werde, Billboard Editorial Director
Opening remarks from Bill Werde started the day off with high levels of optimism:
“Back in 1998, it was impossible for dance music to have a hit in North America,” he said. “Europe had Radio 1, but America was so used to the standard verse-chorus structure that there was no hope for an electronic music hit.”
Werde shared with the audience his own history in the rave scene, recalling Baltimore parties like Ultraworld and Fever as “life-defining moments.” He went on to mention that the industry is finally beginning to see real democratization, the same democratization that many have been speaking of through the emergence and influence of the Internet – especially social media.
“We’re seeing simultaneously hits in all parts of the world,” he said. “Now, you’ll see a global smash hit before radio even starts playing it.”
Werde stated that this transformation in tastemakers has caused major labels to rethink A&R because now anything is possible.
“That is what dance music is all about. Business models are being rethought, the ways to reach audiences are changing.”
BBC Radio 1 icon Pete Tong sat down with SFX Entertainment head of acquisitions Shelly Finkel for a discussion about how electronic music has caught the attention of deep-pocketed corporations in North America. The conversation began by examining how North America, specifically Los Angeles and Las Vegas, have become global hubs for electronic music.
"Vegas used to be about Frank Sinatra, then boxers, then the Celine Dions,” Tong said. “Now it's about the DJs.” Finkel mentioned that he and his team no longer use the term 'EDM' anymore: “We use 'EMC' for ‘electronic music culture’, because it's really all about culture now."
Finkel then went on to describe SFX’s strategy in their acquisitions of large-scale EDM entities.
“The goal is to acquire different promoters from around the world and expand them into new markets that they wouldn’t be able to expand in otherwise.” Specifically, Finkel told IMS Engage that SFX has acquired “a promoter in South America, the largest promoter in Germany, and probably the largest in Australia.”
"There's too much competition in the scene, we need more people working together now."
On purchasing Beatport, Finkel told the audience that the idea is to “bring more young fans to the site and make them aware of many DJs that don’t get discovered otherwise – to broaden the fan base to DJs that are not known.”
When an audience member asked Finkel what events could lead to the burst of the EDM ‘bubble’, Finkel pointed out: “By doing things for the sake of doing and not making smart business decisions. When people get hurt, they eventually get out.”
Finkel was intent in demonstrating that he and SFX share a genuine connection with electronic music and are not just out to seek the highest possible gain. He recounted attending EDC events as his first entry point and feeling a true magical moment of inspiration.
In a deep and animated discussion, legendary technologist Jaron Lanier and Beatport CEO Matthew Adell discussed how technical innovation and disruption have been both a benefit and burden for musicians, as well as the greater music industry.
Adell asked Lanier, “Have musicians been moved out of a livelihood through technology?”
“It’s a matter of dignity for musicians,” Lanier responded. “If you have to sing for your supper for every meal, you’re always one run of bad luck away from losing it totally.”
He then began to explain the differences between a Gig-based Economy (artists working for day-to-day income) and a Wealth-based Economy (working to sustain prolonged income streams).
"In the 90s, you didn't have to get millions of hits on YouTube. You could make more money, there was more diversity then." On the brighter side, Lanier pointed out that the improvement in accessibility of tools is creating empathy between musicians and fans like never before.
"Computers are not created equal,” Adell mentioned. “Tech, privacy, and data access are the industry's biggest evil.”
Lanier added: "Whoever is close to the big computer concentrates all the wealth and power; civilization can't run that way."
Adell went on to relate Burning Man as an ethos in the music world, how voyeurism isn't respected any longer and that participation is now what rules.
"We're in a time of fantastically great optimism,” he said. “Everyone creating stuff is doing so with good intentions."
"The book business is the closest remaining vestige of music's physical media business model," remarked Lanier. "Artists & musicians are the guinea pigs for doing things [in tech], and we'll continue being so in fixing it."
Adell also spilled some numbers about Beatport, signaling that they get over 22,000 new tracks per week.
“In digital music, all of us (Napster, Apple) are reliant on the metadata that comes the suppliers to categorize music,” he said. "Moombahton was the first time we realized things were moving faster than our metadata could keep up with."
Adell’s one-liner of “the laptop now being the most important creative tool in the world” seemed to generate a positive response from crowd members.
"We are experiencing the end of rock & roll and what it once meant," he said. "People come to dance events as an antidote to the disconnectedness of the digital world."
Diplo and Kevin Systrom started our their chat by marveling on how such a simple app like Instagram could dramatically change how fans connected with their favorite artists.
"When it comes to social media, as a musician you never want to be the odd man out,” Diplo said. “I got into Instagram out of necessity, but it ended up being fun.”
“Instagram initially came about by a mistake,” Systrom said. “It started out as a Foursquare-like app that people had more fun uploading photos from. Simplicity is one of the core values of Instagram.”
“You want to be ahead of the curve as a musician,” Diplo responded. “I spent the last three months having a lot of pride in the way my photos looked. I’m between being really creative on there, and being a promo machine. I sometimes spend 30 minutes just trying to get the right look to my photo.”
Systrom then began to draw parallels between his app and the value it provides its users to DJs and the value they provide for their fans.
"Instagram is less about your photos than it is about your message you’re conveying, the same way a DJ's music isn't about the individual notes," he said.
In discussing online communities of fans and artists, Diplo remarked that electronic music and rap have used social media to its fullest potential.
“A big community will always be more valuable than a big hit,” he said. "A lot of the dance music coming out now is generally disposable. In order to have longevity, create something bigger than just your records."
Systrom agreed, “In marketing, it’s best to build a fan base of people who reference each other and can talk about it."
An audience member asked Diplo how his now famous #ExpressYourself campaign came about, and Diplo to the surprise of many admitted that it was “the most un-calculated marketing thing I've ever done," citing pure fun and experimentation as the basis for the whole idea.
In a talk between two of the most highly prolific managers in music today, Thomson and Carter discussed how the business has changed in a relatively short period of time and the pitfalls of growing too big too soon. Specifically, Thomson expressed that America’s newfound love with dance music could potentially “kill it.”
“Do you think the way America has grabbed electronic music will kill it? Because I do," she told Carter. “Money's fine, you just can't sacrifice the culture for it."
Thomson stated that her own partnership with Ron Burkle (head of equity firm Yucaipa) had allowed her to see how companies should be valued, and feared that many showed inflated valuations and could possibly be headed towards failure.
“Dance music would carry that stigma for 20 years, after we’ve just been legitimized,” she said.
Carter appeared to be more optimistic, pointing out how everyone who could have killed hip-hop and dance music didn’t have the power to.
“Huge commerce with a new form of art is really fragile,” he said. “I don’t know how you unring that bell.”
Thomason then shared her experience in seeing how the bigger the overground becomes, the bigger the underground becomes.
Carter compared the current crop of dance music managers, Thomson included, to the first wave of hip-hop managers.
“When I started in hip-hop years ago, it was Homeboy 101 management; hire your friend to manage you, and whatever happens happens,” he said. “Then more sophisticated people came along and kind of fucked it up a bit. The guys who started out as Homeboy 101 were Russell Simmons and James Lassiter, who have gone on to build serious legitimate businesses.”
"Managing an artist is like any relationship,” he responded to an audience member. “It's about the small wins that build trust."
When it comes to international touring, Carter mentioned that Gaga does not “touch & go” and instead spends time in areas worldwide where they’re building a fanbase.
“At the end of the day,” he continued, “It’s all about the fan experience. Gaga is always reinventing her shows.”
What many people may not know is that Russell Simmons was instrumental in kickstarting Patrick Moxey’s career in the music business. As a former intern of Simmons, Moxey’s conversation with the hip-hop icon (and his longtime mentor) was as inspiring as it was informative.
Simmons was profound in his ways of describing living a creative life: “The sound between the snare drums is forever.”
Simmons spoke about the value of embracing the unfamiliar, as he was unfamiliar with many of the dance music icons Moxey brought up like Calvin Harris and Deadmau5.
“You want to be open, to be able to transcend,” he said. “All youth culture keeps reinventing itself. You don’t have to fake it. If you’re honestly there, you’ll feel it; it’ll seep in.”
Simmons also demonstrated that early hip-hop promotion has parallels to dance music experiences, but today’s scene has more resources than ever before. He also mentioned that electronic music, as a culture, continues to be suppressed by the gatekeepers.
"You can't clean up a culture because it's a reflection of the world,” he said. “You can only clean up yourself."
Moxey then brought up an interesting point about artists achieving success, and how it impacts the culture of electronic music; as success can be seen by many as coming by “selling out.” Simmons traced it back to hip-hop.
“There’s no fear or shame of success in hip-hop,” he said. “That’s part of it, it didn’t tarnish it because it was honest. That’s very much unlike rock and now dance music.”
Closing his thoughts, Simmons told the audience: “Your work is your prayer and the results of that work are to give away. You've got to love what you're doing."
In the final engagement of the day, Skrillex had a highly passionate chat with Summit Series co-founder Jeff Rosenthal. The two began by discussing how quickly things have changed in how artists – from all kinds of art – connect with their audiences.
“We're experiencing a renaissance of how art is created and how it is distributed," Skrillex said. He and Rosenthal then exchanged points on how all types of creative people from painters, photographers, and graphic designers (and of course musicians) now share through the same digestible platforms, causing community amongst their followers.
“Community in music means learning from one another and everyone can win," chimed in Rosenthal.
Skrillex agreed: "It's easy to be quiet. Ultimately what my music says is, 'Hey, you can be loud.' People really gather around that idea.”
Not having Atlantic to distribute his side project as "Skrillex", the dubstep producer was forced to do things on his own.
“Three years ago, I was $30,000 in debt. We released everything completely on our own and it was through blogs and social media that we saw success. We have a real strong connection to our culture and our fans.”
Skrillex had also revealed that he purchased and is renovating an 11,000-square-foot building in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown district, specifically for people who he called “in the box” producers – those who work solely with their laptops.
“It will have great facilities with everything you need as a producer, so you’re not resting your laptop on a big SSL desk and thinking, ‘I’m not using all of these channels,’”
This new facility will be a home base for Skrillex’s OWSLA label staff.
“When everyone is in the same room stuff goes 50 times faster,” he said. “I want to make a place for people to be independent and do what they do.”
The two then continued on the importance of community and helping one another out, and appropriately, Skrillex happily accepted a flash drive from a young audience member containing original music for him to check out.