Geographic flexibility is one of the best parts of freelancing. For my entire life, I’ve been passionate about absorbing and learning from international cultures—whether through studying a new language, exploring music styles from different regions or simply visiting a new city for fun—and I made it a priority in 2018 to bake these passions into my work.
This year, I attended over 20 music and tech conferences across a dozen cities, the majority of which I visited for the first time. More specifically, in alphabetical order, this year marked my first visits to Atlanta (A3C), Cannes (MIDEM), Chicago (2112 Immersive Tech Summit), Hamburg (Reeperbahn Festival), Ibiza (IMS Ibiza), Lisbon (Web Summit), Melbourne (CHANGES) and Nashville (Music Biz and the DIY Musician Conference), with repeat visits to conferences in Austin, Barcelona, Los Angeles and New York (my home city).
I gave lightning talks and moderated panels on topics including smart speakers and voice interfaces in music, the role of AI in marketing, data strategy for hip-hop artists, the playlist analytics ecosystem and the state of the VR-music ecosystem (which ultimately turned into this article for Forbes
). I also took diligent notes on as many other panels as I could, a lot of which ultimately inspired future articles and newsletters.
For better or for worse, conferences have shaped my understanding of the music business, illuminating both its most influential players and its most pressing challenges and concerns for the future. Conferences are also equally as notable for whom they don’t feature onstage, for the voices that are left out of the conversation and perceived as not having a seat at the table in the industry’s future.
Here are some common themes and takeaways from my travel and speaking experiences this year—most of which are high-level, but I hope will nonetheless provide a useful guidepost for navigating the conference circuit and thinking about how the wider music landscape can progress in 2019.
1. Please, PLEASE put more artists on panels.
Last year, I found that artists accounted for only 6%
of speakers across major music conferences. While I have yet to perform the same analysis for 2018, my guess is that the percentage of artist-speakers across the same conferences is still no more than 10%.
To me, this is a significant loss because it perpetuates a stereotype that artists, songwriters, producers and other music creators can’t/shouldn’t think intelligently about their own careers. This is not to say that every artist should be obligated to speak publicly about their business objectives—but I’ve found that industry conversations are more enlightening and valuable when they position artists at the center of the conversation. Otherwise, it seems that music is only about maximizing profit for platforms and “rights exploiters,” rather than being truly “creator-first.”
A growing number of artists also have backgrounds in tech or other forms of entrepreneurship, and can speak quite eloquently to the current challenges they face as de facto CEOs of their own business operations. For instance, at the Web Summit, I got to interview Sam Feldt, a 25-year-old DJ signed to Spinnin’ Records who founded his own direct-to-fan engagement startup Fangage
, in order to address the widespread pain point of artists not being able to 1) identify their fans and 2) reach them directly and consistently without paying for ads. Sam has a background in marketing and web development and launched
his first company as a young teen, and drew a lot of interesting connections between being a tech founder and running a music career during our talk.
This also relates to a running theme that I’ve heard across several panels this year: artists are their own best marketers if you give them the proper tools. I’m curious as to whether you’d agree with that statement, and would like to see future conferences and events dive into this theme more deeply.
2. The definition of a “music company” is constantly in flux—and most of the companies that the music industry scrutinizes and cares about the most are NOT “music companies.”
Spotify is not a music company. SoundCloud is not a music company. Pandora is not a music company. Apple is not a music company. Google is not a music company. Amazon is not a music company. Facebook is not a music company.
None of these companies are in the music business—they are first and foremost in the audio, video, streaming and/or hardware business. Yes, music happens to be one of the most popular use cases for a lot of these companies, but it is not helping them make any profit (due to licensing fees, a majority-free user base, etc.). Hence they shift their focus elsewhere to help their bottom lines: mobile phones, smart speakers, original video and podcasts
, cloud services, the list goes on.
In the history of music, reckoning with the lack of aligned incentives between content creators and tech companies is nothing new. But what seems newer to me in 2018 is a more outspoken realization that succeeding in this landscape might require redefining what we mean by “music company” altogether.
This has always been the driving force between the Techstars Music accelerator, whose demo day I covered
this year. In the words of Techstars Music’s managing director Bob Moczydlowsky: “As an outside investor, you might think a ‘music company’ has to make a business out of licensing large catalogs from rights holders, but that’s a challenging model where only the largest players on the planet can currently compete, and that’s not the sum total of music.”
Building successful music apps around use cases beyond just content licensing—including but not limited to events, fan engagement, brand partnerships and creative collaboration—could also bring significant value to many other industries, including but not limited to film, gaming and fashion.
I noticed that this idea of serious industry convergence was gaining more steam at this year’s music conferences. Interestingly, longer-form entertainment formats like esports and feature/documentary films had a much more prominent presence at conferences than did short-form apps like Tik Tok or Snapchat—perhaps suggesting that music companies are less interested in high-volume but fleeting engagement, and more interested in more captive audiences with undivided attention, regardless of the format.
3. We are limited by our own vocabulary in our ability to articulate and encourage new ideas—and should not be complacent with our limitations.
In my latest VR/music piece for Forbes, I explained what I called the “science-fiction payphone problem"—citing the original Blade Runner film, which was released in 1982 but wrongly assumed that payphones would still be in widespread use in 2019.
At the crux of the “science-fiction payphone problem” is the fact that we often assume the continuity of our previous experiences, and subsequently bring our accumulated biases with us, when trying to predict the future. I saw this problem replicated across nearly all music conferences—assuming the validity and continuity of previous beliefs in conversations not just about cutting-edge technology, but also about emerging music markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The latter is particularly concerning, because trying to copy-and-paste old business models that worked in incumbent markets into newer ones simply won’t work (and is not something that local markets necessarily wanted in the first place). Panel conversations about international expansion tended to culminate in the speakers feeling determined to funnel every single music market into a paid-subscription-first model—without questioning whether that level of revenue homogenization across the board was actually a healthy thing for the industry to do.
Moreover, understanding the future of music in any market around the world is incredibly complex; it’s not just about streaming models, but also about much deeper social and economic issues, including but not related to consumers’ available disposable income, artists’ access to healthcare and the stubborn ties between culture and political power. A lot of music conferences I attended this year seemed aware of this multilayered complexity, yet ill-equipped to really grapple with those issues in greater depth, in part because the majority of attendees were arguably more interested in closing deals with business partners than in understanding music’s role in society on a more abstract level.
4. To their detriment, many conference panels end up being more about one-way consensus than about dialogue, critique and debate.
The following experience happened to me at almost every single conference I attended this year:
I go to one of the top panels or keynotes of the week, which ends up being a mere recycling of corporate press releases without much added value. The keynote itself paints an aura of authority and consensus—that whatever the speaker says is the way things should be done. Yet after the talk ends, my peers and I exit into the venue hallways, and engage in a lively debate about the topic that feels a lot more interesting to all of us than what we witnessed onstage.
In each of these instances, I’ve thought to myself: why didn’t any part of the conversation that we just had make it into the official panel? What are ways that conferences can showcase and incorporate the collective intelligence, opinions and perspectives of their audiences, instead of merely broadcasting information in a one-directional manner?
Many of my favorite panels I moderated or participated in this year were centered on debate and critique, rather than on consensus. For instance, at Primavera Sound, I was on a panel with Liz Pelly and Fernando Delgado about how streaming services perpetuate the status quo, and it ended up being the only panel I came across all year that actually dared to be even a little bit critical of streaming platforms. Earlier in the year, I moderated a panel about AI-generated music alongside expert lawyers and entrepreneurs at NY:LON Connect in NYC, in front of a room full of people who made their business off of exploiting copyrights and saw AI as a threat.
In both of these panels, we tried to make the experience as interactive as possible, addressing and debating select audience members’ concerns about how the technology in question would impact their business. The ensuing discussions became much more eye-opening and valuable for everyone involved than if we had just kept the conversation onstage.
Unfortunately, this level of interactivity remains far from the norm at most music conferences, which purport to be fruitful environments for fostering open dialogue. I would like to see a future music event (or any conference, for that matter) that reimagines the “panel” format by incorporating radical listening and synthesis into a collaborative discussion about how the room understands its collective future. If you have any example of events that have accomplished this, or want to share some ideas of your own, reply below and let’s chat!