Saturday, February 28, 2009

Industry Noise Conference Recap

Awaiting the Panelists at Industry Noise
February 27, 2009

Yesterday I attended the first Industry Noise conference in San Francisco. Put on by the folks at Noise Pop along with the Bandwidth Music Technology Conference, it was a full-day event full of keynotes and panel discussions about the music business.

Although this was billed as the first "Industry Noise," event, Noise Pop has been holding educational sessions under a variety of names, with a range of themes and sponsors since 2000, when they debuted the Noise Pop Educational Series. The inaugural 2000 event featured a really cool line-up of free panels at the Make-Out Room on a Saturday afternoon, with artists like John Darnielle, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields and John Vanderslice along with folks from the business side of the music industry. Panels have taken place every year since, except for a break in 2005. I've been most years, and every year it's been exciting to see musician and journalist heroes (John Doe, Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, Smog's Bill Callahan, Ann Powers, Greil Marcus, etc.) chat about music. Last year I covered the 2008 event.

What makes this year different, is that it was a much longer day of panels at a weekday event. Some panels were concurrent with others, so there were many more discussions to check out this time around. Also, for the second time ever (In 2006 it was $20 for a weekend of panels), there was a fee for the sessions ($150 for industry types, $50 for students).

For most of the day radio and the music industry got a bad rap. Especially in light of the current economic times, there was a lot of gloom and doom about how the industry will never be the same. Yet, at the same time there were artists throughout the day who emphasized that what really matters is the passion behind the music and clearly many of them are still very devoted to their craft.

Keynote with Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords

Fat Mike's Keynote Conversation

The day began with a keynote conversation with Fat Mike, of punk band NOFX and record label Fat Wreck Chords. As an owner of an indie label, he gave some perspective about how he thinks indies are positioned to survive in the future. He admitted that "it's tough to sell records now...especially to kids," but argued that he thinks that independent labels "...are going to survive a lot easier than the majors." Mike went on to discuss what it's like to be an artist in an era when there's so much information online about everyone and everything. He said that he didn't think that people should know bands as well as they know them today, and said that he missed the "mystique" surrounding artists before the Internet came along. This theme was echoed throughout the day, as many panelists wondered about the negative side effects of having every detail of one's life documented online.

Fat Mike said that his label still produces vinyl, but lamented the cost of producing vinyl records and the fact that it's getting harder to sell it again. He said that he was a fan of independent record stores and reminisced about discovering new bands at Rhino Records when he was young. He also said that in his youth he discovered new music on radio, citing commercial station KROQ. Yet, when asked about college radio he said, "I haven't listened to college radio in 25 years." When asked why he stopped listening, he said that the stations often didn't say what they were playing. He admitted his love for now-gone Radio Free Hawaii.

Mike ending his keynote talking about the importance of staying true to oneself as an artist. He said that doesn't focus on an image or what his fans want, but instead thinks that musicians should work to be "really good...and touch people." He argued, "You don't want to know whta fans want. Fuck the fans...Knowing what your audience wants? You're dead...We're not doing commissions here...." He continued, saying that they are putting out the art that they want to put out. He didn't discount fans entirely, saying, "I appreciate them."

Next Big Thing Panel on Future of Record Labels

David Krinsky (Rhapsody), Jordan Kurland (Zeitgeist Artist Mgmt.),
Aaron Axelsen (Live 105),
Greg Werckman (Ipecac), and Cheryl Kovalchik (RCA)

The second panel was moderated by commercial radio DJ and Music Director Aaron Axelsen of Live 105 (who was also on a Noise Pop panel last year) and focused mainly on the role of record labels and commercial radio. There were representatives from both indie and major labels on the panel and a theme that they raised was that the distinction between major and indie is of little interest to most people. Greg of indie label Ipecac Recordings said, "I don't like using the term independent and major," arguing that there's so much cross-over and that "real people don't care" what label something is on. Jordan Kurland of Zeitgeist Artist Management (and Noise Pop) agreed, saying that a "small community of people care" about the label that something is on and that the difference between indies and majors is really just the role of the artist and what the artist wants from their label.

Aaron talked a bit about his role as Music Director at Live 105, saying that he gets sent 500 CDs a week. Although he has indie roots (from working in college radio, indie record stores, and at an indie label), he is responsible for programming a mass audience of 600,000 to 700,000 listeners. He said that he relies on audience research and has learned that, "Most people are afraid of new music." Despite that, he does try to introduce new music on his station and likened it to "getting a 4 year old to eat broccoli" by putting cheese on it and surrounding it by familiar things like Red Hot Chili Peppers. He said that it's a "...precarious balance" to "cater to the masses" while also introducing new bands into the mix.

Jordan talked about how 10 years ago people heard about new bands from friends, local papers, and from local college radio stations like KALX and KUSF, but that now something as simple as " in Pitchfork...can change everything."

Cheryl Kovalchik from RCA mentioned that one of their current acts, Audrye Sessions, was signed in large part because of radio play on a local music show on Live 105. Greg Werckman of indie label Ipecac Recordings, however, had a much more jaded view of radio, saying, "to play the game in press and radio you have to have money." Others disagreed, with Aaron saying that radio play alone won't break an artist and that labels need to also work to market their artists.

What Happens in Vegas... Panel about Image Management

Lawyer Owen Seitel, Vanessa Burt (Mutiny PR/Fat Wreck Chords),
Michele Flannery (You Tube), and David Downs (writer)

After lunch (during which time people could sign up for mentoring sessions) there was a panel about how to control and manage an artist's image in an online world. Panelists shared tips about tracking and managing one's press and image online, such as signing up for Google Alerts and creating your own artist channel and musician account on You Tube. Lawyer Owen Seitel said that artists need to understand "what's being said about you" and acknowledged that people are leading increasingly "transparent lives" with Twitter, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, etc.

If Techies Rules the World/If Artists Ruled the World

Corey Denis, Greg Sandoval (CNET), Bryan Kehoe (Kehoe Nation), Goh Nakamura (singer songwriter), and David Hyman (Mog)

On this panel, artists and music technology folks shared their perspectives on the intersection of the digital world and music. David Hyman of Mog argued that there's "almost too much" music on the web and wondered how people sift through it all. Reapandsow's Corey Denis pointed out that people need filters and that "music fans are the best filters now." She said that profiles on social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Mog can be effective "filters for music." Corey was a champion for technology, arguing that all bands should bring in a digital person to help create and maintain the band's online presence. She said she didn't see much value in radio promotion anymore, saying, "traditional radio [is] pretty much dying" and that she wouldn't spend money to promote a band to radio, adding, "maybe college radio...Maybe."

Keynote Conversation with Lou Barlow and Bob Mould

Celia Hirschman interviews Bob Mould and Lou Barlow

The coolest part of the day was the closing keynote featuring two indie music idols: Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Folk Implosion) and Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar). They chatted with moderator Celia Hirschman about their careers in music and how they are currently using technology to connect with fans. Lou Barlow talked a lot about how his approach to creating his website LooBieCore was similar to the DIY ethos of his early days in the hardcore music community. He said that he thinks hyperlinks an amazing way to share favorite bands and likened it to the kinds of conversations that used to happen a hardcore shows, when people found out about music by word of mouth.

Bob Mould started his blog in 2004 and said that before that he was a "pretty private person," but that the blog got him to start writing again and got him back into writing music, which was a "lifesaver." Lou Barlow agreed that his website had a similar effect, saying, "I was at a real low...wasn't really writing songs," but that the website actually motivated him to write songs so that he could post them to the site. He said that like cassette culture, "the immediacy is there." Bob concurred, saying that the excitement he gets when hitting "publish" on his blog "is like that old feeling."

When asked about the term "indie," Bob said, "it's a word that became marketable." He also argued that in the 1980s the music was really bad and that "there wasa real reason to rebel." Kids worked hard against that, creating smaller scenes and booking their own shows to hear the music they loved. He said that by 1991 with the success of Kurt Cobain it felt like "we won...there's your indie rock."

Both Bob and Lou said that they love new music. Lou pointed out, "A lot of people just complain about new music... [and] fetishize...early '90s stuff," but he argued that "New music is good." Bob added that when you "hear new music...[you] get refreshed...for the creative soul that's important."

They also returned to the theme of the vast amount of music available online. Bob said that now one can find so much music and if you don't want it, you just "drag [an] icon into the trash." He said that kind of "shows the value attached to it" today, that it's disposable. He compared it to the past when "there was a physicality to it," such that it was a big deal to move into a new place and haul all of your records. Today, he said, "you move your phone."

All in all, an interesting day of panels with some provocative discussions about the intersection between art and commerce. As always, the most inspiring points were made by musicians pointing out their love for the art and their optimism that music will continue to play an important role in peoples' lives, even if the industry is going through tough times right now.


dearxiola said...

great recap - i just subscribed to your blog. did we meet in person? cheers! - Corey

Jennifer Waits said...

Hey Corey,
Were you one of the panelists? We didn't meet...but I enjoyed hearing what you had to say about the biz!

Thanks for the note too!

Anonymous said...

Awesome recap- I got there late and really appreciate you filling in the gaps.