Tuesday, March 10, 2009

IBS Recap Part 2 - The Future of Music and Radio

A few of the "Radio 2009" panelists
Allen Myers, Denis McNamara, Chuck Platt, Laura Deen Johnson, Joe Rock

The next two panels that I took in at the IBS College Radio Conference were focused on the current state of the music and radio industry and what the future might hold. Alternative radio pioneer Denis McNamara (former Program Director of WLIR who got his start in college radio at WNYU) moderated "The Future of Music and the Music Industry" on Friday, March 6th. Following that panel was "Radio 2009: The State of the Medium." Here are some highlights of both panels.

Role of Piracy

Denis started off the conversation talking about how the music industry was at a "crossroads," but that the "future of music...has never been stronger." When he mentioned the role of piracy, panelist Margo Drgos of Organic Entertainment said, "...piracy...is not the issue...the business has operated on a faulty business model for too long" and that piracy is a "symptom" of the inherent issues in the music industry.

More Radio Choices

In terms of radio, Denis argued that there will be even more radio choices for consumers in the future. Right now he's working with vTuner on radios that will be able to broadcast 16,000 stations from all over the world. E. Michael Harrington added that new technology is always viewed as a threat by "business." However, he said that because of new technology, like the iPhone, he listens to "far more radio" today.

Vinyl Revival: Is it the Music or the Medium?

Radio and Music Industry vet Mel Phillips then expressed his concern about there being too much emphasis on particular music mediums, rather than the music itself. He held up a copy of AM New York, with the cover story "Back in the Groove: Vinyl Records Scratch Their Way Back onto Music Lovers' Shelves," announcing his displeasure, saying that vinyl is not the future. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife as a few members of the audience protested, arguing that vinyl is still relevant and never went away.

Later in the day I asked Mel what he meant, as I was also kind of surprised by his anger over a cover story about vinyl resurgence. He told me that he isn't against vinyl, just against the conflation of one particular medium (vinyl) over the music itself.

Yet, there are still debates about the value of various forms of music and many in the music biz are pointing out that part of the reason that music is so devalued by young people is that it is less tangible in its digital, disposable form. On the flip side, vinyl and CDs are more tangible forms of music and may be garnering more respect as commodities.

I don't think vinyl is necessarily the future, but it certainly isn't going away. Vinyl sales are up. Stores focused on vinyl still exist. Many college radio stations play vinyl religiously and lovingly preserve their vinyl libraries. And some record labels are still quite devoted to the medium. As I stopped by an Urban Outfitters in New York City this weekend, I saw an entire vinyl display of both new and classic albums for sale. Many also included a free digital download.

And, vinyl has its benefits. It sounds great and has more room for artwork and artist information. Additionally, there are things artists can do with vinyl that can't be done with CDs like experiments with grooves (what DJ doesn't love a locked groove?), records that play from the outside in, and sound experiments that rely on the inherent fragility of vinyl (Christian Marclay's "Record without a Cover"). And, as Tom Moon mentioned in an earlier panel, there's some music that just isn't available on any other medium right now, so it has so be sought out on vinyl.

Every medium has its benefits and it just so happens that the benefits of MP3s are more touted these days than the benefits of vinyl, CD, tape, reel-to-reel, 8-track, cylinder or wire recordings.

New Model for Music Industry?

PR guy Mike Kornfeld said, "We're due for a revolution in the music industry" and "you, as college radio people, are the foot soldiers for that industry." Margo added, "I don't think it's going to be one business model." She mentioned the book, The Long Tail, as she speculated that there will be lots of "niche markets" and that "some artists will only sell vinyl...and make a living...[there's] no one size fits all model...it's art." At the same time, she pointed out, "let's not demonize major labels...[there's] no one...model."

Future of Radio

College Radio DJ at WBAR (Barnard College)

Alec Foege, author of"Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio," pointed out that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 "removed all ownership caps for radio groups" and that this led to Clear Channel owning "over 1200 stations nationwide." He added that Clear Channel "began programming nationally instead of locally." During the "Future of Radio" panel he added that nationalizing radio "never really worked," making it a "more exciting time [now] for local radio."

Many of the panelists were optimistic about the future of radio. Denis McNamara said, "I think radio has a brilliant and bright future" and that one of the benefits of radio is that there's the "...magical power of another human being presenting music to you." He distinguished radio from services like Pandora for that very reason. Allen Myers, formerly of the FCC, sad, "I'm concerned about the future of radio" and added that he likes Internet radio, but that it has "limitations." Jeremy Coleman of Sirius XM said that he had an "enormous amount of optimism and some jealousy" about the future of radio. He argued that it's exciting to come in to something "at a time of flux" and that it is a "breeding ground for creativity."

An audience member, Larry Miller from New England Institute of Art's All Independent Radio (and formerly of freeform station KMPX in San Francisco back in the early days of FM) said that being in radio during a time of transition in the 1960s was really exciting. He said it was "a bunch of crazy people" and added, "I'd like to see history repeat itself." He also talked about the situation at the college station where he works, saying that he sees fewer students coming to the station because they aren't inspired by what's on radio today. I'd never heard that argument before and it makes so much sense. Since the radio landscape has changed, it may not have the allure that it did to people of my generation and older. With all the expected changes in radio, perhaps more college kids will embrace the power of the airwaves.

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