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New Music Seminar: 21 July 2009 - Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York

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Wednesday, Aug 5, 2009
In an already suffering industry there are more alarming statistics than one can shake a drum stick at.

Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy Entertainment and the director of the original New Music Seminar, arranged a redux of the legendary event on July 21st, 2009 to usher in, acknowledge, and anticipate the new forms that the music industry is taking. Silverman’s opening remarks set an implicit tone for the day: The drastic changes that the New Music Seminar would address didn’t just apply to the music business. He did offer many startling statistics about record sales, but he focused not just on comparing 2009 to the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and ‘90s, but also on the year 2012. Why 2012? Partially, because according to a Mayan prophecy, that’s when the world is ending. Throughout the talk, Silvermen called upon legends, wisdom, and philosophies that seemed to be of much greater global significance than just record sales. Perhaps the heaviness comes from the fact that although things have gotten bad, Silverman’s charts suggested that there’s still room for the business to get worse. That being said, there’s plenty of room for the individual artist to make things better.


Silverman’s goal seemed to be both to instruct and inspire. Just as it wasn’t entirely clear whether citing the Mayan prophecy was mostly in jest, he also added a layer of seriousness by constantly intermittently quoting President Barack Obama. He repeated, “we are the ones we have been waiting for” a few times, with the intent of empowering the artist and encouraging musicians to stop looking to labels for help. Additionally, it was made clear throughout the day that the way the artist gets empowered is by listening to the fans. Of course, that concept is the staple of social media, and it’s a trend that is pervading society as a whole. In fact, it’s the reason why Barack Obama was so successful: He made every person in the country feel like they mattered, and as a result, they rallied behind him in unprecedented numbers.


Musicians need to follow this same trend, because it is the fans who make or break them, and it is the job of music professionals to interpret the data correctly, explained keynote speaker Courtney Holt, president of MySpace. For example, counting the number of times a song gets put on a playlist that a user shares with friends is far more important. The exhibits in the foyer served to affirm this attitude. It’s sharing that matters. It is networks that matters. Fans ultimately decide what other potential fans should hear.


Exhibits at the booths outside the auditorium exemplified this angle. One table was manned by Owngig.com, a site where fans can actually submit requests for artists to do shows. If enough interest generates, the site works with the artist to plan a show. Naturally, it is not a one-sided endeavor: Artists are expected and encouraged to promote themselves through owngig.com as well, and rally the support they need from fans.


One of the sponsors of the event was ourstage.com, a seemingly more involved version of MySpace, where artists upload music and videos and fans get to rank them. Channels are created based on popularity and when artists get popular, they enter the finals, aiming to win prizes that include money, slots at concerts, and even good publicity from hot media outlets. It is created to be an entirely egalitarian, almost socialist, method of helping bands and artists gain exposure and possibly even fame. In the cases of both sites, fans are competing for popularity and success as much as the artists are. The playing field has truly been leveled in an unprecedented way: Both fans and artists are mutually using each other for different types of credibility and recognition.


And of course, that leads us back to the truth which is that no matter how the industry works, talent gets recognized, and there are more people who wish they had talent than people who actually have it. The audience at this event was largely dominated by hopeful musicians and producers looking to network, or just be recognized. Question and answer sessions after each panel were dominated by those determined to shout their own name, plug their next show, or grasp for exposure of their company. Unfortunately, these questions seemed to deviate from the integrity of the panel, and gently remind everyone, as one speaker pointed out, that you can’t “make” something go viral and there are more musicians trying to make it than ever will. The difference now is that all the music is available and everyone can produce an album. That means that in an already suffering industry, there are more alarming statistics than one can shake a drum stick at. Namely, 80 percent of artists are selling less than 100 albums, but that seems to be because over 400,000 records are being made each year.


There is a silver lining to this dark cloud, and it is that artists who sell less than 10,000 albums have seen much less of a plummet in sales than bigger artists. That means that if the small scale independent artists truly makes use of Web 3.0 tools, there is a still a chance of success. As explained in the “Fourth Movement,” your live show and tour, “you’re not descending from the clouds, you’re on Twitter.” Twitter won’t make you good, but if you’re good and you don’t need to be the next Justin Timberlake, it will give you a chance of growing. Hard work and humility dominate. Or as panelist Martin Atkins explained, “If you know that you’re fucked, you’re not. And if you think that you’re not fucked, you are.” Not only wise, but probably Tweet-worthy as well.

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