LIVE REVIEW: SF MusicTech Summit
San Francisco is the perfect location for the MusicTech Summit. Beyond its stellar views of the Pacific, it also has the right ethos for a conference about music technology: with its pioneers, artists, and entrepreneurs, the city never stops innovating. In the face of global uncertainty, San Franciscans are still looking ahead and driving the future—all while sipping their cups of Blue Bottle coffee. And whether or not they call this city home, the speakers and attendees at Monday’s event are doing the same thing. The message of the day was one of promise, and one that echoed San Francisco’s own mantra: we will move forward.
My one stipulation, though, is that the nature of ‘forward’ seems open for debate. The panels I saw at the Hotel Kabuki left me with a sense of pasta being thrown against the wall; many panelists cited the problem of meaningless innovation, and Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen spoke of the lack of a ‘big idea’. If labels provided that structure in the past, their absence on Monday was noteworthy and conspicuous. Although many panelists were looking back in history for cues, they weren’t embracing that sort of large-scale (or top-down) model. Unsurprisingly, the focus seemed to be more on empowering individuals, or connecting and building communities.
Given these themes, it was appropriate to start my day with a panel on disruption—or the lack thereof—in music technology. Moderator Dave Allen addressed a fascinating group of speakers, from Alex Ljung of Soundcloud to Corey Denis of TAG Strategic. For me, at least, this panel set the framework for the entire conference: many of the concepts discussed kept popping up, complicating or confirming later topics. Ljung’s comment that simplicity is a big idea, as well as his notion that innovation doesn’t have to disrupt existing markets, were echoed in technology demos and the ‘what’s next’ concluding panel. Roy Christopher of the University of Texas raised the issue of social media/interactive fatigue, and as company after company announced ‘new’ social concepts, I couldn’t help but see his point.
The disruption panel also focused on the shifting nature of the creator—a concept which, throughout the day, was expanded to include artists as brand creators. Not only did companies like Soundcloud and the Orchard (which demoed its valuable Marketplace) emphasize ease in distribution and personal marketing, several panels placed the responsibility for brand development largely on artists. Even in the sticky realm of monetization, the notions of patronage and commission were proposed as re-emerging payment methods. On a panel of mostly musicians, Zoe Keating mentioned that fans were willing to spend more on Bandcamp if they felt a personal connection to her; she successfully “uses social media as a way to be [herself].” A panel called ‘Turning Fans Into Guerillas’ made the same argument from a different vantage point, claiming that fans care more about recognition from the artist than exclusive content. Effective use of social media, then, strengthens the connection between musician and listener.
The panel on ‘Using Social Networks Effectively’ was another that emphasized the artist-turned-brand personality. Moderated by J Sider of RootMusic, it featured Zoe Keating, Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, and Lincoln Parish of Cage the Elephant. The self-starter musicians offered refreshing perspectives: Jack Conte’s comment about social media, that “you can have value now and think about conversion later,” was met with emphatic nods. There was an abiding faith that revenue models will catch up—and in the meantime, people will keep creating. As technology brings new actors into the industry fold, methods of monetization will have to evolve. In this new age of clouds, streaming, and all things free, the market value of music remains to be seen.
So what’s next? According to panelists like Seth Goldstein of Turntable.fm, looking to the past and redefining ‘social’ are part of the future. Julie Lee of Vevo rightfully claimed that “a company that creates an experience that can’t be commoditized is going to win.” Collaboration—between fans, between artists, and between fans and artists—is yet another part of the industry’s next wave. All these ideas focus on individuals and communities, whether it’s users controlling their listening experience or artists controlling their professional futures. With the demise of a label-based world, you’d think things would seem pretty bleak—but I haven’t felt this optimistic in a long time. Whatever happens to the world of music technology, Monday’s Summit suggests that we all have a hand in its progress.